This post is brought to you by people apparently claiming that anything containing a magic school or a school in general is a rip off of Harry Potter and is sponsored by my ensuing indignation and outrage.
Every once in a while, I’ll be doom-scrolling on Twitter and will come across a screenshot from Goodreads, which, despite its name, never actually means anything good, at least in terms of book-ish opinions. I think the most recent one that personally infuriated me was someone’s review of The Poppy War, comparing it to Harry Potter because – and I kid you not – the main character attends an academy. That’s it. Because comparing a series that is written by a woman of color and is based on the second Sino-Japanese War to one written by a known terf is perfectly acceptable. The existence of an academy is, for some people, enough to prove that the author directly took inspiration from one series in particular instead of literally anything else. That was probably the last straw for me, because at this point, I’m just tired.
On one hand, I completely support using comparative titles for the sake of marketing and querying, and I think they can be extremely helpful for debut authors especially. Unfortunately, I think the purpose of comparative titles has been warped, overused, and misused by readers, sometimes resulting in poor ratings and reviews due to specific expectations. And, just as unfortunately, there is a common pattern of books by authors of color suffering the most from less-than-positive comparisons to prior published works.
So why does it matter?
It’s no secret that marginalized authors traditionally face more barriers in publishing than white, cishet authors. The obstacles authors of color in particular face manifest in various ways that inhibit a book’s success, including how much marketing a debut gets, extreme differences in advances for book deals, and more, but that’s just on the publishing side. I’ve seen plenty of criticism about tropes being “overdone” (there’s another rant here alone for a later day) or a market being “oversaturated” (it’s not), but what people often fail to consider is how BIPOC have been kept out of the industry for years. They have had these ideas for just as long as already-published authors, but regardless of who can claim an “original idea” (yet ANOTHER rant here lol), BIPOC bring their own perspectives and experiences and ideas to these tropes and should have the chance to share their stories without having to worry about being accused of plagiarizing a white person.
Just as authors of color deserve to bring their ideas to life, so too do BIPOC readers deserve to see themselves represented in ways that white readers take for granted. Whether or not a trope is actually overdone or the market is oversaturated, that would only be the case for stories by white authors for white readers. Readers of color deserve to see themselves as the protagonist in a fairy tale, a contemporary romance, a dystopian society, and so much more. And they deserve to do so without seeing books that provide long overdue representation be compared to those written by white authors.
But wait! There are pros to comparative titles!
Disclaimer: as a reader, I actually really enjoy seeing what comp. titles are used to describe books. In fact, comp. titles are often what grab my interest in the first place if a book isn’t already on my radar. For pitch events like #DVpit and #PitMad, comparative titles are perfect, especially since writers only have 280 characters to engage people’s interest. Many agents and mentors include specific titles of movies, shows, or books in their “manuscript wishlists” (MSWL) to give authors a good idea of what they’re looking for, and comp. titles are a great way for both authors and agents alike to see if they’ll be a good fit for each other.
Comparative titles can be invaluable marketing tools for debut authors of color in particular because they capture a potential audience’s interest by building off of pre-established fanbases. One of the most memorable book descriptions for me was Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim because it was pitched as Project Runway meets Mulan. While Spin the Dawn goes above and beyond those comp. titles, they definitely made me even more excited to read the book and conveyed the certain kind of whimsy that makes Spin the Dawn so special.
Comparative titles don’t always need to be serious or summarize the entire plot of a book, and I genuinely think they work much better if they don’t try to do either. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m super stoked to read Aiden Thomas’s “gay Titanic in space” book from that pitch alone, an example of comp. titles at their finest.
Where do people go wrong with comp. titles?
Folks, we have reached the rant-y part of this discussion post. It actually might be easier for me to talk about where people go right with comparative titles as opposed to wrong at this point because of how misused they are by readers. I suppose I’ll start by reiterating that no author has monopoly of any given trope, plot device, character archetype, etc. Out of all of my frustrations with the use of comp. titles, this has to be the most perverse and infuriating kind of mentality I’ve seen on book Twitter and Tumblr.
Example: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo being used as the ~blueprint~ for all things heist and found family. The treatment of The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi might just be my villain origin story. I have seen people compare TGW to SoC unfavorably far too many times to count, with some even going as far as to say that TGW is a “blatant ripoff of SoC.” I read TGW first, but in order to be fully informed, I read SoC a few months later, and I can confidently say that their only commonalities are the heist and found family, and even those are vastly different in nature. The Gilded Wolves pulls from actual history and is inspired by the human exhibitions in Paris in the 1800s, and is about reclaiming artifacts that were stolen because of colonization. To say that it is merely a copy of Six of Crows is an injustice to the book itself, Roshani Chokshi, and the history it is based on. So while Six of Crows may be a decent comparative title due to the premise of the two books, readers need to understand that comparative does not equal competitive.
A major downside of the misinterpretation of comp. titles is that they are used to put two books in competition with each other, and set the audience up to draw similarities and differences, which tend to err on the more negative side for books by authors of color. This promotes the idea that a white author has paved the way or is some sort of trendsetter that BIPOC are now following, and negates the fact that BIPOC have been kept out of the industry for years. In my opinion, this is by far the most unfortunate and harmful impact of readers misusing and misunderstanding the purpose of comparative titles, and one that contributes to the ongoing disparities in how white authors and authors of color are treated in the community.
Too long; didn’t read
Despite the content of this post, I have a great appreciation for comp. titles in the context of their original purpose. Comparative titles are meant to give readers an idea of similar tropes or plotlines to pique interest, not influence readers to go into a book with a specific mindset or expectations. They aren’t meant for audiences to read the book with comparisons in mind, but rather to garner interest in the first place. Unfortunately, this isn’t what happens for many readers, and I am so tired of it.
As consumers, we have to do better by marginalized authors, especially authors of color. This is not just limited to buying their books (although this is one of the most substantive ways to support them) – it extends to how we approach the content and how we talk about their books afterwards. If you open a book with the mindset that it directly pulls from a book you’ve already read by a white author, of course you’re going to find similarities that prompt you to look unfavorably on the newer book. But that is simply not fair to the book and the author who wrote it. We need to be intentional about the support we give to marginalized authors, and the first step, the one that should be a given, is to not automatically pitch them against authors already in the industry. Don’t exacerbate the unfair advantages some authors have because of their whiteness. Don’t penalize authors of color for being “late to the game.” And for the love of God, stop saying tropes are overdone in response to books by authors of color.