Publishing 101: Breaking Down the Jargon to Better Your Understanding

Feeling nervous about starting your publishing journey? Build you confidence by learning some of the industry’s common terms.

Blog Book Culture On Writing
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You have finally done it. You have finally finished your manuscript after months or even years of hard work. Polished and ready for reading, you may be wondering what to do now. Your end goal is clear: publish your manuscript. There are several different avenues to consider when publishing your manuscript. Do you self-publish or pursue traditional publishing? Do you apply for one of the Big Five or a smaller independent publishing house? Who are the people that will help you push your book through the publishing process? How do you position and market your book successfully among the thousands of titles coming out each year?

From the outside, the publishing world appears to operate with its own language, a language that keeps outsiders from getting in. The number of terms you need to learn may seem daunting, but it’s possible you already know a few of them, even if you aren’t using the exact phrase. Once you are confident of your grasp of publishing language, you will feel better about starting your publishing journey. Here is what you can expect to learn from this article:

  • Common Writers’ Slang
  • Common Editors’ Remarks and Phrases
  • Indie Publishing Jargon
  • Trade Publishing Vernacular
  • Phrases Your Agent Will Likely Use
  • Important Acronyms 

Common Writers’ Slang

Many writers have their own communities on social media and use specific terms and phrases to describe where their manuscripts are in the writing process. Also a very collaborative community, many writers often take on different roles to help each other. Here are some of the most common terms and roles you are likely to see across digital writing communities:

  1. MS: shorthand for “manuscript”
  2. CP: critique partner
  3. WIP: work in progress
  4. Crit: critique
  5. Beta: a person who reads a work of fiction before it is published to mark errors and suggest improvements
  6. Freelance: an independent professional who does not work under a specific business or company
  7. Pantser: a writer who doesn’t use an outline
  8. Plotter: a writer who uses an outline
  9. Word sprints: timed stretches of writing
  10. Sensitivity Reader: someone who reads a work, looking for perceived offensive content, stereotypes, and bias, and creates a report with suggested changes
Office with greenery, comuter, desk, and books

Because of the give-and-take nature of writing communities, betas are often not paid. Some writers, especially those who are considering self-publishing, may consider reaching out to paid professionals like freelance editors or freelance graphic designers. However, many writers rely on informal exchanges that don’t require money.

After you have heard from your betas and made adjustments based on their comments, you now have a steadier footing for exploring the different paths to getting your book published. The next step is to figure out which of the types of publishing houses is the right fit for your book.

Common Editors’ Remarks and Phrases

Outside of readers and writing partners, you might want an editor to look over your writing for plot holes, grammatical errors, or other weaknesses. The type of feedback you want determines the type of editor you hire. Copyeditors edit manuscripts for grammar, punctuation, style, and factual accuracy. A proofreader also reads your work for any technical errors but doesn’t provide comments that will cause significant changes, like timeline issues or plot inconsistencies. You might also consult a critiquing service or an editing service that provides insight into the salability of your manuscript.

For the most part, especially if you present an early draft of your work, editors are going to provide technical and grammatical notes to make your writing stronger. A copyeditor will likely use these phrases:

  • Lead time: the time between the acquisition of a manuscript by an editor and its actual publication. 
  • Trim: shortening a document’s length.
  • Redline: a version of a document that shows edited, added, or deleted text from a previous version.
  • Style sheet: an author’s set of stylistic preferences.
  • Annotation: an editor’s added notes or comments about sections of text beside the text in a document.
  • Mark up: suggested changes or corrections annotated in a document.

As you work with your editor, you will hand over different drafts, called proofs, to them. No matter how close to perfection your manuscript gets, any version of it before it is printed for publication is a proof.

  • Page proof: the printed initial draft of a document.
  • Revised proofs: different proofs of a document that include changes made during editing.
  • Final proof: the final version of a document that’s ready for publishing.

