Publishing Terms Explained

When it comes to self-publishing a book, you’ll no doubt come across lots of unfamiliar terms and phrases. This can be really confusing to the new author-to-be, so this article is my A to Z guide in which I explain the most common words and terms you might hear on your self-publishing journey, along with a few other terms that are used in the traditional (trad) publishing sector too.

As a starting point, here’s a brief reminder of what’s meant by ‘self-publishing’ and ‘traditional (trad) publishing’ (see also this article for more detail on the differences between them).


This is the type of publishing where you, the author, are responsible for all aspects of getting your book printed and selling it once it has been. Of course, you may choose to hire appropriate professionals to help you in that process (e.g. copy-editor, proofreader, typesetter, cover designer and printer, to name a few), either directly or through a publishing company that offers those services to self-published authors, and you’ll need to pay for their services up front. You’ll then receive 100% of the revenue from selling your book (minus any commission taken from third-party sites such as Amazon KDP [Kindle Direct Publishing] or other book distributors, if you get them involved).

Traditional (trad) publishing

This is the type of publishing where a traditional publishing house, such as Penguin Random House or Bloomsbury, will pay you to publish your book, giving you an advance prior to it being published and then giving you a percentage of the cover price for each book sold. They’re responsible for selling and distribution.

Self-publishing terms


This a recording of a book being read aloud; it can be played via an audiobook app on a smartphone, tablet or computer.

B-format (see also format)

This is one of the most common sizes of fiction books, which is 198mm by 128mm.


This is the short quote or paragraph of text on the back of a book that gives the reader a flavour of what the book is about, plus any other information or quotes from other authors / the press printed on the cover. Hence, it’s also referred to as ‘cover copy’. Blurbs can be used to pitch a book as well.

Binding (see also perfect bind, saddle stitch and spiral)

This is how your book will be put together when printed. You have several options, and the common ones include perfect bind, saddle stitch and spiral. Depending on your choice, this will affect how you create your cover. The type of book casing will also affect what special finishes you can have. For more information on the book-editing side of publishing, listen to series five, episode four of The Pen to Published Podcast, which is available on all podcast platforms.

Bowker (see also ISBN and Nielsen)

This is the company from which you can purchase ISBNs for books that are to be published in the US.

CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and key) (see also RGB)

This is the colour profile/spectrum that’s generally used by printers. In this context, ‘key’ means black. Each colour produced using CMYK comprises a mixture of these colours, with each being represented by percentage values of C,M, Y and K. So, if you wanted true magenta, the colour value would be C0%, M100%, Y0% and K0%.

Contract (see also terms of service)

Once you’ve agreed upon the quote for the work to be done for the book, you should then be given a contract or terms of service. This is where everything discussed will be listed, including the price and what has been agreed between the author, the editor and the typesetter/publisher. This will be signed by both parties. It includes information such as the amount to be paid before work begins and how many rounds of changes you’ll be allowed once the book has been edited and/or laid out (or at least how many are included in the quoted price). It may also outline the publishing terms, such as if you’re using Compass-Publishing UK as your publisher.

Copy-editing (see also proofreading)

This is the final editorial stage before the book is typeset (see also typesetter). It’s the copy-editor’s job to ensure that the text, plus any illustrative material, is expressed clearly and accurately. The copy-editor will also check grammar and spelling, and will double-check facts such as dates and spellings of names. In fiction, a copy-editor will look out for continuity and plot errors.

I talk about editing and what that means in The Pen to Published Podcast, series two. Listen to it here

Copyright is automatically given to the author, and this is usually indicated with the © symbol. You don’t need to apply for copyright in the UK (although some other countries, such as the US, might require this). (See also this article for common ISBN myths and this article for Understanding references, quotes and copyright permissions)


This is one of the most important parts of the book. This will be discussed with you at the beginning of the publishing project, as it will be part of your terms of service. Various parts of the cover will need to be discussed, such as the title, subtitle, any images and the blurb.

The front cover can be created whilst the book is being edited, so the author can use this for presales. However, the full cover isn’t usually created until there’s a final page count (in order to get the right spine size from the printer or print-on-demand [POD] company).

I’d recommend that you hire a professional designer to design the front cover of your book.

dpi (dots per inch)

This is a formatting term used by illustrators and cover designers. It’s a measure of how many dots are needed per inch for pictures used in print. Most printers require images to be set as a minimum of 300dpi. If images don’t meet this minimum spec, then they might be rejected by the printer, or if not, the images will come out fuzzy.

