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.

19 Responses to Learn the Lingo

  1. Avatar
    Terri L Gillespie September 16, 2020 at 5:10 am #

    This is great! Looking forward to the next installment. Thank you!

  2. Avatar
    Deborah Raney September 16, 2020 at 6:00 am #

    Cross-collateralization was one that always stumped me early on. And since I wrote for nine years before I signed with my wonderful agent (thanks, Steve) I didn’t learn until later that it can be very beneficial to NOT have books in a multi-book contract “basketed” or cross-collateralized.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler September 16, 2020 at 11:38 am #

      Steve’s okay…I guess…

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube September 16, 2020 at 4:01 pm #

      Bob’s okay…in a pinch.

      But Deborah Raney is brilliant.

      (see what I did there?)

      • Avatar
        Deborah Raney September 17, 2020 at 8:49 am #

        Heh heh heh! YOU are brilliant, Steve Laube. Bob’s okay. 😉

  3. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser September 16, 2020 at 6:37 am #

    jargonn is something I’ve learned to be really careful with; when I was learning to fly, I wanted to use all the cool aviation-lingo, and id not realize until I was told that I came across as something of a Walter Mitty.

    Know the lingo and the jargon;
    like the Fonz, you’ll look real cool,
    but accept the wide world’s pardon
    when you find you’ve played the fool
    in using words you’ve not yet earned
    to wow them, and impress;
    this is a lesson we’ve all learned
    (and learned under duress)
    that language doth not make the man,
    a pro unto his soles;
    who’s wise is he who understands
    that he’s inching into roles
    that he will one day wear with grace
    in the expression on his face.

  4. Avatar
    Judith Robl September 16, 2020 at 11:53 am #

    Bob, I look forward to your posts. They are all so real – even if some of them have tongue in cheek. It’s like visiting over a cuppa whatever. Thank you.

  5. Avatar
    Carol R Nicolet Loewen September 17, 2020 at 9:31 pm #

    Thanks, Bob. I appreciate the definitions you’ve given. I like the idea of editing for passive voice and replacing passive verbs with action words.

  6. Avatar
    Megan Schaulis September 18, 2020 at 10:11 am #

    I’ve seen the phrase “genre fiction” a lot, and it clearly doesn’t mean a generic genre of fiction. It seems that “genre fiction” is a genre in itself? What is “genre fiction”?

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler September 18, 2020 at 10:26 am #

      It just means fiction that clearly belongs to a genre: mystery, romance, thriller, etc.

  7. Avatar
    Laurie Winslow Sargent September 18, 2020 at 11:17 am #

    Squirrel! I will now read the rest of your post after first getting the compulsion to find that video segment with clever dialogue. (YouTube: “Rock Island” The Music Man (opening scene)). Almost rapping, 1912 style!

    As for your actual points in this post, thanks for a reminder of contract definitions with some good tips mixed in. My husband smacks his head when he’s typing a report and his grammar checker flags “passive writing” without telling him how to fix it. I keep trying to explain it to him. Then I get passages flagged myself. It can be tricky to avoid. Oops. Maybe my last sentence was passive. Avoiding it can be tricky?

  8. Avatar
    Gordon Palmer September 21, 2020 at 5:21 pm #

    Late to the party and adding a third category of rules clarification. Do you capitalize or lower case pronouns for God and Jesus (He, His, You, Your)? I capitalized my examples to reverently be on the safe side. I see it both ways everywhere, including this site, which leads me to believe it’s a house-style and writer preference. I know, not an exact fit to your post, but always love to hear your sage wisdom. Was that enough to prod you?

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler September 21, 2020 at 5:29 pm #

      You’re right, it’s a style decision, and different “style books” do it differently. Editors understand this, so the main thing for a writer is to pick one approach and stick with it. Whatever you do, do it consistently.

  9. Bob Hostetler
    Bob Hostetler September 21, 2020 at 5:31 pm #

    On a related note, though, say you don’t capitalize pronouns referring to deity, and you’re consistent throughout your piece. When you quote a Bible version that DOES capitalize pronouns referring to deity, you should follow the quoted passage exactly. Same with any quote or excerpt. Be faithful to the source, even if the style departs from yours.

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