If you followed any of the Publishing Paid Me posts on Twitter, you may have seen the spreadsheet that shared author book deals, genres and specifics. Something very noticeable, to me, was the difference between the advances authors received when their proposal had comparative titles in it, versus the smaller advances (and often smaller publishers) received when they didn’t include this vital section.

Comparative titles are KEY to a good book proposal, and I want to share with you some tips on finding yours.

Book proposals are overwhelming beasts, but throw in the fact that it’s your own personal story and you often can’t see the wood for the trees (so-to-speak) and they can feel like you’re trying to make a giant batch of chicken soup fit into a teeny tiny espresso cup.

When you’re drafting your memoir, you often have so many disparate elements of the story that you want to include, and the hardest part is seeing how it will all fit together. But the book proposal is an absolutely crucial document to craft as part of your memoir journey.

Why? Because a book proposal is both a business plan and a marketing plan, it helps position you as an author in that marketplace, it helps position your forthcoming book in the marketplace, and it shows a potential publisher (or 30 – bidding war, please!) exactly what they can expect (best-case-scenario) if they buy your book. Never forget they are looking at your proposal in terms of publishing sales – you may have slaved over the craft for years, but to a publisher, it’s all about sales!

What you’re about to learn…

In this post I’m going to share the most important element of a memoir book proposal and a key element in proposals that sell for five to seven figures or more. I’ll also explain how potential editors and publishers will use this part of your proposal, and why it’s so important to sell your memoir. I’ll show you how I used this to sell (and write!) A Letter From Paris, and also share with you simple steps to finding yours.

Why every memoir book proposal needs this

Many memoirists focus on the synopsis, the sample chapters, even studiously building their platform before they dein to pitch to a potential agent, editor or publisher. This is all valuable, for sure. But by ignoring this key component, you’re doing your book a disservice and missing out on the most compelling and sale-able element of your book proposal. What it is? You need to position it in the marketplace.

Marketing Matters

Marketing is, by its very definition, the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising. And – whether you like it or not, a book is a product. This key element of your book proposal will help you (and your potential agent, editor or publisher) place your book in the marketplace.

A book proposal is a sales document

Basically your book proposal – whether it’s for a memoir or any other type of non-fiction – is like a ‘pitch document’ for a literary agent to sell your book (“on proposal”) before you’ve written it.

The better your proposal, the more interest you’ll supposedly get, etc etc.

To increase your chances of a better book deal, more offers, a wider publishing deal (who doesn’t want to sell to multiple markets?) and a stronger outline, you really need to ramp up this element that I’m about to share with you.
So what is this element, and how does it not only help you sell your book better through the proposal, but polish, write and position your memoir better?

Comparative titles 

Comparative titles are absolutely KEY to a bestselling memoir proposal.

Why? Well for two reasons.

1: Comparative titles help you position your memoir in the market
2: Comparative titles help you write a better memoir 


1: Comparative titles help you position your memoir in the market

The key thing we need to come back to here, is that memoir is a personal story, told in a compelling or engaging way. You don’t need to be famous, but there does need to be an interest in your themes, journey or unique challenges. Michael Larsen calls this ‘evidence of need’ in the incredibly helpful Writing Your Book Proposal, 5th edition.
Basically, potential publishers or editors or agents are like a shopkeeper: and they need you to show them where in their shop your book will sit. You can’t just say ‘memoir’ – you need to find similar titles which have sold really really well, and how yours is both similar but uniquely different, and voila, you have amazing comparative titles.

Something to remember: You DO NOT want to say that your book is “the next” something or other (that has sold really well. Cue Cheryl Strayed or Elizabeth Gilbert or Tara Westover, etc etc). You need to pinpoint exactly what is similar about it (theme, journey, style of writing) AND even more importantly, what your book offers that is unique or different.
Let’s say your book proposal is going to a top 5 publisher, and one of your comparative titles was a bestseller for them four or five years ago, they will be interested to see how your potential story differs and offers a few similarly ‘sellable’ qualities.

 2: Comparative titles help you write a better memoir

A Letter From Paris was such a tricky book to write, because it wasn’t a simple quest or journey or one singular story that I was retelling. Unlike Love & Other U-Turns, which was simply a memoir, A Letter From Paris was a memoir / biography / history hybrid. And the hardest part was that I wasn’t working through a memory of something that actually happened, I was unravelling the truth about certain memories (!) through working through archives. Some would even say there’s elements of travel memoir in there. And, of course, I had to figure out a way to weave my own father’s found manuscripts into the material.
Finding comparative titles helped me see how to

A: Structure the material (how to turn a journey through memories and archives into a quest)
B: Weave his writing with my own recollections and the journey (style) and
C: How to plot the journey.

Example: Comparative titles I used for A Letter From Paris

Some of the comparative titles I used for A Letter From Paris included Poppy by Drusilla Modjeska, WILD by Cheryl Strayed (yes my memoir had nothing to do with hiking but i’ll tell you in a moment why I used that one) Our Father Who Wasn’t There by David Carlin, Searching for Charmian by Suzanne Clift and A Fifty Year Silence by Miranda Richmond Mouillot. If i’d been working on it now, I would add Inheritance by Dani Shapiro and When Time Stopped by Arianna Neumann.

The thing is, I didn’t like every single one of these books, for different reasons. And this was important, too. By studying what i disliked about the style, tone, structure or language in the ones I disliked, I knew how to define my own writing style and tone. You learn so much by reading even those things you dislike!

Finding comparative titles for your book proposal
  • Must be traditionally-published (never ever use a self-published title in a book proposal)
  • Recently-published – the more recent, the better
  • Have achieved some modicum of success!
  • Have a memorable style / element / theme that you can define (and that a potential agent or editor will recognise) that also applies to your book
How do you find good comparative titles?
  1. Define your memoir’s Universal themes / takeaway
  2. Define the unique story element of your memoir (for example, A Letter From Paris was about a long-lost parent, so I started my search with books about parents that were unknown or somehow involved secrecy)
  3. Define any unique structural elements (eg. is it a collection of essays? Is it a threading of others’ stories with your own?)
  4. Define the time or topic in history that it covers (this could be unique, and give you some new examples)
    Get researching!

Tip: Librarians are THE BEST and they read a lot. Ask a librarian if they know of a book that covers your topics / themes (make sure it’s a memoir or at the very least non-fiction) and start from there.

In summary:

Find your comparative titles before you write your memoir, and most definitely before you start sending out the proposal!
By using comparative titles in the proposal for A Letter From Paris my book sold quicker, I was able to tackle the complex structure much better, and when it came out, I was also able to identify publicity and marketing opportunities and promote it better, too.