12 Words You’ll Hear An Agent Or Editor Use (And What They Mean)

By Rachel Beck

Every industry has its insider lingo and jargon–words or phrases that mean diddly squat to the layperson who does not work in that field. In the medical field, the world of computer engineering, and even in the kitchens of restaurants, there is industry-specific shorthand that is contained to those who work in the business. The publishing industry is no different.

So I’m here to help clear up some of this mumbo-jumbo jargon! Below I’m listing a dozen of the most commonly batted about words or phrases you might have heard from an agent or editor, and what they mean:

1. Query: Often followed by “letter,” a query is the initial outreach an aspiring author does to a literary agent. It’s the introduction and presentation of their material, usually in the form of a concise, two-to-three paragraph email. A query letter talks about your book (mostly), including all its details such as genre, word count, summary, etc., and about you (briefly), including writing credentials (if any).

2. Synopsis: A synopsis is a lengthier summary of your story than you will provide in a query. It’s a more in-depth, chapter-by-chapter review of the plot, characters, major conflicts and obstacles, turning points in the plot, etc. The writing should be straightforward and summary-like, and spoilers are okay. (In fact, usually a publishing professional who requests one will want to know specifically how the book ends.)

3. Partial: You might receive a request for a partial after sending your query to an agent. This refers to a certain number of pages of the manuscript they’d like to evaluate. The agent will specify exactly how many pages to send–a partial request is usually somewhere between 25-100 pages.

4. Genre: Genre is the class or category of work that your book falls into. For example, is it fiction or nonfiction? Thriller or cozy mystery? Chick lit or deep-issue women’s fiction? Young adult or middle grade? Science fiction or fantasy? The list of genres goes on, but you absolutely need to know what genre your book falls into and include it in your query letter, and be as specific as possible, even including sub-genres (example: thriller/domestic suspense or young adult/fantasy).

5. Market: You might hear in a rejection letter that the agent likes your writing, but it wouldn’t fit into the current market. What is meant by this? Publishing, like anything in entertainment, has trends and fads. So if you’re hearing that something isn’t in line with the current market, it means your particular plot and themes aren’t especially relevant or timely right now due to current interests.  

6. Publisher: Or publishing house, publishing company. This one seems obvious, but the publisher is the company that produces the books. They are responsible for all elements of book production, including coordinating the actual typesetting and printing of the books, taking orders from accounts (see below) and shipping to these accounts. The publisher is not the same as the editor (see next point). 

7. Editor: An editor is the person at the publishing company whom you will work with if your agent sells your book. They will, as the name implies, edit your book, but more than that, they will be your liaison with all the departments of the publishing company and therefore advise you on the cover, publishing schedule, promotion, marketing, etc. An editor is your champion within the publishing house.

8. Imprint: Also sometimes called a “line,” this is a specific arm of a publishing company that usually publishes a specific genre or two, although those genres can be broad at some of the biggest imprints at the major publishing houses. It’s a way for a publisher to divide every type of book they produce into smaller, more manageable groups. Each imprint has its own team of editors, marketing and publicity people to work on those specific types of books.

9. Account: Account is the publishing term for the retailers and bookstores who will be placing the orders with the publisher for the books, to then sell and distribute to customers. This includes the major chain bookstores, as well as smaller “indie” bookstores and online distributors like Amazon. Each publishing house has a whole sales team that works with the accounts to take the number of orders (see next point) and distribute and ship them to their warehouses. 

10. Print run: A print run is the number of copies the publisher chooses to have printed, based on estimates from the accounts. The number of orders an account places for a certain book contributes to the book’s print run. A book can have several print runs, if demands outstrips supply once it’s on the shelves and the accounts find that they were initially too conservative with their order numbers. 

11. Advance: An advance is the amount the publisher pays the author upfront upon landing a book deal and signing a contract. It’s called an advance because it’s technically an “advance against royalties,” meaning that you will not start receiving royalties until you’ve made that advance in royalties once the book is on sale. (That is called “earning out.”)

12. Royalties: Royalties are the percent of each book sale that the author earns, as specified in their contract. Royalties depend on the book’s form (e-book royalties are higher than print royalties) and format (hardcover book royalties are higher than paperback royalties), and vary somewhat from publisher to publisher. As stated above, you will not earn royalties until after you “earn out” the advance.

I hope this helps to dispel some of the mystery surrounding the language of publishing, which can definitely be a confusing world from the outside looking in when these terms all feel like Greek. Now, armed with this extra knowledge of the biz, go forth and write!