Glossary of terms you need to know

Now that conference season has wound to a close, many of you are probably poring over agent and editor guides, trying to figure out whom to query. Isn’t it annoying that every single one of them seems to ask for something different?


At the risk of seeming too basic, I thought it might be useful to pass along definitions of the terms that tend to get tossed about in these guides (and at conferences), in case anyone was afraid to ask.


ADVANCE, n.: Money paid to an author prior to the publication of a book; often quite small. Typically, the advance is paid in three installments: 1/3 on contract signing (although it is not unusual for this to arrive MONTHS after the ink is dry), 1/3 upon acceptance of the manuscript by the editor (or, again, months afterward), and 1/3 upon publication. As this money is a prepayment of anticipated royalties, the author will then receive no royalties until the advance amount has been reached. However, if the author’s share of sales does not ever reach the amount of the advance, the author generally does not have to pay back the difference.


AGENT, n.: For fiction, the first judge of whether your book will get published; for non-fiction, the person who uses his/her connections to get you a publishing contract. Your advance, royalty, etc. checks will go directly from the publisher to your agent, not directly to you, so do make sure to sign with someone you trust.


AGENCY CONTRACT, n.: What an agent has you sign prior to representation; you should read it very carefully, for it lays out with great specificity what your financial arrangements will be. Contracts can either be per book (so you would need to renew it when you wrote your next) or per year (regardless of how many books you write.) Typically, agents receive 15% (non-negotiable) for North American sales of your writing, 20% or more for foreign sales. (For reasons I have not been able to fathom, my agency takes 23% of sales in the Baltic republics, so they’ll really score if my memoir takes off in Lithuanian.)


AUTHOR PHOTO, n.: A picture taken at the author’s expense that graces either the inside back cover or the back of the dust jacket; often, it will appear in the publisher’s catalogue and/or on the publisher’s website as well. It need not be in black-and-white, but often is; for established authors, author photos are often a decade or more out of date, which is why you don’t always recognize your favorite authors at book signings. Since you will need to produce this picture immediately after the book contract is signed, you might want to consider getting your picture taken now. Trust me, it will take you several tries to get a photo you like enough to want to see mass-produced.


BIO, n.: A 1/3 – 1/2 page (single-spaced) description of your writing credentials, relevant experience, and educational background. Writers are now responsible for producing these themselves.


BLURB, n.: A statement by a famous person/published author/anyone you can cajole about how good your book is. Typically, these are printed on the back jacket. If you have a really good one (say, from a famous writer), for heaven’s sake, include it in your query letter. It is completely acceptable to start garnering blurbs prior to selling your book; if some Eminence Grise of the literary world says your novel is the most important book since MADAME BOVARY, feel free to mention it in your query letter. However, skip including rave reviews from your friends, family, or professors: in a professional context, they will not come across as impressive.


BOOK PROPOSAL, n.: The indispensable marketing tool for selling a nonfiction book, to be prepared with care, as everything in it is essentially a writing sample; you wouldn’t believe how many book proposals look as though they were thrown together in a couple of hours. The typical proposal includes a synopsis of the book being proposed, a narrative description of what the book is about and why this author is the best person to write it, an outline, a comparative market analysis, a marketing plan, an author bio, and 1-3 chapters of the book. (If you missed my many-part series of postings on how to write a book proposal, check them out below.)


BOUND PROOF, n.: A softback edition of a book that is sent to reviewers, potential blurb-givers, and other “opinion-makers” prior to publication of the book.


CHICK LIT, pl. n.: Definition varies upon whom you ask: some say sex-positive work for adult women readers; some say bouncy novels about Republican bimbos; some say anything vaguely humorous written by an American or British woman under the age of 40. Like art, everyone knows it when she sees it, but has trouble defining precisely what it is.


CLIPS, n. (also known as CLIPPINGS): Photocopies of your previously published articles, often included in a book proposal or query letter to a magazine.




COPY EDITING, v.: (1) Proofreading a manuscript for grammatical, spelling , and logical errors. (2) What editors at publishing houses used to do for authors, and authors are now expected to do for themselves.


COPY EDITING, n.: The stage of the publication process AFTER the editor’s substantive editing changes have been incorporated. Generally speaking, this process is not conducted by the editor him or herself.


COVER LETTER, n.: The massively polite missive you should send along with ANYTHING you EVER submit to an agent or editor, reminding them that they have asked to see the work enclosed. A lot of writers forget to include this, instead just sending an undirected manuscript or book proposal. ALWAYS include a brief cover letter, thanking the agent or editor for their interest in your work.


EDITOR, n.: For fiction and non-fiction, the official who does acquisitions for a publishing house. For articles, the person who does acquisitions for a magazine.


EXCLUSIVE, n.: When an agent or editor wants you to promise not to show your work to any other agent or editor until she has made up her mind. A courtesy you extend to people who have the power to make or break your work. Exclusives are always requested specifically; if an agent has not asked for an exclusive, either directly or through a listing in a guide, then you are free to submit to several agents simultaneously. Always place a time limit on exclusives (3 weeks is reasonable).


FREELANCE EDITOR, n.: A person who edits writing for clarity, grammar, etc., who is paid by the author, not a publishing house or agency. Many editors also do substantive editing as well.


FRESH, adj.: Industry term for an unusual look at a well-worn topic; marketable. The industry truism is that they’re always looking for an author who is fresh, but not weird. (Weird can mean anything from a topic never written about before to an unpopular political spin to a book proposal in a non-standard folder.)


GALLEYS, n.: The unbound proofs of a book in production, produced so the author and editor may check them for accuracy. Unlike the manuscript, the galleys will show the book as it will actually appear in print.


HOLLYWOOD HOOK, n.: 1-sentence or 25-word description of the concept of a book at its most basic level, cast in terms of other people’s successes. A famous example was Star Trek’s original pitch: “It’s Wagon Train in space!”


I shall continue with the rest of the alphabet on Monday, tightness of deadline and legal conditions permitting. In the meantime, if you see a term, here or elsewhere, that you would like me to define for you, drop me a line via the COMMENTS function, below.


And keep up the good work!


–Anne Mini


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