Skip to main content

Book Publishing Terms Authors Need to Know and Understand

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.


Welcome to the wonderful world of book publishing! If you're a new author, you'll need to understand the landscape you're entering. Let's step into it.

Book Publishing Organizations

Traditional Publishing. Traditional publishing is a business model for publishing books that has been in existence for hundreds of years. A publisher (sometimes referred to as a "publishing house") contracts with authors who write books. The publisher then takes the author's work, edits it, prepares it for printing or electronic publishing, has it printed, and then markets it to distributors, retailers, and readers.

Independent or Indie Publishers. Independent or "indie" publishers are smaller traditional publishing companies that provide the same services as their larger cousins. However, unlike the "Big Five" traditional publishing houses, these smaller organizations may focus on particular niche markets, genres, or author types. They may also be more willing to consider lesser-known authors' work if it fits their target audience.

Hybrid Publishing. Hybrid publishing is the mutant species in the publishing world! It can be a mix of authors who shoulder some of the costs of their books with a publishing house, agents who have their own publishing businesses, and more. The arrangements and opportunities vary. The good news is that this can help some books and authors get into the market who might not have otherwise. The bad news is that authors need to be very careful when approaching these deals because of their custom nature and seek legal advice prior to signing.

Self Publishing. In a self-publishing business model, an author assumes all the functions and rewards of being a traditional publisher for his or her own books or writings—assuming all the risks, too, including financial, legal, and marketing. The author keeps all the sales, except where the author's self-publishing platform may retain a percentage to cover production and promotion costs. Ownership of copyrights stays with the author; however, be careful that these rights are protected when using any self-publishing service or platform.

Imprint. The name of the company or division that publishes a book. Large traditional publishing houses may own several "imprints" or divisions that specialize in certain types of books. Smaller independent publishers or self-published authors may also choose a name other than their own or that of their businesses to promote their book publishing work. Seek legal assistance on any issues relating to DBA ("Doing Business As") for imprint names.

Self Publishing Platform, Company, or Service. An organization that assists authors in self-publishing books and ebooks. The platform may offer formatting, editing, printing, and distribution services. Some of these services may be free, others at a fee. Typically, this company does not assume any ownership rights to the work, though authors are advised to carefully read all terms of service for information on fees and rights. Two of the most popular platforms are Amazon's Createspace and Kindle Direct Publishing.

Vanity Press. In the past, authors who had challenges getting into the traditional publishing loop may have resorted to these companies, not only to get their work in printed form but to feed their egos, too (thus the term "vanity press"). The cost was often exorbitant and offered little in terms of author support or protection of author rights. Today there is less of a stigma surrounding self-publishing. However, authors are strongly cautioned to scrutinize any self-publishing company, platform, or service—and agreements to be signed—to make sure it isn't merely a vanity press preying on an author's desire to get published.

Distribution or Distributor. These are the middlemen in the publishing channel. They act as a wholesaler and/or warehouse, working with publishers to get books into retail stores (online or offline). Working with distributors helps retailers avoid having to deal with, literally, thousands of individual traditional and independent publishing houses and self-published authors. A prominent book distributor is Ingram.

Retail or Retailer. This is the retail outlet (physical bookstore, e-commerce website, etc.) that actually sells books to end readers. Books published for distribution in retail outlets are often referred to as "trade books" and usually must meet certain physical standards to be eligible.

What's the Deal? Book Publishing Terms About Getting Paid

Agent or Literary Agent. This is an author's representative who serves as a salesperson for the author and the author's work. The agent may also offer additional administrative or marketing services for the author. In exchange for their services, authors pay agents a percentage of their book sales revenues and royalties and/or pay a retainer and fees for services rendered. Having an agent is not required to get a deal with a traditional or independent publishing house. However, hiring an agent could open some doors to larger or more prestigious publishing opportunities.

Acquisitions Editor. This is the person who evaluates potential book project investments for a traditional or independent publishing house. Their editing function is more of a go/no go decision on a book project, as opposed to editing the actual book itself. However, in some smaller publishing operations, this function may be undertaken by other job positions or departments OR the position may include more production and management functions.

Query. A letter (or email) sent to a publisher by an author or author's agent to begin soliciting the publisher's investment in the author's book. Essentially, it's a sales letter. It will typically include a brief overview of the book, the book's intended audience and author. It is usually not a full proposal. Prior to contacting, check the publisher's submission guidelines to see if a query or full book proposal is preferred, as well as the preferred method of contact (mail, email, etc.).

Book Proposal. If a publisher is interested in an author's book, they may ask for a complete book proposal from the author, which expands on the information provided in the query letter. Some publishers may ask for a complete proposal in lieu of a query letter. Always check and follow the publisher's submission guidelines.

Book Contract or Book Deal. The legally binding contract between a publisher and an author for publishing the author's book. Typically, the contract is initiated by the publisher. Authors are strongly encouraged to carefully review contract terms prior to signing, preferably with the help of an attorney.

Advance. This is a payment to an author for writing a book for a publisher. It is called an advance since it is an advance payment against future royalties. If a book does not meet sales projections, publishers may ask for a portion or all of the advance back. Be aware of the publisher's policies when signing any book contract.

Royalty (Traditional or Independent Publishing). A royalty operates very similarly to a commission. Depending on the book contract, authors may receive a certain percentage of book sales or a flat fee per book sold as a royalty payment. Unless other special arrangements are made in a book contract, royalty payments to authors begin after the amount of any advance has been covered. For example, say an author is given $5,000 as an advance. The royalties are calculated and cumulatively tracked by the publisher as sales are made. The author is paid no additional royalties beyond the advance until after the accumulated royalties hit $5,000. At that point, the percentage or flat fee royalty payments will begin to accumulate and eventually be paid.