Indie Publishing Jargon

Indie publishing, also known as independent publishing, is another term for self-publishing. In self-publishing, the author takes charge of the publication process and retains the rights to distribute and sell their work. By keeping these rights, the author maintains a lot of creative control and freedom in the publishing process.

Despite what the term suggests, self-publishing is not an isolated process. An author may decide to enlist the help of freelance editors or sensitivity readers for their manuscript or hire a graphic designer to create their book cover. There are also self-publishing companies, entire companies dedicated to providing extra support to authors on their publication journey.

There are also some authors who choose to use vanity presses, which authors pay to publish their books. Although the author does work with a press, using a vanity press is different from traditional publishing in that the author has to pay the press, whereas in traditional publishing, the press pays the author.

Many self-published authors take advantage of digitally distributing their books. There are several companies that have digital reading platforms that host self-published books:

  • Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) is a platform provided by Amazon to authors. It allows authors to publish eBooks directly to all Amazon stores via a very simple dashboard.
  • Kobo is another major retailer based in Canada and owned by the Japanese company Rakuten. It has a very wide and profitable global market and also offers its own range of eReaders.
  • Nook is a brand of eReader developed by Barnes & Noble.

Self-publishing requires knowledge of your rights over your intellectual property, as well as some knowledge of files and data. Here are some crucial terms to know if you self-publish:

  • Copyright: the exclusive right to make copies, license, and otherwise exploit a literary, musical, or artistic work, whether it be printed, audio, or video. Works are protected for the lifetime of the author or creator and up to 50 to 70 years after their death.
  • Distribution: making your book available to wholesalers, retailers, and readers.
  • Distributor: a company that distributes books to retailers, occupying the gap between authors/publishers and the retailer.
  • .ePub: a very popular file format used mostly by retailers other than Amazon, such as iBooks, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble. It is an Essential file format.
  • eRetailer: a retailer that sells print books or eBooks via the Internet.
  • Metadata: data about a book. At its very simplest, metadata is title, author, publisher, and price. 
  • International Standard Book Number (ISBN): a unique 13-digit number (can be 10 or 13 digits if issued prior to 2007) that identifies a specific edition of a book or eBook. UK authors can procure batches of ISBNs from the UK ISBN agency Nielsen. US authors must purchase ISBNs from Bowker, its American equivalent.

Trade Publishing Vernacular

Traditional Publishing (also called trade publishing) is the more known and highly sought-after publishing process. In trade publishing, an author sells the rights to their book to a publishing company.

Trade Pub Hierarchy

Trade publishing is a competitive business, to the point that five major publishing houses monopolize the American publishing sphere. The following houses are known as the “Big Five”:

  • Hachette Book Group
  • HarperCollins
  • Macmillan
  • Penguin Random House
  • Simon & Schuster

These houses are called the “Big Five” for several reasons. They have prestigious reputations that elevate the titles they publish through association. They also have a monopoly over the publishing sphere; each of the Big Five has several smaller imprints under the main house name that publish specific genres or target specific age groups. These houses also have international offices, so getting published by a Big Five house in the US means a good chance of getting published internationally.

Because securing a Big Five publisher is competitive (not to mention these houses’ selectiveness in choosing titles to sign on), some authors choose medium or small presses when they go the traditional publishing route. As the name suggests, medium presses are publishing houses that aren’t on the same level as the Big Five but still have their own reputation and status in the publishing world that an author may want to break out under. Small presses are small local, regional, or genre-specific publishing houses. 

Phrases Your Agent Will Likely Use

Trade Publishing is such a common goal for the writing community that its language often permeates writers’ spaces. Writers with finished and polished manuscripts move on to writing a query letter, a quick, attention-grabbing letter that sells your manuscript to a literary agent. Literary agents manage writers’ careers, from developing their projects to selling their works to publishers. Agents have a hand in many of the relationships a writer makes with other professionals, such as editors and publicists.

Two women sitting on a couch with tablets/books in their hands talking.

