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

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.

Have questions about publishing industry lingo? Leave them in the comments below.

Traveler and blogger Chris Guillebeau

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14 comments

  • JOHN T SHEA says:

    Left to my own devices I might have guessed ‘comps’ meant compensation paid to bookstores to boost a book. I learn something new every day. And probably forget three old things. Thanks for a very informative article, Mr. Gottlieb.

  • Onindo says:

    Hello Mark,
    I marked your valid informations as journey begins at ‘Comps’ and takes off at ‘Pub date’. The journey confided to me as ‘Seven ages of an Author’.
    Non fiction novel in my understanding situations and the craftmanship plays the key role if I’m not completely mistaken. With that note I would love to hear your feed backs. A big thank you from a novice.
    O.
    .

    • Hi Onindo,

      I think there’s a lot before, in between, and after these key terms I’ve listed above, so this is just the tip of the iceberg. Another article with even more key terms is certainly something I could envision and it might benefit a lot of writers. Surprisingly, I’ve received comments elsewhere that some authors were unfamiliar with the terms “advance” and “royalties” that I only briefly mentioned in the article and in reference to something else.

      Nonfiction tends to be more idea-driven and reliant on author platform (number of social media followers, etc.) than fiction. In nonfiction, it is not enough to have a good idea to write about, for it to be well-written and for the author to be an authority on the subject matter–platform is what is key to nonfiction. What’s nice and unique about nonfiction, though, is that because it is idea-driven, it can be sold on proposal-basis to book publishers, as opposed to fiction, which needs to be sold on a fully-written and polished manuscript.

      I hope that helps.

      -Mark

      • Paulo C says:

        Well Mark, I think i do agree with you, just that I refer nonfiction pushes yourself be attached to the reality while the idea-driven boost the fiction to horizons and gulfs which no one else but the psyche of the author burst, on another words, nonfiction is the meter of the dressmaker, the obverse twin is the bolt or drug, pain, which unleashes the mind.

      • Onindo says:

        Howdy Mark,
        Every time I read your article I get enlightened. I’m a thinker, ‘my thoughts are unusual’, and I heard this criticism more than I can think of, mostly from my loved ones. Passed two years I have aged mentally vigorously. My surrounding, my environment seems to appear unusual. I’m no more a thinker now. I’m seeking now for a platform which must be enough spread, and strong to fit the entire society.

        You mentioned ‘Iceberg tip’ and I’m thinking my ship -wreck. Again in your own words ‘a lot before, in between, and after’, this line dicates my algorithm factors for my non-fiction. Alas my ‘platform’ settle submerged at bottom sediment. My aquatic adventure is over now and honestly I would love to think that for myself however, I shall let moment paint that picture meanwhile I keep on bleeding blue on red and white stripes.

        I have finished writing 9000 words on playing cards and that’s my logical approach towards an agent. I’m writing full time now.

        My personal thinking, fiction is an easy option for me to sketch (due respect to all fiction scholars!) and that is how I start from scratch to end up creating chracters. I read their face, read their facial expressions, and I pick up lines, based on which I plan the journey of fiction.

        This is my curiosity : past four months I have been silently observing literary market places and I have noticed respected literary agents are enough qualified to write. A literary agent in my opinion posses an adequate knowledge about the readers’ sentiments. An agent has academic sucess also then what stops them to write?
        With that question request I shall pause here for your reply.
        Thank you so much!
        O

  • Paulo Cesar says:

    Mark; i do appreciate your advice; actually i been writing for a quite long yet i cannot get published, right now i’ve a serial of short story tales by thriller and mystery genre related, (Eyes without face, Mimic, Visionary, Desteny, toy-maker, Msr Van Rusteigh) belongs to the 28 collection stories)May i ask you a link to send you a copy of the written material to indicate which agent would be interested to review it?
    Regarding your time, thanks for any help you can send me back.

  • Haydn Jones says:

    Hello Mark
    I’m now ready to take my trilogy novel ‘The Angels of Destiny’ to the market place, seeking an Agent.
    I found your article, A Literary Agent’s Guide to Publishing Terms Authors Should Know, very informative. Many thanks.

    Haydn Jones

  • Gila says:

    I have a question regarding the comps. I recently submitted a manuscript to a publisher and they asked for 3-5 titles published in the last 5 years that my story would compare to and they asked how it differs from them. How is this question supposed to be answered? I tried to point out the differences in style etc, but are they asking this because they don’t want to be in competition with these other books from other publishers? I’m not sure how to answer a question like this. Thanks

  • Linda Garza says:

    Hello, Mark Gottlieb

    My name is Linda and even though I’ve been a songwriter , I always made sure my songs had a begining, middle and an end. I wanted those who heard my songs to be able to visualize the story of the song. A month ago, my son, (Jacob), came to me about a song he was working on, yes he’s also a songwriter, lol. He felt that the girl from his imagination should be more then someone in a rap song. As he told me the story, I knew he was right and agreed that she DESERVED a storyline in a book, and told him I would write a book about her. After finishing this book it was as if a door I didn’t even know was there, was opened. I’ve just finished my second book. I went to your website and was in the process of writing a query letter, but I want to make sure I do it right. My question is this, do I write a little about myself in the actual query letter or where the comment box is. Your help would be greatly appreciated, and yes, lol, it was going to you.

  • What exactly does a literary agent need to do to get the publishing deal? I’m interested in learning more about this. Professionally, how does the agent begin the process?

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