DOCX (see also ePub)

This is a file format produced by Microsoft Word. This can be used to generate a Kindle version of the book; however, it’s highly unstable as an e-book format, and I’d suggest you get the book converted to ePub format instead.


This is a book in electronic form that can be read on either a physical e-reader device, such as a Kindle, or on an e-reader app on a smartphone, tablet or computer. The most common types of file for this book form are ePub and PDF.


These are folded sheets of paper, found at both the front and back of the book, where one side is stuck to the inside of the cover, and the other is stuck to the first/last page of the book, helping to secure the binding.

ePub (see also DOCX)

This is a file format that’s used for e-books, and both Amazon and Ingram require e-books to be converted into this format. You can use the DOCX format, but for better results, ePub is always recommended.

Form (see also format)

This relates to how the book is delivered to the reader, either as a print book, an e-book or an audiobook.

Format (see also form)

The relates to the size of a book. It includes sizes such as B-format (198mm by 129mm), A5 (148mm by 210mm) and Demy (445mm by 572mm). You can discuss the size of the book with your typesetter, depending on its genre. This can also include if it’s a hardback or softback/paperback.

Front matter (or prelims)(see also title and title verso)

This comprises the first pages in the book before the main text starts. These pages may include a list of other books by the author, the title page, the copyright page and any dedications.


This is the major book distribution company in the UK.


This is the category that the book falls into. Broadly speaking, all books fall into one of three overarching genres – fiction, non-fiction or children’s books – but there are also sub-genres within these. Here are some examples:

  • Fiction: This includes action and adventure, crime and thriller, fantasy, historical fiction, literary fiction, poetry, romance, and sci-fi, amongst others.
  • Non-fiction: This covers areas such as business, food and drink, health and lifestyle, history, memoir, science, and sports.
  • Children’s: This includes picture books as well as fiction and non-fiction for children of different ages, such as middle-grade (generally, 8–12) or young adult (13+).

Greyscale (see also CMYK, RGB and Hex)

This is another term used by illustrators and cover designers, and it’s used to describe an image that’s in black, white and all shades of grey in between.

Printers tend to use one of two colour profiles: greyscale if the book is monochrome (mono) or CMYK if the book is to be printed in colour. There are two other colour profiles – RGB (red, green and blue) and hex – but if you want the best colour result, then the images will need to be in the CMYK colour profile.

Hex (see also CMYK, RGB and greyscale)

Hex or hexadecimal colour codes are used in computing to indicate which colour is required in something reproduced on a computer screen (e.g. a website).

Intellectual property (see also copyright)

The definition found on the European Intellectual Property Helpdesk’s website is this: ‘creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce.’ Intellectual property is protected by law; for example, through patents, copyright or trademarks, which enable people to earn recognition or financial benefit from what they invent or create.

Intellectual property is usually the most confusing part of the copyright process. When you write a book and get it printed, you’re automatically given copyright. (See also this article, which covers several ISBN myths, as people often confuse having an ISBN as a way of copyrighting their work.)

Your words are your intellectual property – and will remain as such. However, any other design that goes into the book, such as the cover design or the book layout, is the intellectual property of the designer who created that element.

ISBN (international standard book number)

This is the unique identifying number for a particular book. Each version of the book (e.g. paperback, hardback and/or e-book) will have a different ISBN. You can obtain one from Compass-Publishing UK (which will then officially become your publisher) or you can buy one from Nielsen (which will mean you’ll officially become the publisher). (See also this article for common ISBN myths.)

ISBN box (see also ISBN)

This is the area/box on the back of the book that contains your ISBN in barcode format; this box can also contain other information, such as publishing details and price.


This is another word for the book’s front cover. Dust jackets are the removable version.

Layout – see typesetting


A device or app that allows you to read an electronic version of a book, exclusively sold on Amazon. These Kindle e-books can be created using a DOCX or ePub format (see also DOCX and ePub). It is highly recommended that you use ePub as DOCX often doesn’t look the best.


This is the draft or unpublished version of a book.

Nielsen (see also ISBN and Bowker)

This is the company from which you can purchase ISBNs for books that are to be published in the UK.

Perfect bind (see also binding, saddle stitch and spiral)

This is the most common type of binding. There are many types of perfect bind, but only two ways it is done: gluing or stitching. A glued perfect bind is the most common, and stitching tends to be more expensive and used only if the book needs to lie flat when the pages are opened. Where a book has too few pages for a perfect bind, saddle stitch is used instead.

