The publishing terms you might not know you're getting wrong
Querying? Applying for a publishing job? Make sure you're using these words the way you want to be.
Hello! If you opened today’s newsletter hoping for a comprehensive glossary of publishing industry jargon, prepare to be disappointed. NO JK I WOULD NEVER DISAPPOINT YOU: it’s available on lots of other publishing blogs. Just not here.
This is instead a guide to industry shibboleths: words that *look* normal and nonspecialist but in fact carry special meanings within book publishing and (for most part) book publishing alone. The moment you use these shibboleth terms “wrong,” you fire into the air a big sparkly flare that says I AM NOT ONE OF YOU!!! to any agent, editor, or other industry professional in a ten-mile radius.
You generally do not want to do this. Sometimes you might, though? I’ll come back to why in a few minutes. Let’s just talk about the words first.
Within publishing, this term refers to two different things: 1. a company or house that publishes books (e.g. Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster) or 2. an individual with a strategic/big picture planning job at a publishing company (e.g. Jofie Ferrari-Adler is Vice President & Publisher at Avid Reader Press, a division of Simon & Schuster).
The people whose job title has “publisher” in it are in charge of doing things like liaising with sales forces and manufacturers; supervising supply chains; and planning the holistic mission and voice of their division.
Literary agents are not “publishers” or “publishing companies.” Most editors who acquire projects for publishers are not themselves called “publishers,” unless they happen to be a Publisher who also acquires. Which is a thing.
Ha ha sob I know it’s confusing. Agents and other publishing professionals do not expect authors to know how command chains work within publishing companies.
The important thing to remember is this: don’t call an individual a “publisher” in a query letter or meeting unless you know that this word is in their formal job title. Also, don’t call a company a “publisher” unless you know they are the company that produces and sells the book to retailers.
to publish, v.
Within our industry, the verb “to publish” is a little more fungible than the noun “publisher.” Authors say “I’ve published a book” to mean they’ve written one and it’s been published by a publisher. Editors say they’ve published a book when their publisher has published one they have personally acquired and edited. Editors say “I don’t know how to publish this” when they are rejecting a book because they think no one will buy it.
Publishers—the companies and the individuals who hold that job title—can also rightfully say they’ve “published” books. It is all Very Confusing.
There are very few instances in which you, the author, will look green/un-homeworked if you use this verb. THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE: Don’t ever ask a literary agent, “what kind of books do you publish?”
Dozens of people ask me this question every year. They are either a. literally all my relatives at Thanksgiving or b. queriers/job applicants who haven’t learned 101 industry basics. The correct question to ask an agent is: “what kind of books (or authors) to you represent?”
Works of nonfiction are about real events and people. The “it true story” part isn’t the shibboleth here; none of you are idiots. What’s confusing is the asymptotic nature of the term.
There is at least a little fiction in most nonfiction. Lots of authors, particularly memoirists and doctors, change names and identifying details and remix real people into composites. Authors of memoir and non-recent history Make The Past Come Alive! (R) by approximating dialogue and sensory detail. This is all fine and normal,* although best acknowledged with an author’s note if it’s not obvious from the context of one’s writing.
Less ideal—though also common—are the accidental mistakes and mischaracterizations that come up in nonfiction, along with, alas, the occasional wanton lie. Lots of articles have been written on the fact that there is no corporate fact checking in book publishing. Publishers only perform legal review for the sort of things that might tempt a lawsuit (libel, copyright violation), and they only do this some of the time. (Ask your agent to make this a contractual requirement if you have reason for concern.)
At conferences, lots of authors ask me some version of “is my book still nonfiction if I _______?” The answer is disconcerting: IT’S UP TO YOU, BUDDY. There’s no Court of High Genre to tell you how much fiction is too much fiction for nonfiction. There is only you—you and maybe a judge in a court of law, if someone sues you for libel or fraud. Tee hee!
There’s also a healthy chance that at least one journalist, reviewer, or Helpful Man Sending You An Email will find each and every error in your book. But no pressure. (Some pressure. Don’t mislead your readers.)
*Please God consult a lawyer if you are unsure about your own work; I am not a lawyer
Any book that contains fabricated people, places, or action is (or at least should be) fiction. If it’s “emotionally true” or takes place at a real moment in history, just with imaginary characters and/or meetings, it’s fiction. If it’s based on real events, but you’re making up detail beyond the kind of minute, particulate historical stuff I discuss above, it’s fiction.
I see a lot of confusion about fiction *and* nonfiction in my inbox. Is my book fiction if it’s a memoir, but I’ve set it in medieval England to throw off my litigious family? (Yes.) Is it fiction if it’s about President James Buchanan, but I’ve imagined a bunch of White House sex scenes with William Rufus King, the man who was likely his partner? (Also yes, and sign me up.)
A novel is a work of fiction. Calling a book a “fiction novel” is a little like telling Madonna that you would be pleased to join her on “the la isla bonita.” This is not really a shibboleth so much as a usage error.
