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A is for Agent: 35 Essential Book Publishing Terms

by Jennie Nash
featured, money & life

If you have a book proposal and are interested in traditional publishing, you’re going to need an agent – and agents speak a language you may not be familiar with. To help you with the publishing company “lingo,” I’ve put together a glossary of terms that will help with the publishing process, no matter if you’re writing fiction or nonfiction or a print book or digital book. You still have to write a great book (maybe even a bestseller!) in order to catch an agent’s eye, but at least you’ll know what they mean when they ask for a R&R.

Acquisitions: This is a blanket name for a non-standardized process by which a publishing house decides to acquire or purchase a book. The process can include second reads by other editors, meetings with marketing to understand marketing tools or  marketing services, editorial, and publicity staff. In the acquisition process, a publishing house will develop a P&L, or profit and loss sheet, and make an offer to the agent, who presents it to the author.

Advance: The portion of the publisher’s offer that goes to the writer in advance of publication – in other words, the money a writer gets before the printed book comes out. The advance is often paid in pieces – at the signing of the contract, when the manuscript is delivered and put into production (all revisions and edits are complete), and at publication. A writer keeps the advance no matter what happens to the book in the marketplace.

The remainder of the offer is called the royalty, and is paid once the book “earns out” the advance (or earns back the amount of money the publisher has invested.) Note that an agent will take 15% of all money the project earns, so the writer pays 15% of the advance and 15% of all royalties to the agent.

Agent: A literary agent represents a writer’s work to traditional publishers. An agent sells the word, negotiates the contract, manages the business relationship with the publisher, and helps guide the writers’ career. Writers interested in self-publishing or hybrid publishing options don’t need an agent (other options to look into are Kindle Direct Publishing or Nook Press).

Agent Query: A large, free database of literary agent information. Search for agents by keyword.


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Auction: This is when more than one publishing house bids on a book. An agent will set an auction when it is clear that interest in the book is high.

Calls for submission: This is usually used by publishing houses to publicly ask for a certain kind of submission they’d like to see. These can sometimes be found on social media.

Comp titles: This is a shorthand expression meaning “comparison titles” or sometimes “competitive titles.” It is used to make a quick analogy for your book using existing books, movies or TV shows. For instance, Hunger Games might be pitched as Twilight meets Battle Royale. Or Game of Thrones might be pitched as Lord of the Rings meets Saw.

Editor: A term for a person who edits manuscripts for a publishing house, and/or decides which manuscripts to acquire for that house. Sometimes the functions are separated. A freelance editor or book coach generally means someone who edits manuscripts outside of the confines of a publishing house.

Electronic rights: The right to publish a book in digital form. This is a very valuable right that an author may not want to give to the publisher. JK Rowling famously kept electronic rights to her Harry Potter books, and therefore has control of the way those books are disseminated online. Some self-published authors hold onto their electronic rights since they already have a track record of selling online and don’t need a publisher to help with that market. That way they hold 100% of the electronic profits.

Note that a new kind of professional book publishing service has emerged recently who only electronic or digital books.


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Exclusive: This is when an agent requests that they be the only one who is considering your work at any given time. Very few agents will not accept queries unless they are the only one considering the MS, so they won’t have competition if they offer. However, this is rare. Usually, if an agent asks for an exclusive, it is either because they think your materials have great promise and they don’t want competition when offering for them, but they want to read the full MS first before offering OR they have offered you a R&R. In the case of a R&R, they have taken the time to provide you with editorial feedback and they have the right to ask for an exclusive look at the finished product before you send it elsewhere, since they’ve invested time and energy into the project. The central most important thing to remember about an exclusive is that you never have to agree to an exclusive. You always have the right to refuse, and the agent may or may not withdraw their interest at that point. And you should always insist on a specific time period after which the exclusive expires. A couple of weeks, maybe a month. No matter what the time period is, the exclusive should always expire. That way, if they get busy and don’t get to your materials, you aren’t left hanging with no other options.

Foreign Rights: Most publishing contracts give the publisher the right to publish the book in North America. Foreign rights may be sold in individual countries and can provide a significant boost to the money a writer makes. Some agencies have foreign rights agents in-house; others have partner agents at other agencies who handle foreign rights.

Full: This is the shorthand expression for a full manuscript request – namely when an agent wants to see the entire manuscript you have written, and possibly a synopsis as well. An alternative is when the request a partial.

Hybrid Publisher: A publisher who straddles the line between a traditional publisher and a self-publishing vendor. Hybrid publishers may offer some of the services of a traditional publisher (book cover design, interior layout, distribution, etc.) or they may charge for some of these services, which can be tricky for the author to navigate. There are some well-respected hybrid publishers, such as SheWrites Press, who curate what they publish and offer reasonable pricing on the services they provide, and some that are not so well-respected such as AuthorHouse or Balboa Press. The world of hybrid publishers is changing all the time, and writers need to do their homework before signing away their rights or their savings.

MSWL: This is an abbreviation for manuscript wish list, created by literary agent Jessica Sinsheimer. Currently, this refers to two different things. First, agents and/or editors can use the hashtag #mswl on Twitter to call for specific things they’d like to see in their inbox, for instance: “Dystopian YA, preferably involving skateboarding. Love anything set in Ohio!” Agents/editors can use this hashtag anytime, but Jessica organizes specific days for them to send out their new #mswl calls. Second, there is now a website called Manuscript Wish List that has a searchable database of #Mswls. This includes tweets as well as bio pages for agents and publishers, describing what types of manuscripts they’re currently looking for. This is a voluntary site, so not all agents participate.

MS: A common abbreviation for manuscript.

