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Thursday 22 January 2009


Your lesson for today, children, is vocabulary. There are certain words and phrases which you will come across in your journey and of which you may not ask the meaning without looking foolish and unpublishable. Some of them you may already have met in rejection letters.

Many of them may seem as though you won't need to know them until you have a contract, but a) I believe that the more knowledge you can have of all stages, the better chance you have of that contract and b) many of you have already been published once or even more often, and have discovered the inconvenient truth that being published does not mean that publishers will tripping over themselves to sign you up for the wonder that is your second /third etc book.

My teachings come in no particular order, as usual. You must by now be beginning to know the haphazard "creativity" of which my brain is capable. Some might say I should make such lists alphabetical but alphabeticalisation is the domain of librarians, who are incredibly good at it.

  1. List - as in "your book is not right for ours". A publisher's list consists of several lists. There is the entire list of its publications and there are lists within lists, such as the literary fiction list or the mind/body/spirit (MBS - there's another "word") list. One day, a publisher might have a literary MBS list, but this is hard to imagine - though I guess the Bible might be a contender. Anyway, the point is that the editors for that list know what they want on it. And, sadly, that is not your book. (Remind me to do an article on "What rejection letters are really telling you" - in fact, I'll put it on the list right now.) Thing is, suppose you had a shopping list - would you include an item "do tax return"? See? On the other hand, the item "anchovies" is a perfectly valid thing to put on a shopping-list and for you to say it's not right for your shopping list would be simply to say you don't like anchovies. Similarly, to say that your book is not right for the list can sometimes be a way for the editor to express not liking it.
  2. MSS - were you listening in the early lesson on "Inexcusable Ignorance"? MSS is in fact a misnomer, because your manuscript is not really a manuscript - ie hand-written while lying on a sofa eating peanuts and drinking nicely-matured grape juice - but a typescript - ie beautifully and clearly typed. (Please don't tell me yours really is a manuscript because if it is you'd better get it transmogrified asap). Pedants among you will want me to point out that also MSS strictly stands for manuscriptS, and that MS is a singular manuscript. But although agents and editors like careful authors, they don't like pedants, so please get with the lingo even if it's wrong.
  3. Agent - a person who quite rightly takes a % (10-15 and more like 20 for foreign/TV/film rights) of what they earn for you. (See the article on To Be Agented or Not ...). If you grudge this, don't have one. Trust me, they are not coming looking for you - it's up to you to show (show not tell) them that you are going to be so very successful that they will want their % even though it will be a long time till they get it.
  4. Acquisitions meeting - (forthcoming article alert) the crucial meeting held by your publishers, at which the editor who likes your book has to persuade everyone else to like it equally, and that it is perfect for their list (qv). In the US, I have heard it called a Decide meeting by by US publishers, but a comment (No 10 - thank you, Marissa) from one of you helpful expert readers suggests that this might not be widely-used. Mind you, the US is quite a big place, she says, with gentle understatement. And "Decide meeting" would be a very sensible term. Go for it, US, I say!
  5. Advance - an amount of money which is always much less than the papers will say. If the papers even mention it it means it was a lot, but still they are exaggerating. You don't get it all at once either. A common system is to get 1/3 on signature of contract, 1/3 on final delivery of MSS (pay attention at the back), and 1/3 on publication day. Or half on signature and half on publication, or some other system agreeable to you and your agent, though not as agreeable as getting twice as much twice as soon.
  6. Royalties - elusive things which only come when your book has "earned out" its advance. Most/many books never actually earn any. You have a royalty percentage (say 10%, but this varies hugely and for very good reasons depending on whether hardback, paperback, ebook, audio, serialisation etc etc and nothing to do with how amazingly brilliant you are) and essentially you get that % on each book sale (usually based on the publisher's receipts and not the cover price, which is where high/low discount (qv) comes in). I know, you've switched off but don't worry: only sad people understand their royalty statement.
  7. Returns - ugh. Bookshops buy your books "sale or return" and when they are returned they appear unpleasantly on your royalty statement and their previous earnings are deducted. And the books don't get sold again because too many customers had jam on their fingers when they picked up your baby - sorry, book - and fingered it before not buying it. (Please can we not talk about returns any more?)
  8. Publication day - OK, you you know what it means but do you know what it really MEANS? Often, it means two years from now. So I hope you've got some writing to do in the mean time. Or a paper round or something, because you're going to need it.
  9. Sales and marketing departments - two parts of a publishing company that sometimes might as well have offices on different planets, and on different planets from the editorial dept. And absolutely in a different universe from the author. (Note to my publishers - this is hearsay: of COURSE I don't mean you - you all communicate stupendously well.)
