In December 2010, I decided to follow my dream of being a writer. I knew nothing about how to publish, or about the industry itself. All I had was the ability to write, a dream, and the feeling that I wasn’t happy with where my life currently was.
One year later, I now know how common publishing terms are defined, the general process for traditional publishing, and what expectations are reasonable. So, for anyone else who is trying to become an author, I decided to share. Consider this a short guide for beginners: If you've no idea what the traditional publishing process looks like, welcome to Publishing for a Living 101.
Part 1: Terms
If you're new to the field, here are some common terms that you've probably heard, and might just be wondering about. Some of these seem quite intuitive, but you might be surprised:
Traditional Publishing, Self Publishing, Vanity Publishing, ePublishing, small publishers/regional publishers, the Big Six, Imprints, Advance, Royalties, Author, Writer, Editing, Editor, Word Count, Page Count, Agent, Query, Partial Request, Full Request, Synopsis
Traditional publishing means getting published through a royalty-paying publishing house. The publisher provides services such as thorough editing, the book cover, some marketing, and a larger distribution than either self- or vanity-publishing offer. Traditional publishing has the most prestige of the three types of publishing; because it requires going through the ‘gatekeepers’ of agents (usually) and editors, it is the most difficult to achieve. Because of the services provided, the author receives smaller royalties than in self-publishing, but because of the wider distribution and the opportunity to earn an advance, traditionally published writers on average earn more.
Self-publishing is when an author publishes the book herself; that is, she writes it, edits it herself or buys editing services, purchases the cover herself, and makes it available on a self-publishing site. These include both sites such Smashwords and Print-on-Demand publishers such as Lulu. The writer gets the majority of the earnings, but has to do her own marketing and has to purchase all her own publishing-related services. It is possible that the writer will earn more self-publishing than traditionally publishing because of the higher royalty rate, but it is infrequent that this happens. There are no advances offered, although the stigma once attached to self-publishing is diminishing due to the number of respected self-published authors.
Vanity publishing is when a writer pays a publisher to print her book for her. Again, she does her own writing, marketing, and editing, and often has to provide her own cover work. It is rare for a writer to make a profit off these books. There are no advances offered. Vanity publishing is typically categorized as a type of self-publishing and was once used interchangeably with any type of self-publishing, but ‘vanity publishers’ are specifically publishers who require the author to pay a fee for being printed. The interchangeability of ‘vanity publishing’ and ‘self publishing’ has diminished with the introduction of eReaders and millionaire self-published authors.
ePublishing: ePublishing is the publishing of eBooks or other electronic forms of books. Both self-publishers and traditional publishers take advantage of ePublishing; it should not be used synonymously with self-publishing.
Small publishers/regional publishers: Traditional publishing companies that are not the Big Six and typically print only small runs of books are considered to be small publishers. They may print up to 1-2 thousand copies, but often sell fewer, and they often sell primarily to a niche market. Regional publishers are a type of small publisher. They are likely to print nonfiction, poetry, or fiction dealing exclusively with the region in which they publish. Not all publishers that are not the Big Six count as small publishers.
The Big Six: The biggest publishing houses in
are called the “Big Six.” These include Random House, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Penguin Group, Hachette Book Group, and HarperCollins. Most ‘imprints’ (Harlequin, America , Gotham Books, Prentice Hall, Tor/Forge, etc) are owned by these companies. Berkley
Imprints: Looking on the spine or in the front cover of a book will reveal a publisher’s name. Usually, this is the ‘imprint’ publisher; that is, the brand name that reveals the genre and certain other features of the book. A book published by Tor/Forge, for example, will probably be science fiction or fantasy; a book published by Harlequin will be a romance. Sometimes there’s overlap between imprints within the same company, and sometimes there’s not.
Advance: An advance is an amount of money paid to an author before a manuscript begins earning royalties. Sometimes this is a lump sum; sometimes it is split into parts. The original idea of the advance was for the author to use the money for marketing. Most advances these days are not enough to live off of for long. The first royalties earned go towards ‘paying off’ the advance; like the name implies, the money is expected to be compensated to the publisher. Until the publisher has received the equivalent of the advance from the author’s royalties, the author gets no additional money for that manuscript. After the advance has been paid off, the author begins receiving royalty checks. Agents may encourage writers to accept a lower advance for a higher royalty percentage, which means the author would get paid less initial starting money but would pay the advance off quicker and possibly earn more money in the long term.
