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!


  1. I really enjoy reading your blogs. You have a lot of great insight!

    But I have some questions. As I've been reading blogs, I keep seeing the resounding theme that blogging and twittering and all of that tends to be extremely important to helping a writer develop a personality. What is your take on that? Do you recommend that a writer start a blog (or 2, or 3), get a facebook account, and twitter (tweet?), or do you have a variation of that advice to share? (I started with blogspot only because I read in a book that writers should blog. What are we supposed to even talk about?)

    Also, I keep noticing in query advice that the writer's "expertise" on the novel's subject should be included, or I guess, why the writer feels that s/he is capable of writing the novel. I'm working on a SF that involves a fair amount of science, but I majored in English. I have a passion for science, but I was never great in the subject. Will that hinder me as I try to shop this thing?

  2. Great list, here. Especially related to the platform definition. A web presence seems so crucial today to engage a potential audience. It helps to gauge reader interest while building a supportive community. Thanks for the lesson today!

  3. Thanks for the compliments! You both raise some great points about building a platform via social networking and the web. Rather than answer all of lexcade's questions here, I think it might be best for us to focus our next blog post on that topic. Keep checking back for another entry soon!

  4. Lex, odds are that someone great in science is probably terrible at writing fiction, so that's in your favor. Speaking about your passion for science will help; however, admitting that you were never good in science will hinder. Focus on the positive. I'm no professional in regards to SF, only a fan. It seems that most of the magic comes from the imagination of things not yet invented, and that's in your favor, too. You can always make up terms like "warp drive" and "flux capacitor" to carry the story, and the rest is plot, characters, and all the other strengths of English. Best of luck.

  5. Thank you Amy. I check this feed (website thread) often and I appreciate every post from each one of you, as they are very informative. Looking forward to submitting to your Agency soon.

  6. Amy, thanks. You answered questions I hadn't considered asking yet. Very clarifying.

  7. The definition for synopis should include the word nightmare in there somewhere. I know because I'm working on one now! Anyway, good luck in your endeavors in the New Year : )

  8. Many thanks for the insights. I must confess writing a synopsis of one page was more challenging than writing the entire novel:)

  9. Very helpful, Amy. Thanks for posting this!

  10. Quantifying to mechanics of publishing is as important as the craft itself. Perhaps the writer--ideally--understands the audience. We hope we do. However, if you do not fully understand those who will realize you product, you operate at a disadvantage.

    Thank you, Amy. I now know what the last editor with whom I worked meant when he said my manuscripts "bridges the gap between commercial and literary fiction." He meant it is intended for an upmarket audience. I like that.

  11. Thank you, Kimberly, for giving me the term "upmarket!" Just what I needed.

  12. Amy, this post was very helpful. I'm just beginning to write my proposal for my memoir and the part about platform really helped to clarify what I need to focus on.