Friday, December 4, 2009

Publishing-Speak 101

As a new agent (Amy here), I’ve been attending a lot of conferences this year, and I’ve had the opportunity to present at many of them. I really enjoy presenting to writers, for obvious reasons. I know we have a lot in common, and as audiences go, they tend to go easy on me. (I’m sure this has nothing to do with the fact that most are looking for an agent or will be someday.)

One thing that can derail these presentations, however, is publishing-speak. There’s nothing worse than finding that my carefully planned talk was only semi-intelligible. So I thought it might be helpful to make a list of some oft-confused terms and their basic definitions (as far as editors and agents are concerned). Here goes…

Novel – This one should be easy, right? By common definition, a novel is a book-length work of fiction. I have heard certain nonfiction works referred to as “nonfiction novels” (i.e. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood), but this would most likely be referred to as “narrative nonfiction” (see “Narrative”) in our current publishing market. The primary take-away here: There is no need to classify a book as a “fictional novel.” If you say novel, we assume fiction.

Narrative (as in “Narrative Nonfiction”) – Does it tell a story? “Narrative” as a noun is a story or account of events, thus “narrative nonfiction” is a nonfiction book that tells a story. The most obvious example of this is memoir, but narrative nonfiction can be about events in history, science, or any number of topics. It just needs a strong story driving the book.

Prescriptive (as in “Prescriptive Nonfiction”) – This is “how-to” or “advice” nonfiction. Any book that gives information or directions to guide the reader can be described as prescriptive. You can also think of it as any nonfiction book that does not tell a story.

Upmarket – This is a term used to describe fiction that is meant for a commercial audience, but is a little smarter or more sophisticated in its use of language, character, or plot. It’s difficult to say what exactly is “upmarket” because often those boundaries are set subjectively. As Elizabeth Evans likes to say, it is the sweet spot between commercial fiction and literary fiction. Think Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. I’ve also heard a colleague offer Audrey Niffeneger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife as an example.

Synopsis – Typically, a synopsis pertains to a fiction submission. Nonfiction submissions should include proposals, not synopses (see “Proposal”). A synopsis is a 1-2 page(s) summary of the events of a story. That’s right, 1-2 pages, not 10. It is a general overview of the main conflict and how it is resolved, and it helps the reader see the arc of the characters and plot. It should reveal the ending or (if you insist on keeping the end a surprise) 95% of the story.

Proposal – Proposals are for narrative and prescriptive nonfiction submissions, and they function as the selling piece of a nonfiction book project. There are entire guides on how to draft a book proposal, and we can’t include all that information here. In brief, a proposal includes an overview of the book, information about the author and his or her platform (see “Platform”), an analysis of the market for the book and the book’s current competition, plans for publicity and promotion, and sample chapters of the book.

Platform – The platform is the marketing ability of the writer. It includes the education, training, and professional or personal experience that qualifies you to write your book. It also includes the ways you have built an audience or can connect to an audience through your writing (i.e. Do you have a blog? Are you part of a writers’ organization? Have you been published in relevant publications?). It is absolutely necessary for nonfiction writers to have a platform. It isn’t necessary for fiction writers to have one, but it helps. A platform helps convince an agent or editor that people will buy your book.

Exclusive – In publishing-speak, exclusive is a noun. As in, “I’d like to ask you for an ‘exclusive’ on your manuscript.” If an agent asks a writer for an exclusive, what they want is an exclusive look at the manuscript for a set period of time. An agent can ask for an exclusive for two weeks, a month, etc., and if the writer agrees to it, the writer cannot send the manuscript to any other agent that requests it during the agreed-upon time period. If you’ve already sent the full manuscript to one agent, you can’t give another agent an exclusive. If the agent with the exclusive passes, you can send it around again. The exclusive is a necessary tool for an agent because it guarantees that if we devote our time and editorial attention to a manuscript, it will still be available for representation. 

That's not a comprehensive list, but it's a start. I'll post again with some more terms soon. In the meantime, I hope that helps the publishing world feel a little less foreign!