Royalties: For every book sold, the author gets a little bit of money. This money is a royalty. In cases wherein the author was paid an advance, first royalties are not actually received by the author. The money goes instead to pay off the advance.
Author: An author is someone who has published a manuscript. Self-published writers are generally considered authors for most publishing industry purposes, although there are some situations in which they are not, and they frequently have to deal with stereotypes against them. With the rise of the eBook and a number of established professional and even millionaire writers turning to self-publishing, this stigma seems to be diminishing.
Writer: Someone who has written or is writing. All authors are writers, but not all writers are authors.
Editing: Contrary to popular belief, editing does not mean fixing typos and grammar edits (although those fixes are usually included in an edit, writers are on the most part expected to have few to no grammar errors or typos in their manuscripts by the time it's being submitted.) Editing focuses on storyline changes and other holistic changes for the purpose of making the manuscript more interesting, more saleable, and/or easier to follow. It may include rewrites of entire scenes or characters. It may also include the insertion of subplots for the purpose of expanding a word count, or eliminating scenes for reducing a word count. Traditional publishing houses offer some editing as part of their services. Editors may also be hired individually by writers for the purposes of improving a manuscript.
Editor: Not just the person who reviews and suggests changes, an editor may also be the person in a publishing company who decides which manuscripts the company will publish. This latter job is called an ‘acquisitions editor,’ but the full term is rarely used. If a writer is writing to an editor at a publishing house, this is the editor to which they are referring.
Word count: The word count of a manuscript may be determined by either a computer count, or by performing a character count and dividing by 6 (for an average of 5 letters per word, plus one space.) The latter is what most agents desire when they ask for a word count, although some have begun asking for the former. Different genres have different expected word counts; while some manuscripts above or beneath that count are accepted, one that falls outside the range is less likely to be published than if it were within.
Page count: Because of font, margin, and spacing differences, the page count is determined by dividing the word count by 250. This is the ‘average’ number of words per page by standard publishing layout, even if it is not exact. When an agent asks for page count, this is what she is asking for.
Agent: An agent is a person whose job it is to try to sell manuscripts to publishing houses. (They do other stuff for writers, too, but let's keep it simple.) Agents typically have personal connections with many people within traditional publishing houses, and most manuscripts that are traditionally published through large publishing houses are agented. Only about 60% of manuscripts that are agented are published, however, so having an agent does not guarantee publication. It does, however, greatly improve the chances. Self-published authors do not necessarily need agents.
Query: A query is a short letter sent to an agent (or an editor) asking for representation (or publication). It is typically 250 words or fewer, but not always. A query includes enough of a description of the manuscript to catch the agent’s interest and get the agent asking for more. Many agents currently prefer to receive queries over e-mail, but some still prefer snail-mailed queries. Queries should be professional and contain no errors if at all possible.
Partial Request: An agent may ask for the first few chapters of a manuscript to see if they like the writer’s writing style. Any percentage of the manuscript that is not the entire manuscript is considered a partial request. This is often referred to simply as “a partial.”
Full Request: An agent may also ask to see the entire manuscript. This is called a full request (often just “a full”), and agents almost never agree to represent a fiction manuscript without seeing the full manuscript first.
Synopsis: Agents and editors will also sometimes ask for a synopsis. This is a summary of the entire manuscript, frequently written in 1-5 pages (depending on the agent.) It should include the most important plot of the manuscript, but might not include subplots or even all the characters. It should include the final resolution of the story, and it should be written in story form, not in bullet points. It is also considered an example of a writer’s writing, so it should exemplify the same voice as the manuscript and contain no errors. (links for "how to write a synopsis")
Note that, for every "most," "almost," and "usually," there are exceptions. These are general rules, and I'm sure you can find counterexamples for almost every single one of them. The idea, though, is to give you a general definition to go by, so don't think too hard about any of these. You can always do in-depth research later.
Questions? Additional definition requests? There are a lot of terms writers are expected to navigate, so don't be afraid to ask! Also, I suggest checking out Jessica Faust's expanded list of publishing definitions.