As a literary agent in major trade publishing at the Trident Media Group literary agency, I often have to explain many of these key book publishing terms and phrases to new clients.
This serves as a light glossary of key terms for new authors unfamiliar with the phrases and abbreviations casually tossed around in the book-publishing world.
Here’s some book publishing terminology you should know.
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 hree to five years, that was an award-winner or bestseller. Best to compare to success.
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 might also be a way of selling the book to readers.
However, you write a fantasy, don’t go and compare yourself to classics and masters such as J.R.R. Tolkien—that just gets eye rolls from literary agents and editors.
2. “This is a hurry-up-and-wait 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 at publishing houses, once they’ve received a manuscript submission from a literary agent.
Especially after that three- to four-month period, it’s more than reasonable to expect a literary agent to follow up with editors still considering a submission.
Of course, just like writers, literary agents wish editors could read much faster. 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 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 results in what might feel like an unprofessional business environment, and can be frustrating to a book publishing professional with more business savvy.
4. MS and MSS
No, I am not talking about that archaic notion of women in the 1950s attending colleges and universities to attain their “Mrs. Degrees.”
MS stands for manuscript and MSS is the plural of manuscript.
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.
You might be familiar with this term because many industries use profit and loss statements in calculating business decisions and expenditures. That’s right: P&L stands for profit & loss statement.
While you’d think book publishing was an exact science, it’s far more subjective. Publishers are sometimes surprised by books that become surprise mega-bestsellers. Or the opposite: books they thought would be mega-bestsellers that tragically underperformed.
Before a book publisher commits to acquiring a book, and therefore paying a book advance, they dogmatically run that P&L anyway. This is usually a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, containing formulas that calculate what the profits (royalties, special sales, additional advances from licensing, etc.) on the book might be, against the publisher’s losses (book advance, cost of production, shipping, warehousing, etc.).
You might then wonder where the publisher comes up with potential profits? That brings us back to those comps. Book publishers look to the comp titles for potential success of the book. They evaluate sales of a given title on Nielsen Bookscan’s reporting.
Now you can see why it’s all about the comps.
It’s ironic that this phonetically sounds like “DNA,” because this phase makes up much of the life structure of a book publishing deal. D&A refers to when the manuscript is delivered & accepted.
Usually a large portion of a book advance is placed on the delivery and acceptance of the manuscript to help incentivize the author and accounting easier 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 final copy editing and proofreading stage, before printing. This also helps to ensure the publisher finds the manuscript in a suitable shape before publication.
7. Pub date
No, your literary agent or editor is not asking you out for drinks…
Pub date 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 birth date.
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-to-four months leading up to publication and the three-to-four months thereafter are crucial times for 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’s 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 gift-giving holidays like Easter, Father’s Day, etc.
The quietest time of the year is usually in the spring/summer season. That’s when a book will experience little competition, but this is also a popular beach-reading season, as many readers have free time and school’s out for summer.
Getting started in book publishing means much more than knowing how to write a novel and how to write a book proposal. This list of key terms will hopefully help you navigate some of the tricky lingo of our quirky industry!
This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.