The 10 Most Overused Words in Publishing

Ah, publishing, an industry predicated on acceptance and rejection. (Here’s a provocative essay further to that point).

Given that rejection spares none among us, writers, editors and agents alike–you signed up for it the day you applied–it’s important now and then to laugh a little, to bond with others over the ridiculousness of our seriousness. But perhaps more important for the purposes of this post, is knowing the language. So I compiled a list of ten terms for my own fun, and also because, I’m not sure normal people, like writers receiving rejection letters from agents, can even make sense of terms so obscure and esoteric. (Side note, how amazing would it be if Ben Zimmer did an article on this.)

narrative nonfiction: this remains a hot category in books today along with YA, fantasy, and thriller. This means a work that’s based on real life, and most often current affairs or history. Nonfiction by definition, but told narratively, not academically. There’s always some debate as to what qualifies, because narrative nonfiction vs. fiction could substantially influence the size of your book deal. Two contentious narrative nonfiction books: Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House and Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea. (Straight lies, i.e. James Frey, do not qualify here as debatable.)

prescriptive: instructive, educational, self-help, guidance-oriented. If you think your book has media/PR potential, you might toss “prescriptive” into your query letter. Just know first whether the agent represents self-help. Many I know hate it.

the market: as in a rejection letter to a writer from an agent, “I’m sorry, but the market has spoken,” or to an agent from an editor: “I’m sorry, but I just don’t see the market for the book.” Meaning anything from the appetite for acquisition in your category (if the first example), or the audience for the book, or lack thereof, in the second scenario. The meaning of “the market” is dual, and it’s therefore even more egregiously overused.

saleability: this is a term most overused in agentspeak, can be spun positively or negatively, i.e. “This project just isn’t saleable.” Or, “this project is so clearly saleable!” Just as it sounds: it will sell, or it won’t. (See this post on saleability as the most crucial consideration in publishing today.) Oddly, publishing doesn’t really give a thought as to scaleability, an overused term in business. Maybe we should?

pass: Guh–the most cringe-worthy word. Can we please omit it from all vocabulary? The meaning is pretty obvious, and again, applies across the food chain–editor to agent, agent to writer, most often used in this context: “Regretfully, I’m going to have to pass on xyz title. Best of luck in finding the right home for it.”

platform: this refers to thousands of followers on Twitter or major offline recognition in a given field (e.g. speaking events, a professor with a popular class, a journalist for the NYT). Editors will reject a project based on lacking platform. If ever you have cause to wonder: I can’t believe that blog was made into a book! Let me demystify it for you: that blog gets loads of traffic.

the material: a pretentious term used to describe a book proposal, manuscript, screenplay, article, any form of writing. But a blog wouldn’t qualify. When an agent discusses “the material,” there is always a surrounding sense of gratuitous and precious exclusivity.

high concept: I really may get this one wrong, considering I had to Google it to cross-reference. Can there be a height to any concept. One agent friend who specializes in high concept (and effectively, because she’s one of the most respected in the industry), defined this to me as popular or commercial, while possessing literary merit. Nathan Bransford, one of the first publishing bloggers, defines it simply as accessible. But I’m guessing high concept just sounds better.

upmarket: This definition from the freed dictionary: prestigious, important, prominent, esteemed, high-quality, notable, renowned, prestige, eminent, reputable She chose an upmarket agency aimed at professional people. The short definition — pretentious. Really do try to toss this one in your query letter, too.

commercial: commonly used synonyms are “popular” or “offers mass appeal,” used to make the case that a proposal or a book has a wide audience and will sell prolifically throughout the world. If there’s one word you want to use in your query letter, it’s this one.

Remember: we may all hate these terms. But we still have to use them.

Comments? Additions? You can comment here and/or at And you may also enjoy this poll to agents and editors for their additions to my Top 10 List.


  • I think this is great because the material I’m currently working on is very high-concept and has a huge saleability factor. In fact, no one has taken a pass on it in this very crazy market. Maybe it’s because I have such a great platform built up already with my blogging, facebooking, tweeting — social media is where it’s at these days — everything is so commercial in this upmarket world we live in–we have to make sure we’re writing the prescriptive material the people want!

  • I would add “compelling” to the list of overused words. Most people I’ve met use that word to describe their manuscript. I don’t. 😉

  • Post informative – comment hilarious. I love both you ladies. Okay back to building my platform.

  • Lucinda

    Great add. I am admittedly a culprit.

Nina Darnton

"This haunting page-turner will keep you up all night and be long remembered after the last page has been read." — Mary Higgins Clark, Author