POD (print on demand)

This is where books are printed as they are ordered; it is very common for online book printers, such as Amazon KDP. 

Proof copy

This is a fully printed version of the book that has been edited and typeset. It gives the author a chance to see their book properly printed. Changes can still be made at this stage, but it’s recommended these are kept to a minimum.


This is usually done after the copy-edit, and it’s where the book is checked for small errors (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.) that were missed in the copy-edit. This is an important part of the process, and Compass-Publishing UK usually offers two rounds of proofreading.

For more information on the book-editing side of publishing, listen to series two of The Pen to Published Podcast, which is available on all podcast platforms.

Publication date

This is the date when a book will come back from the printer and can then be registered with Nielsen.

As an author, you’ll have the opportunity to sell the book before this date, by collecting the buyers’ details. Once the book has been delivered by the printer, whoever issued the ISBN should then register the book. If you, the author, obtained the ISBN directly from Nielsen, then you’ll be responsible for registering the book. You’ll have been given instructions when you bought your ISBN.


The publisher of a book is whoever owns the ISBN for it (see also this article, ‘Publishing your book: What, how and everything in between’, for further details).


This is Nielsen’s online platform, which you’ll need to log in to so that you can register your ISBN once the book has been printed (see also this article, ‘Publishing your book: What, how and everything in between’, which covers this platform).


So much to say on this it has it’s own section here.

RGB (red, green and blue) (see also CMYK)

This term refers to a colour spectrum; it’s usually used for televisions, computer monitors and websites. All colours required are created using this colour spectrum.

Saddle stitch (see also binding, perfect bind and spiral)

This is a type of binding where the pages of the book are stitched or stapled together at the fold. It is used where there are too few pages in the book for perfect bind to be possible (e.g. in a children’s picture book or colouring book). It allows the book to lie flat when opened.

Spiral (see also binding, perfect bind and saddle stitch)

This is where a book is bound using a metal or plastic spiral that is threaded through a row of holes along one edge of the book (usually the left-hand side).


This is an overview of what the book is about and what makes it special. A synopsis should be a little longer than the cover blurb (up to a page) and should include the main plot, a summary of the themes and main characters, a hint of an ending – and no more.

Most literary agents will also ask for a synopsis when you first approach them. For fiction submissions, this is usually accompanied by a cover letter and the first three chapters of the book. Non-fiction submissions are slightly different.

Everyone struggles with writing a synopsis, but do work hard at it – they’re an excellent way to show an agent the shape and plot of your manuscript.

Terms of service (see also contract)

Terms of service are usually agreed upon before any work begins on the book. This is usually a breakdown of everything that you’ve agreed to, with clear pricing.

If you’re working with Compass-Publishing UK, then the terms of service will be sent to you before any work begins. A deposit of 50% of any fee is usually required before work begins.

Title page (see also front matter and title verso page)

This is the first page that appears in a book, and it usually repeats the book’s title. You can have pages that appear before this that include testimonials.

Title verso page (see also front matter and title page)

This is the reverse of the title page, and it includes all of the copyright info and other information required. For example, the ISBN, the date it was printed, and who edited the book or typeset it. It also includes the copyright disclaimer and any other information that’s required.


This is the process of laying out the book. I’d highly recommend you don’t do this yourself! Instead, engage a professional typesetter to do this for you.

Traditional (trad) publishing terms


This is when a publisher buys the rights to publish a book from its author. From an author’s perspective, this is when you’re offered a book deal from an editor (usually via your literary agent). This is often for one book, but it can sometimes include several books or even a series.

The decision whether an editor ‘acquires’ a book takes place in the acquisitions meeting, which occurs weekly. This is where an editor brings in colleagues from across the publishing house – including sales, marketing, publicity, production and finance – to decide whether they want to publish a book. This takes into account lots of different factors, such as where the book will sit in the market, which type of reader it’s targeted towards, if there are other similar titles, and if so, how they’ve been received.


This is a sum of money paid to an author upfront when they sign a contract with a publisher. An author’s advance is usually paid in four instalments: after signing the contract, after finishing the manuscript, after publishing in hardback and, finally, after publishing in paperback.

Commissioning editor

This is a person at a publisher who is responsible for assessing and commissioning new book submissions. This is not to be confused with other forms of editor (structural editor, substantive editor, copy-editor or line editor), who’ll edit the text of your book.

