Language barriers: navigating the world of publishing jargon

Jenny Knight

In the BookMachine Editorial Board, we’ve been discussing the barriers that prevent people getting into the publishing industry. One of the factors that keep outsiders outside is our love of specialist terminology – if you’re not already connected to someone ‘in the biz’, it can feel daunting getting to grips with all the procedures, stages and random bits of jargon many of us use every day. We’ll be looking at this issue from a staff point of view in future, but we’re delighted to have author Jenny Knight’s take on the subject here.

It feels so good to type those magical words – The End. You did it. You actually turned that tiny seed into breathing reality. All you need now is to make it do what an author’s work does – become a book read by people other than the author. And that’s when you realise. It isn’t quite the end at all. If anything, it’s just another beginning.

Should you try for an agent, or approach editors and publishers direct? Go Trad or Indie? Pitch, Proposal or Treatment? What about Crowdfunding? Hybrid? Self-publishing? How best to find people who might help you? Where to start – what do the words even mean?

The publishing world can seem a confusing one to navigate, as full of jargon as any self-respecting medical or military establishment. It can feel as if it relies on an assumed knowledge ‘civilians’ just don’t have.

I’d gleaned some basic understanding from books and a lot of dispiriting online trawling. What genre actually meant in terms of markets. What agents looked for – if I could steer through the slush piles and submitting – the advice agreeing the first step was to get your work as good as it could be.

‘Is a copy-editor the same thing as an editor?’ asked a writer friend. But I wasn’t even sure what a ‘line-edit’ was. Like when people talked of the ‘Big Five’, it felt like laughing at a joke you didn’t understand. And if I did get an agent, what exactly were Trade Publishing, Acquisitions, Options, Rights?

It wasn’t just writing, either. I harboured fantasies of editing other writers’ work; being paid for something I loved giving friends for free. I liked the idea of working with books in any capacity. But how, when you don’t really know who does what?

It wouldn’t be until over a decade later, on a free ‘industry’ day as part of the Common People development scheme, I got to understand what agents do, editors (who can be junior, senior, commissioning, acquiring and copy), how they all work as a team; the whole process a neatly stacked chain of dominoes stretching from agent to shelf with around 25 people involved. An invaluable insight – especially when it came to seeking representation – that I wish I’d had access to before.

It struck me perhaps what publishing needs to make itself more accessible is simply more of this kind of ‘friendly’ explanation. So many sites and books out there – but so few actual people. Too easy to fall into ideas of agents, editors, publishing houses, as terrifying; for the whole deal of getting deals to seem so daunting as to deter.

Information packs for new authors, more affordable ‘industry’ days, events at regional writers’ centres, even a centralised ‘information portal’ would help give the lie to that. Roles become relatable people. Words lose their clout to confuse.

I’m pretty sure this will come in time. The one thing I did not expect to find was so much generosity: all that freely given time, support, advice, the sheer passion for getting a good story out there. That’s been the biggest – and best – surprise of all.

And all that jargon? I’m getting better at it now. It’s just another part of learning what it is to work in the wonderful world of books.

Jenny Knight is a writer based in South Norfolk. She featured in Kit de Waal’s Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers (May 2019) and is working with an agent to submit her memoir on loss, love and life this autumn.

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