The Publishing Life

Learn the Lingo

The opening scene of the Meredith Wilson musical The Music Man begins on a train, as a bunch of salesmen debate the best sales techniques. One salesman, however, insists repeatedly, “You gotta know the territory.”

That applies not only to selling “the noggins, and the piggins, and the firkins,” but also to writing for publication. So I asked a number of my writing friends and clients what writing or publishing terms and concepts they find confusing or opaque. I’ll answer a few this week and save the rest for next week.


One of my clients asked, “What’s a ‘backlist, and at what point after a book is released is it considered to be part of the backlist?” A “backlist” is all those books in a publisher’s catalog that are still in print but not “new releases.” A book is “backlist” when the “frontlist” releases (traditionally Spring and Fall, but now that print catalogs have given way, largely, to website listings, who knows anymore?). See how easy that was?

Subsidiary rights

When you sign a book contract (“Oh, happy day”), you’re granting a publisher the right to package and sell your words in printed book form. That’s the publication right you’re granting. But book contracts typically also include “subsidiary rights,” such as audio, foreign translations, merchandising, etc. The contract allows the publisher to license those rights to a third party or to create it themselves.


An epigraph is (usually) a short quote from a poem, book, etc., that appears at the beginning of a book or chapter to set up the content that follows. These are credited (“What’s in a name?”—William Shakespeare) but not usually cited in a footnote or endnote. However, if an epigraph is not in the public domain, it’s still advisable to get permission. 

Passive voice

Another client asked me to define passive writing and establish some boundaries. Sure, okay. Here’s the short version: “passive” is; “active” does. See how easy that was? “It was a dark and stormy night” is passive writing. “Thunder rolled and lightning split the sky” is active. It’s all in the verb choices. As far as boundaries, you don’t need to use only active verbs; the words is, was, and so on are in our language for a reason. But in my writing classes and coaching, I’ve found that most writers, once they identify their passive verbs in a first draft, can enliven their writing by replacing 50-75% with action verbs.

Out of print

Someone else asked, “Are there any specifics publishers use to determine when they will take a book out of print?” Yes, and that’s usually in the contract, specifying a threshold of so many copies sold (or dollars) in a year as the trigger point, so to speak. However, in these days of ebooks, a book may live on forever in electronic format without costing the publisher, so contract wording becomes more important.

What about you? Are there words or phrases you’ve read or heard (say, at writers conferences) that you wish someone had taken the time to define or explain? Here’s your chance. Mention them in the comments below, and I may include any that aren’t explained here by your fellow devoted blog readers in next week’s blog post.

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Don’t Know Much About Editors

A literary agent is not an editor–or a publicist. That may seem obvious to some, since the words are all spelled quite differently. But I occasionally get a submission from an aspiring writer who wants me to act as one or the other. I have been an editor (of both …

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Silly Saturday – February 29, 2020

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Never Burn a Bridge!

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Never Burn a Bridge!

Ours is a small industry and both editors and authors move around with regularity. If you are in a business relationship and let your frustration boil into anger and ignite into rage…and let that go at someone in the publishing company, you may end up burning the bridge. And that person who you vented on might someday become the head of an entire publishing company.

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Book Manufacturing

If you ever get the chance to visit a printing press, do it. I’ve had the privilege to visit two of them. The first was Standard Publishing’s printing press in Cincinnati. Their plant is quite large and they do a wide variety of printing, everything from books to curriculum to Star Wars coloring books.

The other plant was Bethany Press International in Bloomington, MN. During my years with Bethany House Publishers I visited this plant many times since their building is about 100 yards from the back door of the publishing house! I watched them move from the old “film” method of processing to a completely digital technology.

The beauty of watching the books being printed is partly the fascination of cool machines, but also an insight into all of the incredible details that go into the manufacturing process.

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