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Inside the Secret World of Literary Scouts, Part II

By Emily Williams

Part II: Scouting Changes with the Times

NEW YORK: Last week in Part I we looked at the essentials of how scouting works.  Many of these essentials—recognizing a great manuscript when it crosses your desk, cultivating a wide network of close relationships across the industry, understanding your clients’ needs and serving them well—will always remain the same.

Scouts are also tasked with keeping up with trends in the industry, though, and the nature of the job as dependent on the flow of information has made it one of the fastest changing corners of a business that is itself in the midst of massive transition.  Just to survive, scouts have to stay on top of any shifts in the way books move or the information about them spreads, and this has made for a lot of big changes in the past 15 years.

Emily Williams

Emily Williams

“When I was a scout we weren’t using e-mail yet,” Gernert Rights Director Rebecca Gardner remembers. “The whole concept of material was so physical: messengers and copying and mailing and Fedexing, and I think that it was still very possible to control material.  That whole conversation is completely different now.  I pretty much assume now—which I don’t think was the case 10 and 15 years ago—that when I have something to sell, whether I’m at a publishing house or an agency, by the time I’m focusing on selling rights, every scouts seen it.”

Chandler Crawford, who heads up her own independent rights agency, also scouted in the days before e-mail. “When I was a scout we used to get manuscripts—real manuscript pages, you know 600 pages—and we’d have to get them Xeroxed for exorbitant amounts at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and then, in between dinner and going out or after dinner and no going out, we’d have to read the manuscript. That just doesn’t happen anymore.”

The business of selling rights has also grown more sophisticated, the foreign rights departments at publishers and agencies have gotten bigger and more professional.  Rights sellers in the US have more direct relationships with foreign publishers and the practice of meeting with them two or three times a year in London, New York and Frankfurt has become common practice.

“More Americans go to Frankfurt than when I was a scout,” notes Crawford.  “Ten years ago the London Book Fair was tiny. Hardly any Americans were there and the Europeans who were there were real muckety mucks, heads of houses.  In the past five years it’s just skyrocketed and become so important.”  In some ways, this direct relationship between rights sellers and foreign publishers has cut into the role that scouts used to play, but Crawford does not believe this has done anything to diminish their relevance.  “A good scout, good rights people and good agents can all work in concert.”

And some things never change—Frankfurt, with its unmanageable size and potential for immediate face-to-face deals, is still a yearly crucible for every scout in the business.  “I have nothing but empathy for scouts during the Frankfurt Book Fair,” Crawford says.  “Especially when there’s a big book that their clients in eight countries want to pre-empt and they have to go running around to the agents and the co-agents trying to put in offers. That’s hard.”

Accelerated Marketplace

Even the position of Frankfurt has changed, however.  Now that manuscripts can be transmitted around the globe instantly at any time, putting foreign publishers in the same room with a lot of people selling rights has lost some of its explosive potential.  Most foreign editors have read the manuscripts on offer before the fair, either through official submissions from US rights sellers or by receiving early material from their scouts. For the most part, they have already decided whether or not they’re interested in making an offer.

Book fairs are now used more as a way to reconnect with colleagues in person, the selling and buying aspect blends in with what happens over email year-round, which has sped up by comparison, as if the Frankfurt frenzy—with its ambushes and auctions and lightning pre-empts on the basis of partial material—were now the constant default state.

This, too, is a big change.  Publishers and agents used to be able to hold onto a manuscript and work on it until they felt it was ready to put its best foot forward.  That is nearly impossible in the world of electronic communication.

“I can’t control what material goes where,” Gardner admits.  “The best I can do is simply say to the world: you may have seen this but we think it’s not ready. If something has been out there broadly and people are loving it and they want to start doing something about it, then I’ll react to that.  It’s a combination of temperature checking what people think about material at any given stage, and also being true to looking at the material itself and saying, is this in its best form to get the most attention and the best possible deals?”

E-mail’s acceleration of the market has made it necessary for both scouts and their foreign publishing clients to contend with a greater volume of information and material than ever before.

“E-mail entirely revolutionized the way material was treated,” Gardner recalls.  “The other thing that went with that was the advent of Publisher’s Lunch, and even to some extent PW online and MediaBistro.  At first it seemed helpful, but quickly it turned up the pace because suddenly lots of information was available to everybody at the same time.  It added to the volume of what you had to process and prioritize.  It also somewhat evened the playing field.”

