Illustration of a writer in the middle of question marks and speech bubbles
Illustration of a writer in the middle of question marks and speech bubbles

Publishing, like any industry, has a lot of jargon. We know that can make it difficult to navigate the different stages of the publishing process, or even know where to start. Here’s our A-Z guide to some of the most common words and terms you might hear in your journey to getting published.

Acquisition

 When a publisher ‘buys’ the right to publish a book from an author. From a writer’s perspective, this is when you are offered a book deal from an editor (usually via your literary agent). This is often for one book, but sometimes it can include several books, or even a series.

The decision on whether an editor ‘acquires’ a book takes place in the acquisitions meeting, which takes place weekly. This is where an editor brings in colleagues from across the publishing houses, including sales, marketing, publicity, production and finance, to decide whether they want to publish a book. This takes into account lots of different factors, such as: where the book will sit in the market, which type of reader it is targeted towards, or if there are other similar titles and how they have been received.

Find out more about getting a book deal here.

Advance

Advance: a sum of money paid to an author upfront when they sign a contract with a publisher. This will need to be ‘earned out’ (see ‘Earn out’). An author’s advance is usually paid in four instalments – after signing a contract, after finishing your manuscript, after publishing in hardback and finally in paperback.

Find out more about advances and royalties here.

Backlist title

A book which has been published in the past but is still in print. A title usually becomes backlist around a year after publication. This doesn’t mean your book will no longer be on sale – in fact, many of our most popular books are those which were first published years, decades or even centuries ago. 

Blurb

The short quote or paragraph of text on the back of a book, giving the reader a flavour of what the book is about, as well as any other information or quotes from other authors/ press printed on the cover. Blurbs can also be used to pitch a book, and can also referred to as ‘cover copy’.

Catalogue

Our publishing houses regularly produce online catalogues which bring together all the books they are due to publish over a specific period (e.g. in the Autumn of any given year). Unlike other industries, such as fashion, where catalogues are produced for consumers, these are predominantly for use by people in the industry, for example retailers or journalists.

Co-edition

An edition of a book published simultaneously by more than one publisher, usually in different countries and in different languages.

Contract

Once your agent has secured you a book deal, you will receive a contract from the publisher outlining the specific details of what has been agreed, which will be signed by both parties. This includes information such as the amount to be paid as an advance and the date when your finished manuscript is due to be sent to your editor.

Find out more about the contract for a book deal here.

Copy-editing

The final editorial stage before the book is typeset (see ‘Typeset’). It is the copy-editor’s job to ensure that the text, and any illustrative material, is expressed clearly and accurately. The copy-editor will also check grammar and spelling, and will double-check facts such as dates, spellings of names, etc. In fiction, a copy-editor will look out for continuity and plot errors.

Covers meeting

Decisions about the book cover are led by the art department of the publishing house, with input from other colleagues (for example, Sales might feed in on the current trends in the marketplace, or Marketing might provide insight into what might appeal to a specific readership). Whilst the author will be part of this process, the cover decision is led by the publishing experts and what is most likely to sell.

Find out more about the process behind creating a book cover here.

Crossover fiction

A young adult book which has potential for an adult readership, or vice versa.

Earn out

As part of their contract most authors will need to ‘earn out’ their advance before they start receiving royalties directly from book sales. This means that you won’t start earning royalties until the initial sales of your book are equal to the size of your advance.

Find out more about advances and royalties here. 

Format

The size of a book. Publishers use different formats  but the most common you will hear are ‘trade format’ and ‘B format’ which are the size of most small paperback novels

Front-list title

A book published recently, usually in the current year.

Genre

The ‘category’ that your book falls into. Broadly, all books fall into three genres – fiction, non-fiction or children’s books but there are also sub-genres within these.

For example:

  • Fiction: Includes action & adventure, crime & thriller, fantasy, historical fiction, literary fiction, poetry, romance, or sci-fi, amongst others.
  • Non-fiction: Covers areas such as business, food & drink, health & lifestyle, history, memoir, science or sports.
  • Children’s: This includes picture books as well as fiction and non-fiction for children of different ages, such as middle-grade (generally 8-12) or Young Adult (13+).

And, of course, your book could cross over two or more of these sub-genres! So don’t worry if it’s not immediately clear which area it falls into.

ISBN

The unique identifying number for a particular book. Each version of the book (e.g. paperback/ hardback/ e-book) will have a different ISBN.

Intellectual Property (IP)

We think that the definition found on the European IP Helpdesk’s website says it best: “creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce. IP is protected by law, for example through patents, copyright or trademarks, which enable people to earn recognition or financial benefit from what they invent or create. Our books are protected as intellectual property.

Imprint

The name of the publishing unit under which a book is published. Each publishing house (See ‘Publishing house’) will be made up of several different imprints, often specialising in particular genres or interest areas.

