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Upskilling Dictionary: Literary Agencies

By Meghan Capper, Tanvi Jaiswal, Misha Manani and Georgia Stack

This is the first article in our dictionary series where we highlight the keywords for different publishing departments and positions. In this article, we’ll be looking at vocabulary related to literary agencies, who represent an author by sending their book to a publishing house and negotiating the terms of their contract. We hope that this article will help you to understand the terminology used in this sector and that it will build your commercial awareness. You can also use these terms in your interviews and applications, but don’t overdo them.

Acquisition: A publisher obtains the rights to publish a book from an author. The writer is offered a book deal from an editor (secured through their literary agent).

Advanced Reader Copy (ARC): A promotional copy of a book distributed for marketing purposes before publication. ARCs are usually unfinalised, paperback versions of the book, which may have minor copyediting errors and no cover art.

Agent: The person who represents an author’s work and interests, submits their manuscripts to editors for acquisition and negotiates contracts.

Auction: A literary agent arranges an auction when multiple publishing houses are interested in acquiring a manuscript for publication. The publishing houses bid against one another to secure home or territorial rights.

Commission: The pay an agent receives from the author’s royalties. Agents usually charge a commission for all domestic sales and their foreign sales.

Comparison Titles: This positions the manuscript that literary agents receive in the book market. The titles selected are based on genre, themes, characters and sometimes style and tone. The comparison titles are at least three books published in the last three years. This helps to pitch the manuscript to literary agents and editors.

Emotional Beat: This is a writing technique to look out for when reading a manuscript. It is when the action of the story creates an emotional reaction in its characters. It shows the reader what will motivate the character’s arc; this is key to progressing the plot.

Exclusive: An agent requests that they be the only one who is considering your work at any given time.

Full: This is a shorthand expression for a full manuscript request, namely when an agent wants to see the entire manuscript you have written, and possibly a synopsis as well. (This is different to a partial – see below.)

Hook: This could be a single-line description or a small paragraph in the author’s submission letter that grabs an agent’s attention and makes them want to read more.

Manuscripts Wish List (MSWL): A simple list consisting of the book genres that a literary agent wishes to acquire.

On Submission (On Sub): Agents have sent the manuscript to publishers for consideration. They send it to multiple editors who they believe will enjoy the manuscript and want to acquire it.

Partial: When agents request to read the first three or four chapters of the book. The book may have sparked some intrigue, and therefore the agent wants to read the beginning.

Pitch Letter: Written by an agent to the editor of a publishing house selling them the book for it to be commissioned by the editor.

Pre-empt: A publishing house makes an offer on a book to stop other publishers from acquiring it. When publishers are enthusiastic to secure a book on submission, they may propose a large amount of money or a multiple-book deal. If the pre-empt offer is accepted, the book cannot be auctioned.

Query: These are one-to two-page documents created by authors that are sent to literary agents to generate interest in the manuscript. These are submitted on the website or sent by email with the hopes of representation.

Query Tracker: An online database where writers can research agents, track their queries and share information about agents and their patterns of behaviour in responding to queries.

Revise and Resubmit (R&R): An agent may request a writer to revise their manuscript based on their feedback, which allows them to send back an altered manuscript. It does not guarantee an offer, but it shows that the manuscript has potential.

Simultaneous Submission: When authors send their manuscripts simultaneously to several agencies. Agencies recommend stating this in an author query.

Slush Pile: Commonly used to refer to the place where book queries and submissions sent by authors sit until they are read. They should be read in the order in which they arrived. This can take the form of a digital folder or a physical pile of submissions.

Subagent: An agent who sells subsidiary rights of a book on behalf of a primary agent. Subagents more commonly sell translation and TV/film rights.

Submission Guidelines: This is a set of standards adopted by each agent and/or agency determining what genres they represent.

Thank you for reading our last article of 2022. We hope you have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year. Join us again in Issue Sixty-Three, where we will kick off 2023 with Upskilling Tips for the Sales Department.


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