Learning the (Publishing) Lingo

Publishing lingo
Publishing lingo

Starting out as an illustrator might be a bit daunting. Every industry has its terms and phrases that can throw one a little when you’ve just joined. I remember when I first heard about ‘Doc Martens’ with some fellow illustrators, I thought they were talking about the shoe. I couldn’t understand why everyone was insisting on drawing with these boots, and why these boots and not other boots like Caterpillars or something. Perhaps it was a new technique, or style, like drawing with feathers or sticks? As soon as everyone’s backs were turned I quickly took out my phone and googled it. As I am sure you probably know reading this, ‘Doc Martens’ was actually ‘Dr. Ph. Martin which is a brand of liquid watercolors. So we learn everyday.

In publishing there are a lot of terms that we all have to familiarise ourselves with, even as freelancers and illustrators. Below I’ve highlighted some of the more common terms. Free free to add your own experiences in the comments, or if there is a term you don’t know then ask as well.

ISBN Number

Each book, if it’s a children’s book, or adult, fiction or nonfiction, they all have an ISBN number. This is a thirteen digit number that is usually printed on the copyright page (also known as an Imprint page). If you are self-publishing in South Africa (not sure how it works in other countries) you can normally get this number (for free!) from the National Library. They normally would like a little information about your book, such as what kind of format it is in (print, or an ebook) and who is it for (adults, children, fiction, nonfiction, etc).


If a publisher tells you your illustrations need to have 5mm bleed, then you need to draw your illustration, with extra space. It’s easier for me to show this in a illustration:

Illustration lingo

In the illustration below, the gray box would be the dimension of the layout. For example, say the page was a A4 (20cm X 30cm) landscape, the gray box would be those exact measurement. The 5 ml Bleed would be the red box.  The Bleed is always larger than the printed paper size. In this example it is 5ml diameter around the gray box. A publisher might ask for a 10 ml, in which case the Bleed would be 10ml away from the gray box.

When you illustrate, you need to draw all the main images within the gray box, but your paint must ‘bleed’ to the red box. As you can see in the example below, I’ve done some green at the bottom. On the right I ended the green where the page ends, in the gray box. But I have not carried the colour through to the Bleed box. This is incorrect. On the left I have painted all the way to the red box (and a little beyond), this is correct.

The reason for this madness, is because when the printer prints, they print on paper that is larger than the book. Then they cut, or trim, the paper down to the correct size. If their trimming is just a mini millimetre out, and your paint ends at the gray box, this will result in a thin white line being obvious on the edge of the paper. But if you paint through to the bleed, it means that the printers can cut confidently without any worries about white edging.

Resolution – DPI

People often think that the larger an image is, the higher the DPI or Resolution is – this is false. You can have a really large picture, with a really low resolution. You can also have a really small image, with a really high resolution. You can shrink a large image, and increase its resolution and you can enlarge a high resolution small image but then you’ll have to reduce its resolution. It’s not as complicated as it sounds.

For printing purposes for books, the standard ideal resolution is 300 dpi (dots per inch). At a squirm, you can go as low as maybe 150 dpi, but anything below that and you might as well be printing it at home on your home printer. The dpi is exactly what it stands for which is Dots Per Inch. Which means how many colour dots are in an inch. Here’s an example from www.pn-design.co.uk

Illustration lingo

The image on the far left only has a few dots of colours. As you increase the amount of dots, the better the image looks. Now your printer at home can probably print about 75 to 100 dpi and that’s as good as it can get. But the big-gun printers who do the books, they can go way, way up. The better the DPI, the crisper, cleaner, clearer and professional the image.

Let’s get back to that complicated statement I made then. If you have a really large image, like maybe an A3 (60cm X 30cm), but the resolution is say 150. You might be saved if the publisher asks for A4 (30cm X 20cm) because then you can shrink the image. By shrinking it, you are making it more compact and automatically the dpi will increase.

Here’s an example. In this photo of waffles, the image is 91.44 cm by 68,58 cm, but the resolution is only 72.

Illustration lingo

But if I shrink it down to about an A4 size, I can increase the resolution to about 215 and it will hold steady.

Illustration lingo

But now lets try the opposite. If this photo was about 5cm by 4cm at 75 dpi and I increase it to an A4 size, see what happens:

Illustration lingo

I am going to just show you one more example and then I’ll stop ‘waffle’ing’ on this. You can actually get a sense of this if you zoom in (and in, and in and in) photoshop. Eventually Photoshop will show you the breakdown of the image. This is a zoom in on the waffle:

Illustration lingo


A front-list refers to all the books that a publisher is going to print for the financial year. A back-list is all the books from previous years.


Once the publisher has sent the book to print, the printer will send back ‘dyelines’ for the project manager or publisher to check. This is a last check for the publisher to go through the entire book and make any last corrections. They can also get a sense of what the book will look like as a book and make any changes.

These are just some of the phrases, terms that come to mind when dealing with publishers. Let me know if you’ve heard of any others or if you are unsure of any phrases!