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Publishing from A to Z: Frequently asked questions about the industry

Before we can walk the walk, we need to learn how to talk the talk. Here’s our guide to all the jargon, misconceptions, and pitfalls aspiring authors need to know to navigate the modern publishing industry confidently.

Illustrated books, pencils, stacks of money, and other publishing symbols are scattered on a bright blue background.
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What are acknowledgments?

Who do you want to thank for helping your book come into existence? Your agent and editors, surely, but who else? Your partner? Your parents? Your writing group? Your Great-Aunt Hilda who said you’d never amount to anything? Write it all down in your acknowledgments page, which is turned in nearer to the end of the publishing process.


What’s an advance?

When people in publishing talk about the financial side of book contracts – a “six-figure book deal,” for example – it’s easy to think that this means a payment for the book itself: A publisher has agreed to pay six figures for the right to publish a book, we assume. But what this really means is that the publisher has agreed to pay a six-figure advance. It’s a payment made to the author, but it’s not usually paid all at once, and it certainly comes with strings attached. Put more bluntly, an advance is a bet: A publisher determines the advance sum based on how much it’s betting a manuscript will earn. So if a publisher offers a six-figure advance, it’s predicting it will sell a massive number of copies – and, understandably, it’ll put a lot of marketing muscle and money into ensuring that prediction comes true. But here’s the catch: That sum the publisher pays you up front is called an “advance” because it’s an advance on your royalties down the road. (See “Royalties” later in this glossary for more details on royalty payments.) You won’t earn a penny more until you “earn out” your advance, which means your income from book sales has exceeded that initial payment. Then, and only then, will you start receiving royalty checks. So if your publisher bets big with a giant advance and your book doesn’t sell well, it’s going to be a long, long time before you see any royalty money come in…if ever. (Luckily, you won’t need to pay back an advance if you’ve honored your contract and your book just doesn’t net enough sales to earn out. That’s on your publisher, not you.)


What does an agent do?

A literary agent represents the business interests of an author in the industry. This can include things like determining which editors and publishers would be the most likely candidates to buy your book, examining contracts for red flags, negotiating royalty rates, providing career advice, and even offering editorial suggestions to increase your manuscript’s salability. Authors pay agents a commission on their earnings in exchange for these services. The standard commission rate is currently about 15%, meaning your agent will earn $15 for every $100 that your work earns. Remember, an agent does not get paid until you do. If you come across an agent offering to sell your book in exchange for an upfront cash payment, don’t walk away, RUN away. 

Sidenote: Do I really need an agent? 

Not always. If you’re pursuing self-publishing, you’ll act as your own agent. Some small and medium presses as well as hybrid publishers don’t require agented manuscripts. But if you want that traditional publishing experience – published by a large house, able to walk into any Barnes & Noble in the country and see your book on the shelf – yes, you really, really need an agent.



What is an ARC (and what does it stand for)? 

This stands for advance reader’s copy – also called an advanced reader copy, advance review copy, etc. – and it’s exactly what it sounds like: The copies of a book a publisher passes out (usually for free!) before official publication. The goal is to get an author’s book into the hands of key readers – librarians, media outlets, book reviewers – so that buzz about a title can build before it hits bookstores (for more information, see “pre-orders”). 


What does “at auction” mean?

Ever read a book deal announcement that mentions the book was acquired “at auction?” That means it’s a big deal – literally and figuratively. It happens when more than one publisher is interested in acquiring a certain manuscript, and they are all willing to try to outbid each other to attain it. The manuscript then goes to the highest bid, which can include royalty rates, rights negotiations, etc., in addition to the advance sum. Because auctions are rarer in the industry, people tend to pay attention to the manuscripts that spark them – which, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, can lead to even more attention when it’s finally published. (“Oh, look, it’s that manuscript that sold at auction to Penguin Random House for seven figures!”)