Royalty (Self-Publishing Platforms). Self-published authors using a self-publishing platform or service, such as Amazon Createspace or Kindle Direct Publishing, may receive royalties (as opposed to the full sales price of each book sold) to cover any printing, promotion and distribution costs incurred in processing the author's book orders.

Scroll to Continue

Terms About Book Details

ISBN. Acronym for "International Standard Book Number." This is a number assigned to a published book or other work that helps distributors, retailers, and even readers locate a particular title in the massive Books in Print book cataloging database. The numbers can be tied to the publishing house, self-publishing platform used, or author of the work. In the United States, the official registrar for ISBN numbers is R.R. Bowker.

Binding. Refers to the physical way a book is constructed. This is often noted in database and retail listings. Options include hardcover "case" binding ("trade hardcover"), perfect bound softcover ("trade paperback"), spiral-bound, and saddle-stitched. For a review of these binding types, read the post Types of Book Binding. This, of course, does not apply to ebooks.

Copyright. Copyrights are ownership and use rights to written, visual, audio, software, or other intellectual property works in a "fixed form." The copyright owner can sell, grant, or assign these rights to others. Though registering a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office is optional, it is usually recommended to protect an author's rights in the face of a legal challenge. There is a myriad of rights arrangements that can be done between publishers (or self-publishing platforms) and authors, discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article. Authors are well-advised to seek legal assistance when signing contracts with publishers and self-publishing platforms. Know and protect your rights!

Backlist. A list of all available titles that have been published by a publishing house or author and have been on the market for a significant amount of time.

Frontlist. A list of available titles that are newly published by a publishing house or author.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2016 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 26, 2017:

Oscarlites, copyright issues are always big questions! I definitely recommend that authors get a good media and intellectual property attorney to advise them on all these issues, especially when signing contracts. Thanks for chiming in!

Oscar Jones from Monroeville, Alabama on May 26, 2017:

that was a good question about copyright. I'd like to hear other opinions on it.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 25, 2017:

Thanks for the kind words and sharing, billybuc! I'm sure you aced the mini-quiz from today's email. :) Happy Thursday!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 25, 2017:

Such a helpful mini-encyclopedia of terms for the publishing business...sharing this so other writers can learn. Thanks, Heidi, and Happy Thursday to you!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 22, 2016:

Amit, you need to discuss your concerns with an attorney prior to submitting anything to a traditional publisher. I cannot legally advise you how to proceed. Good luck with your manuscript!

amit bharti on June 22, 2016:

what are the legal formalities in traditional publishing of book regarding copyright? should i take copyright before sending manuscripts to any publisher house or they will work on it? please suggest me as soon as possible.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 04, 2016:

Luddite? Please! Lawrence, you definitely are making strides forward with your publishing adventures. So give yourself some credit!

You're right, Createspace and KDP are a free as they come. But back when I originally wrote the hub, Createspace was charging $25 for expanded distribution. Now it's free. But there are fees for custom ISBN, printed copies, etc. So I left the title as is. Thanks for calling that out.

Glad I was able to clear up some of the confusion that surrounds some of these terms. I was confused at the beginning, too!

Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comments. Have a beautiful weekend

Lawrence Hebb on June 03, 2016:


Great information here and some of the terms 'cleared up' for me so thank you.

One thing you said in the hub was that CreateSpace and KDP were 'almost totally free' They are actually totally free of cost (though you can pay for professional help if you need to) and their customer service/helpdesk is great as I've been giving them a thorough workout and while I had to wait a few hours for the reply the information has been 'spot on' and I would recommend them to anyone wanting to try their hand.

If a luddite like me can work through this process then anyone can!



Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 20, 2016:

They sure are, AliciaC! Writing is just the first step in the writer's journey. You need to know the landscape. Thank you for your kind comments, as always! Have a beautiful weekend ahead!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 18, 2016:

This is an excellent reference source for writers, Heidi. Every writer should know the meanings of the terms that you've defined. They are all important!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 17, 2016:

Hello Venkatachari! Glad you found it helpful. Thanks for stopping by and have a wonderful day!

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on May 17, 2016:

Very very useful information provided here. Thanks for the information and guidances.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 16, 2016:

You get a gold star, billybuc! :) (That's all I got. Sorry.)

Great weekend with beautiful, but cool, weather here in CHI. Yep, hoping it helps the wannabes. Thanks, as always, for your kind words to start off the week. Cheers!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 15, 2016:

I got 100% teacher. Do I graduate now????? LOL

I hope you had a great Sunday, and I hope this is read by many writer-wannabes.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 15, 2016:

Thanks, FlourishAnyway, for the vote of confidence! I know I had a lot of questions about these things. So I'm glad to share what I've learned. Have a beautiful week ahead!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 15, 2016:

Hello Oscarlites! Thank you for your kind comments and glad you found this useful. You're right, it's difficult for writers to know how they fit into the larger scheme of things since often they're so concentrated on and committed to the writing process, not necessarily the publishing process. Have a great week ahead!

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 15, 2016:

This is a great description of terms we all need to know. Your expertise is shining through with this knowledgeable hub!

Oscar Jones from Monroeville, Alabama on May 15, 2016:

Heidi, this is an excellent overview of the publishing event. I have self destructed many times trying to see the picture, not even the big picture. Its just hard to know what your role is as the writer, presentation, and strategy on marketing your writing skills. If you already have the manuscript, then what is the next step. For most of us, this is the roadblock to success.. you have given some resources and strategy options, thank you!

Related Articles