For example, Yellow Jersey (an imprint under Vintage), focuses on brilliant sports writing, covering all sports from the perspective of player, professional observer and passionate fan.

At Penguin Random House we have over 50 imprints. Your literary agent will know the editors working for each imprint and which is likely to be the best fit for your book.  

Jacket

Another word for the book’s front cover. The key internal meeting where decisions are made about a book’s cover is decided is often called the Covers Meeting, which is attended by different colleagues across the publishing house (see ‘Covers Meeting’).

Find out more about the process behind creating a book cover here.

List

A quick way of saying the books a specific publisher or imprint has published, or is due to publish. For example, you might hear a publisher saying “we have an exciting non-fiction list this autumn”, or “we are about to launch a new sci-fi and fantasy list.”

Literary agent

the individual responsible for managing an author’s career, including helping them to develop their work and selling their book to publishers by negotiating the best deal. Agents also facilitate the relationship between an author and their editor. In return, agents take a percentage of an author’s advance and royalties. In this sense their role is very similar to other agent roles in the creative industries, such as those who manage talent in television, film or theatre.

A large majority of authors have literary agents, and getting a literary agent is usually the first step towards getting published. This is particularly important as most publishers don’t take unsolicited submissions (see ‘Unsolicited submission’) but receive the majority of manuscripts via an agent. Literary agents have wide networks across the industry and will know which editors are

Find out more about the role played by literary agents, and how to get one, here. 

Manuscript

 A draft or unpublished version of a book that is submitted to agents and/or editors for consideration.

Metadata

Data on every book (price, publication date, format) which is entered into our systems (and fed to online platforms, such as Amazon) to help optimise the chance of readers finding your book in online searches. This includes keywords – words that someone may type into search engines when looking for your book, such as ‘children’s bedtime stories’ or ‘healthy recipes’.

Pre-empt

A pre-empt is an early offer for a publishing deal from an editor that is often regarded as ‘too good to refuse’. If accepted by the author and agent, it will result in the book being taken off the table and no bids from any other publishing houses will be accepted.

Prelims

The first pages in the book before the text itself starts. These pages can include a list of other books by the author, title page, copyright page, and any dedications.

Proof

An early, usually uncorrected copy of a book which publishers use to get people excited about a book before it’s been published. Proofs can be very simple, with blank or simple covers, but closer to publication they may more closely resemble the final version of the book. They are often sent to journalists and bloggers to review, as well as to retailers to help persuade them to stock it.

Publication date

Often referred to as ‘pub date’, this is the date when a book can first be sold to the public. In reality often books will go on sale in a bookshop as soon as they arrive which can be a couple of days before pub date. Some highly-anticipated books, however, are under a strict embargo and therefore cannot be released until the publication date (Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, published in 2019, is a good example of this).

Publishing house

Penguin Random House, and many other publishers, are made up of smaller companies which operate independently called ‘houses’. We are made up of eight publishing houses, each of which is creatively and editorially independent and made up of its own team of publishing experts, including editors, designers, marketers and publicists. Each publishing house, in turn, is made up of several publishing imprints (see ‘Imprint’).

Find out more about each of our publishing houses here.

Returns

Books returned unsold from bookshops to publishers.

Rights

This means the right to do something with intellectual property, including publishing a book. As part of an acquisition the publisher buys the ‘rights’ to publish that book in a particular market.

You can learn more about the different types of rights which a publisher might look to buy here.

Royalties

The amount of money paid to an author by the publisher for each book sold. This will usually be a percentage of the sale price. Royalties are usually paid to the author every six months.

Serialisation

Selling extracts from a book to a newspaper or magazine. This is usually done to drum up excitement about a book’s content and encourage sales.

Slush pile

A stack of unsolicited manuscripts that have been sent to a literary agent for consideration and haven’t been read yet.

Synopsis

An overview of what the book is about and what makes it special. A synopsis will usually be sent to editors, publicists and sales teams when a publisher is thinking about acquiring a book. A synopsis should be a little longer than the cover blurb (up to a page) and should include main plot, a summary of themes and main characters, a hint of an ending – and no more.

Most literary agents will also ask for a synopsis when you first approach them. For fiction submissions, this is usually accompanied by a cover letter and the first three chapters of the book. Non-fiction submissions are slightly different (find out more here).

Everyone struggles with writing a synopsis, but do work hard at it – they are an excellent way to show an agent the shape and plot of your manuscript. Find out more about how to pitch your book to an agent here.

Terms

The percentage discount given to a bookseller from a book’s Recommended Retail Price (RRP).

Unsolicited submissions

Unsolicited submissions: the manuscripts a publisher receives directly from a writer without asking for them, and without an agent. Most publishers, including Penguin Random House, will not read unsolicited submissions. This is because, if unsolicited submissions were accepted, the volume would be so great it would be impossible to get through them all. Which is why the best way to get published is usually through a literary agent.

We'll be updating this jargon dictionary, let us know if you feel anything needs adding. 

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