A Literary Agent’s Guide to Publishing Terms Authors Should Know

As a literary agent in major trade publishing at the Trident Media Group literary agency, I often have to explain many of these key publishing terms and phrases to new clients.

This serves as a light glossary of key terms, to new authors unfamiliar with the phrases and abbreviations casually tossed around in the book-publishing world.

1. “It’s all about the comps”

When a literary agent or editor speaks about “comps”, they are not referring to computers, nor anything that may be complementary.

In book publishing, comps generally stands for competitive or comparative titles/authors. A literary agent will often request two to three of these from an author to work into the literary agent’s pitch to publishers. None of this is ever to merely compare an author’s manuscript to similar works, but rather to hold an author’s manuscript in high esteem.

A good comp is usually a similar book genre/age group, published within the last  three to five years, that was an award-winner or bestseller. Best to compare to success.

Obviously, if an author had written a fantasy, they don’t go and compare themselves to classics and masters such as J.R.R. Tolkien—that just gets eye rolls from literary agents and editors.In the eyes of an editor, comps help to place the manuscript under consideration in its proper place on a publishing list and answers any questions for a publisher on where a book would fit in at a bookstore.This is also an important way of selling the book to readers.

2. “This is a hurry up and wait sort of business”

An impatient author may want to hear back on their submission quickly,, but publishing is generally a slow-moving business, as it takes time to read.

Three to four months is usually a reasonable amount of time to expect to hear from editors, once they’ve received a manuscript submission from a literary agent.It’s more than reasonable to expect a literary agent to follow-up with editors still considering along a submission, especially after that three to four-month period.

We as literary agents of course wish that editors could read much faster, too. Apart from the submission process of book publishing, other functions can sometimes be slow as a result of this “mañana” attitude among some book publishers.

3. “Book publishing is a backwards business”

One of the things that makes book publishing unique is that more often than not, many people tend to stumble into book publishing as a profession, usually from a background in the humanities.(In recent years, this is changing with more undergraduate and graduate studies in book publishing being offered at colleges and universities).

So rather than having a bunch of business majors running publishing as a business, often there are English majors trying to make sense of a business landscape in book publishing.

As you can imagine, that can make for some interesting results. Sometimes this type of precarious situation can unintentionally make for what might feel like an unprofessional business environment, and can be frustrating to a book publishing professional with more business savvy, such as a literary agent.

4. MS and MSS

No, I am not talking about that archaic notion of women in the 1950s attending colleges and universities in order to attain their “Mrs. Degrees.”

MS stands for manuscript and MSS is the plural of that.

This abbreviation is widely used among publishers and literary agencies, often without even a second thought given to whether or not an author might know the term. It might be easy to miss MS as just two simple letters in an email, but whenever you see this, know that your manuscript is being referenced.

5. P&L

This should not be an entirely unfamiliar term as many industries use profit and loss statements in calculating business decisions and spendings.

It might sound like an exact science, but book publishing as a subjective business, is not. Publishers would be surprised by certain books that went on to become surprise mega bestsellers or books they thought would be mega bestsellers but tragically underperformed.

Before a book publisher commits itself to acquiring a book, and therefore paying a book advance, they dogmatically run that P&L anyway. This is usually a Microsoft Excel sheet, containing formulas that calculate what the profits (royalties, special sales, additional advances from licensing, etc.) on the book will be, against the publisher’s losses(book advance, cost of production, shipping, warehousing, etc.).

You might then wonder where the publisher comes up with what the potential profits might be? As mentioned earlier in this post, book publishers will look to the comp titles for what the potential success of the book might be. They will evaluate the sales of a given title on Nielsen Bookscan’s reporting.

Now you can see why it’s all about the comps.

6. D&A

While this may phonetically sound like “DNA,” this term actually does make up much of the life structure of a book publishing deal as it is when the manuscript is delivered & accepted.

Usually a large portion of a book advance is placed on the delivery and acceptance of the manuscript in order to help incentivize the author and make for easier accounting for the publisher. By allocating different portions of the advance on a signing payment, D&A payment, and/or publication payment, rather than paying out all the money on signing, book publishers are able to spend their money more easily on other projects and book publishing functions that require financial resources.

Most book publishers will not release the delivery and acceptance portion of a book advance until the manuscript is accepted and made press-ready for the final copy editing and proofreading stage, before printing. This also helps to ensure that the publisher finds that the manuscript is in a suitable shape before publication.

7. Pub date

No, your literary agent or editor is not asking you out for drinks…

This is short for “publication date” or the day that a book publishes.

For any happy author, this is your book’s most important day, its birthdate. Oddly enough, many book publishers choose to publish on Tuesdays to time their publications with certain bestseller lists and other publications entering the marketplace.The three-four months leading up to publication, and the three-four months thereafter, is a crucial time for the sales of a new book on the market.

The fall/winter season is usually when the biggest books of the year are published since it leads into the gift giving season of the major holidays. This also makes for the most competitive time of year when a book can be published, so it is usually advisable that an author trying to make their debut publish in a quieter season. Less competition might be found in the winter/spring season when books are still bought in large numbers for Easter, Father’s Day, etc.

The quietest time of the year is usually in the spring/summer season when a book will experience very little competition, but this is also a popular beach reading season as many readers have free time and school’s out for summer.

Beginning in book publishing means much more than just knowing that the book advance and royalties equate with getting paid. This list of key terms ought to have helped most any author new to book publishing navigate some of the tricky lingo of our quirky industry.

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