  10. AI - not A1, which is a very dangerous road between Scotland and more southerly parts of the UK, but AI (pronounced AY - as in May - EYE) - stands for Advance Information. This is a document which in the ideal world would tell that world accurate details about your book, and you, and why everyone should buy said book. Of course, this is not an ideal world, and as I mentioned in a previous article, the AI may be written by a 12-year-old who lurks virtually unpaid in a cupboard somewhere and who bases her description of your book, understandbly from her p.o.v., on your description of your book before you wrote it. Therefore, one of the first things you should do once you've signed your contract, is enlist your editor to ensure that what ends up on Amazon is something you can be proud of and that has a close resemblance to the truth. Otherwise you will have a hell of a lot of explaining to do when you are asked to talk to the Bognor Regis Women's Institute and they discover that the book they thought was an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery of a whimsical and traditional nature is in fact a post-surreal pastiche of American Psycho with shades of In Cold Blood.
  11. Hook - every book needs one. The sales and marketing departments need a quick phrase that sells your book, tells the potential buyers what it is in a pithy way that makes it different from anything else in the world and yet exactly like a book they'd love to read. I once went to speak at the publisher's sales conference before the publication of my historical adventure, The Highwayman's Footsteps - (that's called a plug by the way, which is a very important word and should always be preceded by shameless and yet performed with a pleasant smile so people don't hate you too much) - I had to speak for 10 minutes to the sales team, to enthuse them without teaching them their job; so, I wanted to make them want to sell the book and also give them something that would make it easy. They won't remember anything else I said that day except for my hook: "Robert Louis Stevenson on caffeine." My agent tells that story as an example of a hook that works. So, get yourself a hook for your book. (If you want to know a secret: actually, caffeine wasn't the word I used. But I write children's books so let's keep this appropriate, please.)
  12. Prelims - the pages at the front of your book before your actual words start. So, the title page, any foreword and acknowledgements, list of your previous books, little biog. Not a dramatic word but at least now you can respond sensibly when your editor asks you if you've got anything you'd like to add to them. (Your name is the most important bit, by the way.)
  13. Trade publishing - publishing of books that you can reasonably expect to find in a good bookshop. As opposed to eg educational or academic books, which will be sold in different ways and not usually through high-street bookshops.
  14. Trade paperback - I confess I've always been a bit mystified / bored by this distinction because it really only refers to the size/format of the book, which is a pretty boring thing to get too involved in. Essentially, your book will either be published as a hardback and later "go into" paperback (once the publisher thinks it's squeezed enough higher-profit sales out of it); or it will be published as a "paperback original" and not be in hardback. Sometimes the publisher will publish as a hardback while simultaneously (or almost) bringing out a "trade paperback" which is always for some odd reason fatter and bigger than the pb (paperback) original would have been. Absolutely fascinating, I am sure you agree.
  15. High discount - publishers sell books to retailers at high or low/normal discount. A powerful volume retailer like Amazon, or a big high-street chain, can command a higher discount, especially if they are going to put your book in a price promotion. And it matters, because you get less dosh out of it. But it also doesn't matter, because a) you can't do a damned thing about it and b) you're just ecstatic that anyone is buying your book at all.
  16. Editing / copy-editing / proof-reading - these probably need an article to themselves, but briefly: your editor is the one who helps you mould your book in major ways. He/she will suggest that a character isn't developed well enough, or your pace is not varied enough, or this bit doesn't work, or that bit was too short / long / shocking / boring. This then becomes a dialogue that you hope doesn't become an argument. Who has the last word? Hmmm. I play a tactical game with mine - I give way on things I don't care about so much, or which she might even (it happens, Chris) be right about; and I reserve the full power of my persuasion for the rest. I reckon I have the last word; she probably reckons she does. Which is a happy conclusion. Then she passes it on to the copy-editor, who picks up small things - not as small as punctuation but things like sentences that she / he doesn't understand, places where I've forgotten I said it hadn't rained for weeks and then have sunlight sparkling on the wet road (not that I would, as that would be a cliché) or I said someone was riding without a saddle but then I mention stirrups. Copy-editing can be a very painful process if you get a lousy copy-editor who thinks she/he knows best or a great process if the c-ed picks up really embarrassing things which an annoying reader might harangue you about in the distant future. Then, when all of those glitches are sorted, comes proof-reading, and you know what that is. It's skilled and picky and you REALLY want a good proof-reader because by that stage you've read your damned MSS so many times that you're starting to sleeptalk it and worms crawl across the page every time you look at it. Also by this time you hate your book and think it's rubbish and you go into a decline to which the only solution is chocolate. Luckily, chocolate solves everything.
Which seems like a good time to go and have some because I see that it's six minutes past midday, which is one of the many perfect times for chocolate. Also, I feel that on the one hand this article is too long and on the other I expect I've forgotten loads of useful words. If you have any others you'd like me to mention, please tell me - and if you are worried about seeming foolish in public you can email me through my website - (spot the second shameless plug of this article) - and I promise not to name and shame you or even make you feel slightly embarrassed.

Trust me: I'm a novelist. No, seriously, do.

Need chocolate badly.