What Makes a Good Book Comparison?

Most readers probably have, at one point or another, been drawn to a book because of a comparison on the cover. “Game of Thrones meets The Bachelor!” it might proclaim. Or “Alice in Wonderland gets a modern update.” Maybe even something like, “This is Narnia for a new generation.” And, of course, there is the ubiquitous, “Perfect for fans of Harry Potter.” These comparisons are an effective marketing strategy by publishers eager to sell books to already established fan bases. But, very often, the comparisons end up feeling forced and maybe even false.

The trouble with book comparisons is that very often they seem to rely on quite superficial resemblances. A mystery might advertise itself as something like “Sherlock meets Star Trek” just because it is a mystery set on a spaceship, and not because there are any other similarities among the works. Likewise, any number of middle-grade fantasies sell themselves as the “next Harry Potter” simply because both books are fantasies targeted towards ages 8-12. Some might try to go farther, perhaps relying on similar plot elements such as the presence of a school for magic or the fact that both main characters are orphans. Often, however, even similarities such these are not enough to make a book truly feel like Harry Potter.

The reality is that a good number of books have similar plot elements, maybe because those plot elements happen to work to create drama or to entice readers, maybe because there really is nothing new under the sun. So even listing a number of similarities such as, “high fantasy, contains a quest, main character is an Everyman, pseudo-medieval world, lots of Elves, one Dark Lord” is not necessarily going to make a book the new Lord of the Rings. Fantasies in general tend to have things like elves, dragons, and swords simply because they are fantasies and these elements are now staples of the genre. To convince readers that a book really is something fans of X would like to read next, book comparisons should go deeper.

If one reads Harry Potter critically it is, on the surface, actually not much different than many middle-grade fantasies. It introduces a neglected orphan who is whisked away to a magical world, where they discover they are special and may even have to save the world. There are the usual plot elements such as a Dark Lord to be defeated, a wise father figure to mentor the hero on the way, and more. Is it the wizards that made Harry Potter a global phenomenon? The magical boarding school? Or something else?

Books resonate with readers because, even though stories may seem to have similar outlines when reduced to the bare bones of a plot, writers imbue those elements with something special and unique. Hogwarts is a very different magical school when compared to places like Firefox (Keeper of the Lost Cities) or the Wundrous Society (Nevermoor) or the School for Good and Evil (School for Good and Evil books) or Camp Half-Blood (Percy Jackson). So a wise book comparison would ask, “What is about Hogwarts, specifically, that people like?” What is it beyond the fact that, yes, there is magic?

Defining what makes books unique, what makes them resonate can be difficult, if not impossible, because it requires thinking in the abstract. One might consider that Hogwarts is kind of quirky, sometimes wonderful, sometimes weird, but often dangerous. Or they might think that there is an element of wish fulfillment involved: Hogwarts is special because it is based in a real-world location and any eleven-year-old might discover one day that they are actually a witch or a wizard. Or they might just think that Rowling did a really excellent job of detailed worldbuilding, making Hogwarts seem quite real. Whatever one decides the hidden power of a book is, it will not be something as concrete as, “Includes a cool castle and tons of secret passageways.” It will be something deeper than that, something hard to define, and maybe hard to express. It may even be something so deep that no two readers experience it in the same way.

When I look for a book that is “perfect for readers of X,” what I am really looking for is a book that will somehow capture a bit of the same spirit of X. I want it to take me on a similar imaginative journey, to give me a bit of the same hope or wonder or excitement. I do not want a replica of the plot line or merely a book that happens to be in the same genre or the same age range. I want a book that touches that secret part of the soul that responds to the beauty and the enchantment of a story.

Fulfilling such a desire may seem a dauntless task. How much easier it is to write a checklist of facts like, “set in the 1800s, features an orphan girl, contains coming-of-age themes.” But a good book comparison will strive to fill that abstract need anyway. Because readers do not read for a checklist. They read for something more.

27 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Book Comparison?

  1. Shan says:

    Yes, this is such a good point! I always ignore when books are described as “perfect for fans of x” or “a mash up of x and y” because the few times I have bought a book based off of those recommendations I did not agree in the slightest!

    Like

  2. Jayati says:

    omg, this is so true. I am tired of getting excited for a book because it is publicised as perfect for fans of some book I love but turns out to just have some similar plot devices but actually be vv different.
    \

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    • Krysta says:

      I know!!! The comparisons are more likely to disappoint me than not, which may lead me to view the book more negatively than I would have, had it been allowed to stand on its own with no false comparisons.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    I agree with you! I often don’t find any real comparison between books as stated in synopsis. It does capture attention though and I sometimes enjoy books but not because of those book comparison. I have learned not to rely on those marketing book comparison and would rather buy books based on reviews.

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  4. Jan says:

    This is certainly some food for thought. I haven’t really thought about this at all before now and I agree with you every way!

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  5. Louise says:

    I literally never pick up a book based on a comparison with another. I recently saw A Court of Thorns and Roses being perfect for fans of G.R.R. Martin. I mean, what? There is nothing even remotely similar between the two books or authors so I don’t even get it lol!

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  6. ashley says:

    This post reminded me of something that a reviewer on Goodreads commented about Lore by Alexandra Bracken, and how they were getting Percy Jackson vibes from it. You really can’t compare the two because of how completely different they are. The only thing that they have in common is that they’re based on Greek Mythology, with Lore in my honest opinion, is much better researched. Also, I loved Harry Potter, and still do, so when I saw that The Magicians by Lev Grossman was being marketed as Harry Potter for adults I wanted to read the first book, and I was severely let down. I also feel that if you’re going to compare books at least make sure the comparisons are substantial.

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  7. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    You’ve highlighted my reasons for being suspicious of book comparrisons generally. On one level, I can understand why publishers do it, as it is a marketing tool or shorthand to encourage people to pick up the book/series in question. Most of the time though, the comparrisons are actually very slight, but I also find them a rather lazy idea which may do the book more of a disservice than anything else in the long run. I would prefer to come to a book which attempts to stand on its own feet rather than being compared to something else, it seems to have much more integrity that way.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I see the appeal for the marketing department–you get buyers of an already established fan base. But now you also risk disappointing those buyers when they realize this book is nothing like their fandom.

      Like

  8. Julie Anna's Books says:

    I feel like I’ve started ignoring those comparisons for this reason! I can’t really think of an example where I’ve read something based on a comparison and felt it was really accurate.

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  9. Mary Drover says:

    I’ll never forget the comparison on Amanda Foody’s Shadow Game series–“Six of Crows meets House of the Rising Sun”. It was such a weird combination that I picked it up because yup, that sounded right up my alley. And, what do you know, it had both of those vibes, but done in ways that I was not expecting at all, and that were so much more powerful than I could have expected that, by the end, the Shadow Game series became one of my favorites purely on its own.

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    • Krysta says:

      That’s a great example of a book comparison that worked! So far, most of the comments seem to be expressing disappointment at comparisons, but I think there has to be a right way to do it, too!

      Liked by 1 person

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