7 Book Publishing Terms Writers Should Know: A Literary Agent’s Guide

7 Book Publishing Terms Writers Should Know: A Literary Agent’s Guide

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.

5. P&L

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.

6. D&A

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 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.

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16 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?

  • Diane Dobry says:

    I have to disagree with you on your first discussion about beginning a sentence with “because.” While your second argument is valid (because it leaves unsaid several implied words) the first argument does not fly with me. As I tell my students, in that case, you write “since,” not because. The word “Because” just does not make sense there. If this has changed, when and why?

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