Nudge: This is a reminder email a writer sends an agent if the writer has not heard back after sending a query or manuscript pages. There is a lot of controversy on the topic of whether or not it is appropriate to email agents after they’ve had your query and/or manuscript for a while, to see if they are going to act on it. Research each agent’s website and Google interviews with them to find out what their nudging preferences are. Many agents say things such as: “If you haven’t heard from me in six weeks, consider it a no.” In this case, nudging would be rude and unprofessional. Other agents invite nudges and still others say nothing, in which case you can use your discretion. Definitely don’t send nudges too fast. Reading books takes time and agents have a lot of books to read!

The only time nudging is universally accepted is when you have received an offer from another agent. In this case, you can nudge other agents who have your materials to either withdraw your materials from consideration or to give them a chance to also make an offer.

Offer: This means that an agent is offering to represent your work. If you query an agent and receive an offer, you do not have to accept it. You can ask questions, let other agents know you have an offer, and then make your final decision as to which agent you’d like to sign with, or if you’d like to keep querying. The offer will come first as a verbal offer, then as a written contract that lays out the terms of the deal in excruciating detail. Negotiating the offer and understanding the terms of the contract is where an agent’s value will be felt very strongly, and where it will become very clear that book publishing is a business.

On sub: This is shorthand for “on submission” which is what agents call it when they send your manuscript to publishers to consider it for publication. Agents generally send the manuscript out to multiple publishers at one time, often in waves. They may halt the process depending on how things unfold – if the rejections all cite a similar issue, or if there is a pre-empt offer.

Own voices: A designation that means, roughly, “diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.” Sometimes used as a Twitter hashtag.

Partial: This is the shorthand expression for an agent requesting more materials after they’ve read the query. This can mean 10 pages, or half the MS, or asking for a synopsis, or really anything short of the full manuscript. Once they read the partial manuscript request, they will then reject or ask to see the full manuscript.

Pre-empt: If a publishing house responds to a book on submission with huge enthusiasm, they may make an offer designed to shut down any other offers. It might be a large amount of money, a multiple-book deal, or have other elements to sweeten the pot and tempt the writer. If a writer accepts a pre-empt offer, there can be no auction.


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Publisher’s Lunch: A newsletter and website with top publishing industry news. Read by 40,000 industry insiders and considered “publishing’s essential daily read.”

Publisher’s Marketplace: An offshoot of Publisher’s Lunch. A site that lists bios for publishing industry professionals and other industry information.

Publisher’s Weekly: Industry magazine and website that lists recent sales and other industry information. A great place to research an agent’s sales or check publishing trends

Query Tracker: an online database where writers can research agents, track their queries and share information about agents and their patterns of behavior in responding to queries.

Query: This is the letter sent by an author to an agent to introduce their manuscript and ask for representation. Generally includes a salutation and/or specific reason for pitching that agent, a description of the book that runs approximately 250 words and doesn’t give away the ending but does cover the main conflict and stakes, and a paragraph or less on the author’s publishing credits or other relevant experience.

Rejection: When an agent turns down your query or a publishing house turns down your agent’s book proposal pitch. A grim term for a grim reality.

R&R: Revise and resubmit. This means that the agent would like you to revise based on specific feedback they are providing, and are allowing you the opportunity to query them again with the revised MS when you are finished. It is not a guarantee of an offer, but it can mean that you’re close, and they just want a few specific things changed that would make the MS offer-worthy.

Royalty: The part of an author’s payment that is tied to actual book sales. Most deals give writers a royalty on each book sold after the advance is earned out. Royalty rates vary, and can even be presented on a sliding scale, but they might be somewhere in the neighborhood of 10% to 20% of the sales price of the book (which is different from the book cover price, which gets tricky when discounters like amazon slash the sales price of a book). Note that the writer pays the agent 15% of any royalties earned.

Shelf Awareness: A website that aggregates news from booksellers around the country. A great way to learn what’s going on in the world of books.

Submission guidelines: This is a set of standards adopted by each agent and/or agency determining what genres they represent, and what is required to query them. For instance, some agencies ask for just a query letter, some ask for a query letter and the first ten pages, some ask that it be sent pasted into the body of an email, or some prefer attachments. This information is found on the agency website, and it is the responsibility of the author to individually research agent sub guidelines as they are not universal. Submission guidelines vary so greatly that we recommend keeping a spreadsheet while pitching to keep track of them all. Some agents will refuse to read anything that does not adhere to their specific requirements.

Synopsis: This is a document summarizing the plot of a book (not a book review) which includes the ending. Commonly but not universally requested by agents as part of either the initial submission package or as part of later requested materials. Typcially a 3 double-spaced PDF file, the synopsis is sometimes referred to as a summary or overview in agent submission requirements.

Twitter pitch contests: A specified day when authors can put out a description of their book under a specific hashtag on Twitter and interested agents can “favorite” the pitch to request the author to query them. These can include ones like #AdPit, #PitMad, #PitchMas, #DVPit, etc.

Two-book deal: An offer from a book publishing company for more than one book.

Traditional publisher: A publishing house that works in the traditional way of the book-publishing industry, which is to say that they pay writers to publish, distribute and market their books to readers, and provide all the services necessary to bring the books to market, including editing, proofreading, cover design, interior layout, pricing, publicity and marketing. Note that the degree to which they will publicize and market a book depends greatly on the advance they have paid to the writer. The bigger and advance, the bigger the investment in these services.


Ready to write? At CreativeLive, We are here to help you tell your story and share it with the world. These classes will help you build confidence, improve your writing skills and help you get published.


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Jennie Nash

Jennie Nash is the founder of Author Accelerator, a strategic book coaching service that offers the sustained editorial support writers need to complete their projects and make a powerful impact on their target audience.