Writing & Publishing Terminology 101

Brian Hathcock / Flickr

Brian Hathcock / Flickr

Today I’m revisiting a few of the basics of getting published. (There are always people new to the writing and publishing community who need the info!) If you like this post, definitely check out Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published.

What are submission guidelines?

Also called writers guidelines, submission guidelines are instructions from editors, agents, or publishers on what submissions they’d like to see from writers, and how they prefer you submit your material. Guidelines briefly describe the publication’s or publisher’s audience, the type of material published, and the type of material that’s not accepted.

Reviewing submission guidelines is critical if you want to find an agent or a publisher, and should ideally be combined with studying an agent’s client base or a publisher’s recent releases. Most agents and publishers post their guidelines on their website.

What does it mean to “market your material”?

It means selling what you write. “Study the market” means study the places where you might submit your work—and you usually start by reading the submission guidelines.

Tip: Check out free resources I recommend for researching markets.

What’s an SASE?

Acronym for self-addressed, stamped envelope. A SASE should almost always be included with any snail mail submissions.

What’s a query?

A query is a letter to an editor or agent attempting to sell him (or seduce him) on the idea of your book. A typical query is 1-page, single-spaced. For more on queries, read my complete guide. Not all publications or agents accept queries. Their guidelines may state they are closed to submissions, or the guidelines may state that unagented submissions are not accepted.

Tip: If sending your query via e-mail, send it as plain text, block format, to prevent any software/format compatibility problems. Don’t include any colors, images, or cute fonts.

What’s an unsolicited manuscript?

When you submit a manuscript without the publisher/agent requesting it, your manuscript is unsolicited. In such a case, the publisher/agent has not given any indication she will read the work; she and the writer have not previously communicated. Many publishers will not read unsolicited manuscripts; they expect a query first.

Tip: Find out online what conferences agents or editors are attending and see if they are accepting appointments or pitches. That can help open otherwise closed doors.

What’s the slush pile?

Slush pile is a term for all the unsolicited material (queries or manuscripts) received by those in publishing.

What is an agent and what do they charge?

An agent acts as liaison between author and publisher (editor). An agent shops a manuscript around to editors, receiving a commission only when the manuscript is accepted for publication. Agents usually take a 15 percent cut from the advance and royalties after a sale is made.

What is a simultaneous submission?

A simultaneous submission is a manuscript submitted for consideration to more than one publisher or agent at the same time. Some submission guidelines state that simultaneous submissions are not accepted.

Usually “simultaneous submission” refers strictly to manuscripts under consideration—not query letters, which are commonly sent in batches.

Once frowned upon, simultaneous submissions have become a common practice, mainly because of today’s lengthy response times. My personal advice: (1) Don’t submit to agents or editors who don’t accept simultaneous submissions or (2) Allow exclusives for very defined and reasonable time periods given the length of the manuscript or (3) Be sly and don’t let on that the material is being considered by multiple parties. Life is too short, and response times too long.

What is a multiple submission?

Technically, this is sending multiple manuscripts or story ideas to a single editor or agent for consideration. Don’t do it. But sometimes this term is used interchangeably with simultaneous submission.

What is a proposal?

Proposals are used to sell nonfiction book ideas; instead of writing an entire nonfiction book and then trying to find a publisher or agent, you generally write the proposal first.

What is a synopsis?

Synopsis can be a confusing term, since its meaning dpeends on the context. Synopsis most frequently refers to a brief summary of a novel, but synopsis can also refer to a section of a nonfiction book proposal. Synopsis requirements vary widely. Click here to find out more about them. Sometimes you’ll hear synopsis used interchangeably with outline.

What’s an advance?

An advance is a sum of money a publisher pays a writer prior to the publication of a book. It is usually paid in installments: for instance, one-half on signing the contract and one-half on delivery of a complete and satisfactory manuscript. The advance is paid against royalty money that will be earned by the book, which means that royalties will not be paid to the author until the publisher has recouped the total sum of the advance from the author’s royalties.

What is meant by rights? What rights do you sell, and what rights do you keep?

A writer owns all rights to his literary creation upon putting it in tangible form. He is entitled to decide who shall own the right to print his work for the first time, make it into a movie, adapt it into different formats or editions, and so on.

When selling your rights to a book publisher, the contract you sign will indicate what rights you keep and what rights you grant to the publisher (and when the publisher ceases to hold any rights). Regardless of what rights are granted to the publisher, the author—in most traditional book contracts—will retain copyright and can regain all rights to the work after a specified period. The big exception to this rule is work-for-hire agreements, where the author relinquishes all rights to the work.

Did this terminology lesson spark additional questions? Leave them in the comments! Or, reference my writing advice archive for my best posts on all topics.

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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She speaks around the world at events such as BookExpo America, Frankfurt Book Fair, and Digital Book World, and has keynoted writing conferences such as The Muse & The Marketplace. She currently teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia. Find out more.
Posted in Writing Advice.

13 Comments

  1. Nice round up, Jane. Always good to be introduced to a few terms. Was aware of most, but a couple of new one’s to help me along my way. 

    Every day should bring a few new pieces of knowledge your way :)

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  2. Ah, love that queries “seduce” agents and editors. Fun way of putting it! This is an excellent resource–thanks!

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