Imprint (see also publishing house)

This is the name of the publishing unit under which a book is published. Each publishing house is usually made up of several different imprints, with each often specialising in a particular genre or interest area. For example, Yellow Jersey (an imprint under Vintage), focuses on brilliant sports writing, covering all sports from the perspective of the player, professional observer and passionate fan.

Literary agent

This is the individual responsible for managing an author’s career, including helping them to develop their work and selling their book to publishers by negotiating the best deal. Agents also facilitate the relationship between an author and their editor. In return, agents take a percentage of an author’s advance and royalties. In this sense, their role is very similar to other agent roles in the creative industries, such as those who manage talent in television, film or theatre.

A large majority of authors have literary agents, and getting a literary agent is usually the first step towards getting published, when taking the traditional route. This is particularly important as most publishers don’t take unsolicited submissions (see also unsolicited submission) but receive the majority of manuscripts via an agent. Literary agents have wide networks across the industry and will know which commissioning editors are suitable for each project.

Publishing house (see also imprint)

Many publishers are made up of smaller companies that operate independently; these are called ‘houses’. Each publishing house (even if under the same overarching name – Penguin, for example) is creatively and editorially independent, and it’s made up of its own team of publishing experts, including editors, designers, marketers and publicists. Each publishing house, in turn, is made up of several publishing imprints.


This is the amount of money paid to an author by the publisher for each book sold. This will usually be a percentage of the sale price. Royalties are usually paid to the author every six months.

Unsolicited submission

This is a manuscript a publisher receives directly from an author without asking for it and without the author having an agent. Most publishers, including Penguin Random House, won’t read unsolicited submissions. This is because, if unsolicited submissions were to be accepted, the volume would be so great that it would be impossible to get through them all. This is why the best way to get published traditionally is usually through a literary agent.

Never send your unsolicited submission to a publishing house directly. It will more than likely be thrown away.

Referencing – Key terms


This is the full details of the published source that a piece of information, opinion, etc. was taken from. It includes enough information for the readers to be able to track down the source and check it for themselves. There are many different referencing styles, not only in terms of how it’s displayed but also what information is given.

Referencing style

This relates to the way your references are given in terms of the information provided, the order of that information and the way that information is formatted. There are many styles of referencing, such as Harvard and American Psychological Association (APA).


This is indicating that what you’re writing about has been published somewhere else. The tag that is used to show you’re citing something is called a ‘citation’ (see the following definition).


This is a short indication that the information being described was taken from another published source, and it points the reader to the full reference information that will allow them to identify the source. There’s more than one way in which this citation can be given, but it’s usually the author surname and date of publication, or it’s a superscript number and a footnote/endnote.


These are similar to footnotes and appear at the back of the book, rather than at the bottom of the page. For clarity, the list doesn’t have a title, they just are! Endnotes are in used in Chicago style as either a short or long citation alongside a separate references list. If the only place you’re giving the full information for a source is an ‘endnote’ then your endnote list is effectively your references list.

References list

This is the list in which all of the references in a book (or other published source) are given. This is placed at the end of the book (but before any appendices, etc.). It will either be given in the chronological order in which the sources are cited in the book or ordered by author name and date of publication, depending on the chosen referencing style. This section should be named ‘References’.


This is similar to a references list in that it contains the full details of the sources that are cited within the book; however, it also contains details of other sources the author may have read but not specifically cited or any sources they’ve recommended that the reader should also read. This is generally given in alphabetical order.

Further reading list

This is purely a list of any other sources that the author is recommending to their readers. We recommend giving a full reference for these suggestions, which will be consistent if you have a specific references list. This list can be used in conjunction with a references list, if you wish to distinguish between the two lists of sources.


This is where the legal right to use something belongs to a specific person or organisation, and that item can’t be reproduced without permission from the copyright holder. When it comes to published material, there’s an exception that allows a portion of that material to be quoted or summarised, providing that the original source of that material is correctly referenced. Please note that this is intended for the quotation of small portions of the text only (no more than a few paragraphs); you couldn’t legally quote the whole of a book in this way! The copyright around images and songs is much stricter.

Public domain

This is where something is available for use by the public without being under any copyright or other legal restrictions for its use, and you don’t need to cite or reference this material.

If you would like help with your referencing visit our Referencing Services page:

Publishing Terms Explained