FAQ’s about Publishing

This FAQ is currently under construction. Send me your questions via Facebook or Twitter so that I can make this list as complete as possible.


What are the “Big 5”?

When people refer to the “Big 5” of publishing, they’re referring to the five major trade book publishing houses in the United States: Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster.

What is a query letter?

A query letter is essentially a cover letter for your manuscript. When you send your manuscript (or sample pages per the agent’s submission guidelines), you should include a query letter introducing yourself and your manuscript. There are different formats, but the generally accepted items to include in your query are:

  • A personalized intro (the agent’s name and why you opted to query them specifically)
  • Manuscript metadata (book title, genre, audience, and wordcount)
  • Comparable titles
  • Brief plot outline
  • Author info (prior publishing credits if applicable, and a few tidbits about yourself such as your career, hobbies, or family info)

What is a comp?

When an agent or editor refers to wanting “comps” in a query letter, they mean “comparable titles”. Comps are other books similar to yours that help them understand the structure, tone, or style of your book. When providing comps, it’s usually wise to choose books that were recently published in the same genre, and to avoid blockbusters.

What does MSWL stand for?

MSWL stands for “manuscript wish list. Agents and editors often share their MSWL on their websites, blogs, Twitter feeds, and elsewhere to let their followers know what kind of books they’re looking for. Keeping an eye on an agent and editor’s MSWL can help a writer gauge incoming and outgoing trends, and the fit of an agent or editor before querying, but should not discourage writers from querying if their book is not on an agent or editor’s MSWL. Sometimes, they don’t know what they want until they see it.


What is commercial fiction?

Commercial fiction (also known as “genre fiction”)encompasses all books that fit neatly into a particular genre of literature (e.g. science fiction, romance, fantasy, thriller, etc.). The main essence of a commercial fiction is its emphasis on plot development and pacing, which often results in what some describe as a formulaic plot structure. That said, compelling characters are still important in commercial fiction, even if not as much emphasis might be placed on character development in commercial fiction as compared to literary fiction.

What is a genre?

Genres are how we categorize books in book stores and online by tone, theme, or subject. In literature today, there is a nearly endless number of genres and sub-genres out there. Main genres include science fiction, romance, fantasy, literary fiction, thrillers, etc. These genres can be further broken down into sub-genres. For example, science fiction includes dystopian, speculative fiction, space opera, etc., while thriller includes espionage, psychological, crime, etc. Many genres may also be blended (e.g. romantic thriller).

What is a high concept book?

The plot of a high concept book can be easily and succinctly explained in a few words. For example, “Man breaks up with girlfriend, realizes what he’s lost, then spends the rest of the book trying to win her back.” This is true of most commercial fiction, though not all. Literary fiction (a.k.a. more character-driven stories) can be described as “low concept” because the narrative is more complex.

What is literary fiction?

Literary fiction is a character-driven story that doesn’t follow traditional plot development techniques. It is focused on the craft of writing and the development of the protagonist as a character; therefore not all plot-related questions will necessarily be answered by the end. Literary fiction may include sub-genres similar to commercial fiction, such as literary fantasy, literary romance, etc. Examples of literary fiction books are John Green’s Looking for Alaska or Emily Giffin’s Baby Proof, neither of which fully solve the book’s central question or conflict, focusing instead on how the character comes to terms with not knowing.

What is upmarket fiction?

Upmarket fiction toes the line between commercial fiction and literary fiction, or high concept and low concept. To be considered upmarket, a book needs to balance the fast-paced entertainment appeal of commercial fiction, without sacrificing the meaningful character development and thoughtful prose of literary fiction. Finding this balance gives a book broader appeal and makes it more saleable.

Want more information than what is available here? Contact me with your questions, or subscribe for future updates and resources.

Published by

Jessica Trudel

Jessica Trudel is a freelance writer and editor, and founder of the Silverleaf Writers Guild. She has contributed to various print and digital publications across Canada and the U.S., including TimminsToday, TalkSpace, and BoldFace.

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