Publishing Terminology in Context

I spent a decade in the legal publishing industry as an editor, acquisitions editor, then publisher. During my time in publishing, I believe I encountered all of the terms and jargon used in the publishing world. These terms, however, weren’t always so clear. During my first months as an acquisitions editor, I remember attending the weekly production meeting and feeling like everyone around me was speaking a foreign language; quite frankly, they were.

The bulk of these production meetings entailed slogging through lengthy spreadsheets of frontlist titles. The folks in production checked in with the editors—who connected with authors prior to the meeting—about the potential for missed deadlines. During the meeting, editors would give the production team a good sense about titles that could be expected in the next few weeks, as well as “pushing out” titles that would be slipping (at times, titles would be pushed out an entire year—getting “bumped” off the frontlist—at the request of the author).

The production team never arrived empty-handed, but would bring a variety of items related to the editors’ books in process. These items, such as front matter and cover design mock ups, required editorial sign off. Each week we’d also do one last check on print runs before books went to press. It was important to provide as accurate as possible an estimate, so that we wouldn’t have to destroy stock as it returned to us from bookstores. Our books were rarely taken out of print—instead, we’d publish an updated edition as new legal decisions arose, which significantly changed the law.

During my first few months in these production meetings, I’d hear terms such galleys, gutters, trim size (I was even provided my own special ruler for measuring “picas”—as if I knew what picas were), and signature pages (which consist of the smaller grouping of pages stitched or glued together to comprise a book). Back then, I would have been overjoyed to have been provided the links to some online lexicons of publishing terms.

I eventually picked up the jargon and even spent time down in the bindery, sometimes checking out the covers of a new series that I developed, sometimes approving the first few printed copies of an important title. Occasionally, we’d bring in authors for advisory board meetings and we’d all tour the bindery together. It is truly awe-inspiring to watch books being made. If you ever have a chance to tour a bindery, I highly recommend you take advantage of the opportunity. Although I worked for a legal publishing company, books from publishing houses all over the country were printed in our bindery. I was quite amused when I once saw paperback romance novels—with their ripped-bodice cover art—stacked beside formal leather-bound law dictionaries.

Interestingly, I encountered one term in this lexicon that I hadn’t previously known: black swan, which is defined as a book that proves an unexpected success. The Harry Potter series is considered a black swan. I guess we didn’t have many such “black swans” in the legal publishing industry, but as an acquisitions editor, you’d hope to acquire that occasional “home run” casebook that managed to capture a substantial percentage of the market from a competitor’s title that dominated a particular subject. We had one such title in the area of Criminal Law. I am still friends with the author of that book and plan on telling him that his book is a “black swan.” Unfortunately, I was not the acquiring editor of this “best selling” (in the academic publishing world, “best selling” translates into “widely-adopted”) title.

Perhaps I can write a black swan one day; a girl can dream!

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I took this photo at an editorial meeting, showing the less serious side of editors.

About Heidi Fettig Parton

I hold an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bath Path University. I write at the intersection of ecological and spiritual issues; I also write about the common experiences that unfold across women's lives, including marriage, motherhood, work matters (and vocation), divorce, and sexuality. Oh, and poetry is my drug of choice.
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