Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Common Terms New Writers Should Know,
Part 2

By Lazette Gifford
Copyright © 2008 by Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved

(You can find the first half of this list here:

Learning everything about the world of publishing is the only way to make wise decisions about your future as a writer.  In recent months, though, I have learned that even the simplest terms can be misunderstood, or in some cases purposely misrepresented to new writers. Knowing the terms that are used, and what they mean, can help new writers make informed decisions on how they want to approach the idea of presenting their work to the public.

The list from this and the previous article are in no way exhaustive.  They are simple and I hope will help to clear up some of the confusion.

1. Publishing:

Publishing means, quite simply, putting the work before the public.  This can take many forms from the big name publishing houses printing the book to people self-publishing on websites.  It has nothing to do with whether or not the author is paid in any way.  Handing out copies of books on street corners is publishing. 

However, if you go to -- for instance -- and put together a book just for family and friends and give them as presents, you're not published.  As long as you don't have the book listed on Lulu in the open area, where anyone who comes along can get it, you are only making copies that are, in essence, no different than print the copies off on your printer and giving them away.

Not being paid for the work has no affect on whether something is published or not.  Neither does the formal registering of the copyright have anything to do with whether or not something is published.  The only thing that matters is whether or not the material was presented to the public in any form.

2. Query Letter

Some publishers and agents ask that you query first before you send the submission package.  This is simply a single page letter giving the absolute bare-bones idea of your novel.  It is a difficult piece to write, especially when you know that your chance to submit may depend entirely on those few paragraphs.  Some places also ask for the first five pages of the manuscript.  Some people suggest that you send those first five pages with every query. 

Like a cover letter, the query letter needs to be free of any mistakes.  This includes making certain that you have spelled the person's name right.  Double check everything, and especially such things as your own email address if it is included.

3. Submission Package:

This is the collection of material that you get together for the publisher, according to what the publisher has asked for.  This might include part or all of the novel, a synopsis, a dictionary for any constructed language, a marketing plan (which is being increasingly requested) and author information.  Unless the publisher specifically says so, never include art work.

4. Vanity Press

This is a company that has the author pay to be published.   Since the advent of and Café Press, there is no reason at all for a person to pay to have a book published, even if he or she doesn't want to go through the traditional publication routes.  Vanity presses prey on the author's wish to see their book in print, and often lie to them about either how good it is or about how impossible it is to be published anywhere else.

Never pay to have a book published unless you have a very specific reason to.

5. Self-Publishing

Any time that the author presents a book without going through a publisher, it is considered self-published.  Some traditionally-published professional authors will sometimes use this method in order to bring out some of the stories they have regained copyright to, or to add to a series that has otherwise fallen out of print.  These books will often do pretty well because the author already has a fan base to draw on.

New authors who self-publish are not considered professionals.  Too often, the books that are self-published (either through a POD service or on a website) are not well-written and are not edited at all.  This presents a big problem for those who are good writers, but who still want to pursue the self-publishing route.  Major bookstores will not take the books for their shelves, reviewers (who have been burnt too often on self-published work and the reaction to an honest review) will not accept them.  The author is reduced to selling the books on the Internet or in person, and must, in essence sell every book himself.

This choice can be fulfilling as long as the author knows what to expect and what not to expect, but it is not an easy choice for someone trying to create a true writing career.  However, it should be noted that nonfiction seems to do better in self-publishing, especially if the work has a narrow focus that would not make it a good book for a traditional publisher.

5. Serial Rights (and others)

Serial rights are usually sold to periodicals, and include the right for the magazine or newspaper to print a section of the longer piece.  Sometimes they have the right to print the entire novel in several pieces, usually before the novel is released in book format.

There are so many different 'rights' that have to be assigned when publishing a novel, short story or article these days, that it can be difficult to keep them straight.  Sometimes the wording changes from contract-to-contract, especially as new technology brings new possibilities.  First North American Serial Rights, for instance, includes several different parts -- the First sale, all North American sales, and serial right sales.  There are also (among others that might pop up) foreign rights, movie rights, audio rights, and even ebook rights -- which no one had considered important until a few years ago.

Getting a contract means checking all these rights and making certain what you are signing away.  This is where having an agent can be an essential part of making certain you get a fair deal.  If you do not have an agent, or you are working in the short story market -- which isn't lucrative enough for agents -- make certain that you understand the terms.  Search the Internet and go to writing sites and ask questions.  There is no reason to sign anything you don't understand. 

6. Piracy

In the publishing world, this term means making unauthorized copies of published materials -- in other words, ignoring the author's copyright and stealing his or her work.  These works turn up on various websites and boards where others can download them as well.

Piracy is not the same as plagiarism.  In plagiarism, a part of a larger story or article is quoted within someone else's work and not giving proper attribution -- in other words, claiming the words as something you wrote.  People often say there is a 10% rule -- change 10% of the wording -- to get past the plagiarism charge, but that is a fallacy.   The work has to be substantially different -- meaning you can learn information and use what you learn, but you must write it in your own words.

7. Public Domain

Most works enter into the public domain because they are older and their copyrights have expired.  This means they are free to be copied by anyone, and you will often find public domain books as a mainstay of publishers of classic material.  Any work published in the United States before 1923 is now in public domain.  Certain others may be as well, because the laws changed several times between 1923 and today, which allows some material to be in public domain and others not to be.

Books may also enter the public domain through the agreement of the author.

Material that appears on the Internet is not automatically placed in the Public Domain.  The work on the Internet -- everything from stories to poems, blog posts to articles, and pictures to digital art work (including website designs) are copyrighted to the person who created them.  As writers (whether published or not) we should be especially careful to respect the copyrights of others.