The industry Web sites online, with their continuous updates, gave smaller publishers and agents a way to get noticed and spread the word about their projects.  “But where that’s ultimately led…I think that there’s really a completing of the circle here,” Gardner reasons, “and that that kind of mass merchandising of so much information has made scouts newly important all over again.  It’s just as important if not more so for foreign publishers to have reliable eyes and ears on the ground here to help them focus on the things that are good and important.

Reality Check

Scouts learned how to change their role a little bit, so it’s not about being a news-breaker any more, it’s about being an on-the-ground reality check. If you’re an editor in London you still need someone to help you figure out which is the good and interesting stuff, somebody to be on the ground in New York to call up in the afternoon and get a sense of: is this material getting a reaction? Is something starting to move? Is there really heat under it?”

For British editors, in fact, things have sped up to the point where their market works nearly in lock step with the US market. There is now a need to coordinate publication dates so that no one’s sales get cannibalized by books leaking across the border. That, and the fact that so many publishers are now multinationals and make a habit of buying World English rights whenever possible. If a British editor isn’t aware of a book until after the US deal is struck, he or she may never have a chance to look at it.  “The UK is really operating under a different time scale than the rest of the world,” says Gardner.

On the other hand, for US editors trying to put together a World English deal when they may have many editors at several different sister imprints as possible partners, negotiating internal company politics can be tricky, especially under time pressure.  Here, too, scouts sometimes play an unexpected role.

“Harper UK was complicated,” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publisher Bruce Nichols remembers of his time as Publisher of the US Collins division.  “It had multiple imprints, and so getting to know the US scout for whom Harper UK was a client was actually a helpful way for me to deal with my own company.  When I wanted to see if my own siblings would go in on a World English offer, I might go to the scout and say ‘Which person there should I start with?’—because the scout knew them even better than I did.  He was an honest broker.”

The companies themselves, of course, stress internal coordination and are resistant to recognizing this backdoor role scouts play.  “There are fewer publishers in the UK who have scouts [now], and different companies go through the pendulum swings about synergy,” explains Gardner, who has seen things from both the scouting side as well as from inside that most multinational of publishers, the Random House group.  “There can sometimes be an expectation that if sister companies on both sides of the Atlantic effectively compare notes, between them they’ll know everything there is to know about every book—that’s true to a point but there are limitations.”

The truth is that scouts provide valuable intelligence and often know their clients better than anyone, hands down.  It is not only a business necessity, the close professional collaboration that deepens over time is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job. Crawford describes the experience: “I think it’s sort of like when you start [scouting for a publisher] you’re just dating, and by the end you’re long time married and can read your clients’ minds, you don’t have to pretend.”

Emily Williams is a former literary scout who currently works as an independent publishing consultant. Her series about the secret world of literary scouts will continue in January.

READ: Part I of our series Inside the Secret World of Literary Scouts

DISCUSS: Are literary scouts to be envied?

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3 Comments

  1. KS
    Posted December 21, 2009 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Why did you not speak to a scout but only ex-scouts? Why was nobody quoted? This diminishes the validity of this article greatly. Too bad, especially since this is a part of publishing nobody ever writes about. You should have actual interviewed and quoted actual scouts to make this a really good article.

  2. Posted December 21, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Speaking as one who has had relationships with scouts, the quoted ex-scouts are of sufficiently recent vintage, and the current publishers and agents speaking with sufficient candor and experience that KS need not worry that the validity of the article is in any way diminished.

  3. Emily W.
    Posted December 21, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    @KS, thank you for reading and commenting on the article. I made a deliberate decision not to interview current scouts – scouts, as you may be able to understand from reading how they work, have a great many ties and professional connections to worry about. All the pieces I’d read in the past trying to explain what they do suffered from a certain opaqueness that I think was tied to the limits on what any working scout can say in public without the risk of causing offense to one of their many contacts or clients. Because I worked as a scout for five years and only left the profession this past March I felt confident I could give a basic overview from the scouts’ point of view, with the added perspective of people who both worked as scouts and continue to work with them on a daily basis. Thanks @Richard for your vote of confidence :).

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