OTOH, “nonfiction novel” is a shibboleth. Publishing professionals recognize it as a Deceased Midcentury Gonzo Man term coined by Truman Capote for In Cold Blood. Querying authors who reference it this way on purpose come across as off-putting fedora people, at least to me. The era of Mailer and HST is long and rightfully over.
That or the author just looks confused. Either way, the term sounds dopey, even though said dopiness is unfair: as we’ve covered, almost all nonfiction is at least a little fictionalized.
“Editors” are the people at publishing houses who are in charge of finding profitable new authors/projects for their division and acquiring this work at competitive prices. Agents submit book projects to these editors. We don’t send books to “publishers” or worry that “publishers” will have specific editorial issues with our proposals, unless, that is, we are worried about the reaction of a Publisher, who is typically the editor’s boss but sometimes the editor him- or herself.
Get it? LOL no neither do I.
This might be too complicated to explain in a newsletter, as it’s on the line between shibboleth and jargon. Basically: large publishing houses (including the big 5) have lots of smaller divisions and subdivisions. Some of these divisions are like the big houses on Game of Thrones, the Starks or the Lannisters: they are a unit or “group” with one big executive and several little allied companies of bannermen within. The bannermen in this metaphor are imprints.
Take the the Knopf Doubleday Group, for instance. If Penguin Random House is the Seven Kingdoms (seasons 1-7), Knopf Doubleday are the Starks. Knopf itself is the Mormonts. Doubleday is the Karstarks. Reagan Arthur is THE QUEEN IN THE NORTH! THE QUEEN IN THE NORTH! THE QUEEN IN THE NORTH! And they all share a kingdom alongside the Random House Publishing Group in Highgarden, the Penguin Publishing Group in Casterly Rock, and so on.
In smaller kingdoms (companies), bannermen sometimes have no Starks or Tyrells between them and the king. Sometimes they live independently together as wildlings, with no internecine distinctions at all. Sometimes they are literally just one guy. Or maybe they DO follow the Starks, only they are straight up living in Winterfell and not a bannerman—more of a quirky solo maester type. (This is what we call a “list” vs an “imprint.”)
Oh God this is exhausting here just look at this chart.
You might think that the comparative titles (or “comps”) section in a book proposal should consist of books on a comparable topic, because, well, that’s what it sounds like. Editors are in fact looking for something slightly different. Authors and even some younger agents misunderstand the purpose of this section all the time. I’ve devoted an entire separate newsletter to why.
delivery and acceptance
This is the most misunderstood timing term in book contracts. See this other previous newsletter about why it takes some authors by surprise. (Yes, I am using this free edition of “How to Glow in the Dark” to try and convince you to subscribe if you haven’t.)
Again, this word sounds deceptively simple: you need to get “permission” for including copyrighted material like song lyrics or photos in your book? Okay! Let’s get going with that permission slip or thumbs up from the rights holder or whatever!
Ha ha ha ha PERMISSIONS GENERALLY ALSO COST SIGNIFICANT MONEY, DID YOU KNOW THAT? Anywhere from hundreds to many, many thousands of dollars. And they can take weeks and weeks to sort out. Sometimes rights holders have died, so you have to track down their heirs. Maybe there were multiple rights holders and there are now multiple heirs.
I could go on! There are so many words like this in publishing: words that look normal but hold special, nuanced meaning in our industry. However, I need to edit clients’ work now, and this newsletter is already a day late (my bad).
Invisible codes like the above come from an unfortunate place in human nature: one that excludes people from elite spaces through “if you know, you know” BS. They work well in this regard, as most people who grow up on the margins (economic, gendered, racial, psychological) learn over the course of their childhoods to feel shame rather than exhilaration or curiosity in the face of their own ignorance. They don’t feel welcome to ask questions, so they never even get to learn the code exists, let alone what it means. It’s all very convenient for people in power.
There are several obvious issues to work on here (and by “here” I mean not just book publishing, but every elite profession and private space historically occupied by upper-middle/upper class White people: art, academia, fashion, journalism, country clubs, etc.). We need to hire and promote more people who understand that shibboleth policing is, like, middle-school level dumb. We should understand why aspiring authors and other publishing professionals aren’t learning the code and just explain it without waiting for people to ask. (Aka what I’m attempting to do with this newsletter!)
If you’re an author, you should always do the homework you’re aware you need to do. If I can tell someone’s not bothering to get publishing terminology right because they’re lazy or entitled, it’s a huge turn-off.
HOWEVER: Don’t feel ashamed if you don’t know what you don’t know. And pssst: even if you do know the code, it’s maybe not such a bad thing if people underestimate your savvy a little, particularly at the negotiating table. Take it from a certain talkative and ludic blonde agent you know: let them think you’re a muppet; pickpocketing is much easier that way.
Or better yet, take one from the Michaela Coel school of negotiation: “She is eager, almost giddy, to say she doesn’t know something (even if she may have an inkling) because of the way it forces someone else to explain it to her.”
Arbitrary hoops exist in part to distract newcomers from questioning why there’s even an obstacle course at all. Sometimes the best thing to do is stop running and say, “Yoohoo! What are these hoops for?”