My Book is Similar to…What Exactly?

While sending out query letters to agents, one thing you are expected to supply is a list of books that are similar to the book you are pitching.

With The Human Template, this seemed impossible. One thing my early readers consistently told me was that they had never read anything like my book before. I’m a longtime believer in the adage “There’s nothing new under the Sun,” so I didn’t buy into this notion right away. Yet, it didn’t really help me to come up with any real comparisons. When I first started sending queries, my response was usually to mention a couple of  influences - rather than similar books. One of my favourite genre-books ever is The Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Michael Swanwick. I consider it to have the best opening of any sff book I have ever read and one of my clear goals is to be as good a writer as Michael Swanwick. Rereading his Vacuum Flowers while I was working on my diptych, I was briefly pumped to feel that my book is both stylistically similar and (I think and hope) as good in many ways as Swanwick’s first published book. 

So I would mention The Iron Dragon’s Daughter in answer to the question about similar works – even though my book is really nothing like that book, it was the best I could come up with.

Another book/writer that has been a huge influence on me is William Gibson. And during the Beta reading, not one but two of my readers (thanks Sheena and Paul) mentioned that they thought that my scenes inside the BioGrid presented challenges and concepts similar to Gibson’s cyberspace. I was hesitant to use this comparison either, for a number of reasons. I didn’t want anybody going into the book thinking “cyberpunk” because, whatever The Human Template is – it’s not a cyberpunk book. And the other main reason is that Gibson is probably the most unmatchable stylist in the genre, and I didn’t want readers comparing my writing to Gibson’s, because I would certainly get the short end of that stick.

I know that JG Ballard was a huge influence on Gibson – and he was for me as well. I loved Gibson’s quote “I had read and admired Ballard and Burroughs, and I thought of them as very powerful effect pedals. You get to a certain place in the story and you just step on the Ballard.”

I only wish I had the talent to “just step on the Gibson.” I can come up with a pretty good sentence/paragraph/page now and then, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the master’s touch.

But for lack of any other comparisons, I will fess up that I often answered this question with Neuromancer. One of my beta readers compared The Human Template to Greg Bear’s Blood Music (thanks Paul!) But since I had never read that book. And (according to the clerk at Bakka Books) the price to purchase it in Canada is extraordinarily high, so I didn’t read it even after receiving the feedback. I wouldn’t compare my book to one I hadn’t even read.

Yesterday, another reader (thanks Jesse!) came up with a really good comparison. -  John Varley’s Gaea trilogy. It’s been well over 20 years since I read Varley – although for a time I gobbled up everything he produced. So, he was certainly not a conscious influence on The Human Template. But damned if the comparison didn’t make me grin from ear to ear. The odd trajectories of Varley’s books, the skepticism about media, the fluid sexual identities, the free societies (in my case because the ‘society’ is still coalescing)…make Varley the most valid comparison so far.  

There are many other aspects of The Human Template that could eventually generate comparisons to other work. There's quite a streak of silliness/absurdity that employs historical figures to comic effect. There's a crap-ton of philosophy. There a romance theme underlying the whole book.  Sooner or later, these things will remind another reader of something they've read before.

Another 30 or 40 readers and I may actually have a handful of good referents.


  1. I have to say I really hate this need for "comps" (as in "comparisons") when submitting a novel to an agent. What the requirement is really asking for is a list of current books the sales and marketing people can use to plug your book to distributors. If I'm being generous I suppose I might conclude this requirement is a way of making you demonstrate your familiarity with your potential market.

    Speaking Gibson, I've just read Agency, his latest. And I was struck by a number of stylistic and content similarities with Karl Schroeder's latest, Stealing Worlds. Not suggesting for a moment this was deliberate on either side (the books were being written at roughly the same time), just that it's interesting... and shows it's quite possible to approach the master without in any way seeming to copy him.


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