Book-Specific Lingo

Now that you’ve persuaded your agent to invest in your book, it’s your agent’s turn to make the publishing house and the book market invest in your book as well. For example, your agent may suggest some comp titles to include in your proposal to your publisher. Comp titles are similar or competitive titles to yours. In finding comp titles, you may also find people to provide blurbs—testimonials from book reviewers or known authors in your book’s genre—for your work. Other words they might say include:

  • Hi-lo: a type of fiction that offers a high level of interest for readers at a low reading level.
  • High concept: a story easily expressed in a quick, one-line description.
  • Hook: the aspect of the work that sets it apart from others and draws in the reader/viewer.
  • Category Fiction: a term used to include all genres of fiction.
  • Frontlist: a publisher’s list of books that are new to the current season.
  • Imprint: a name applied to a publisher’s specific line of books.

Terms and Conditions

Once a publisher acquires your book, conversations about distribution and creative rights will begin. Here are the most likely phrases you’ll hear:

  • All rights: when an author sells all rights to a work.
  • Boilerplate: a standardized contract.
  • Bound galleys: the pre-publication edition of a book of final galley proofs, also known as “bound proofs.”
  • Film rights: rights sold or optioned by the agent/author to a person in the film industry, letting the book be made into a movie.
  • Foreign rights: translation or reprint rights to be sold in other countries and territories.
  • Multiple contract: a book contract with an agreement for one or more future books.

Financial Phrases

For most publishers, books are a financial risk they take on in hopes of making a profit. As the author, you want your book to succeed and make money, but publishers need the books they invest in to profit and make back the costs they spend. Here are the biggest sources of spending for publishers:

  • Advance: a sum of money paid to an author upfront when they sign a contract with a publisher. This will need to be “earned out.” An author’s advance is usually paid in four installments: after signing a contract, after finishing their manuscript, after publishing in hardback, and finally, after publishing in paperback.
  • Auction: Publishers sometimes bid to acquire a manuscript with excellent sales prospects. The bids include the author’s advance, advertising and promotional expenses, royalty percentages, and more. Agents conduct auctions.
  • Evaluation fees: fees an agent may charge to evaluate material.
  • Marketing fee: A fee charged by some agents to cover marketing expenses. It may be used to cover postage, photocopying, or any other expense incurred in marketing a manuscript.
  • Royalties: The amount of money paid to an author by the publisher for each book sold. This will usually be a percentage of the sale price. Royalties are usually paid to the author every six months.

Royalties are publishing houses’ main area of concern. When you’re first signed on, your publishing house will offer you an advance. An advance is money a publisher pays a writer before their work is published and a portion of how much the publisher expects the work to make in royalties. Royalties are how much a book earns with each copy sold, so the more your book sells, the higher your royalties will be. Once an author receives their advance, they won’t see any money from their book sales until they make back the amount of their advance.

Important Acronyms

Acronyms and shorthand are another inescapable part of the publishing industry. A lot of them refer to different genres, like these:

Woman n front of a white dry erase board with acronymns on it.
  • MG – middle grade
  • YA – young adult (12-18)
  • NA – new adult

There are several other acronyms for different parts of the publishing process. From production to review, many parts of the process can be summed up with short acronyms:

  • ARC: Advanced Reader Copy
  • POD: print on demand
  • TOC: table of contents
  • USP: unique selling position
  • IP: intellectual property
  • PE: printer’s error
  • RRP: recommended retail price

Something To Keep In Mind

These are only the most frequently used terms that are guaranteed to pop up in your publishing journey. As you embark on turning your dream into a reality, you will stumble along several other unfamiliar words from the industry.

Don’t feel discouraged if many of these terms are new to you. The process of making your book a dream into a reality can be long, but the result is worth the patience and perseverance you will have to exhibit. Whether you’re self-publishing or going traditional, you will face challenges in the publishing process. Here is something to remember: all writers face challenges in their writing journeys. Every author is likely to have faced the same issues that you’ll come across. Although they seem insurmountable, they are just temporary setbacks.

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