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Inside the Secret World of Literary Scouts

By Emily Williams

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Part I: How It Works

NEW YORK: For five years I was an international literary scout. That means for five years I groaned inside whenever anyone asked me what I did. Scouting occupies a strange niche in book publishing, itself a rather inscrutable business from the outside, and after a time most scouts resign themselves to working—very hard—at an occupation not even their closest family members will ever fully understand. (So, Mom and Dad, this one’s for you!)

My basic answer went something like this: publishing is a marketplace.  Agents almost always submit a manuscript to more than one editor, and if that manuscript is good the editors who want to acquire it have to compete for it, both financially and by reputation.  The same is true among international publishers—and film studios—who want to buy rights to the best American books.  It’s competitive, and we help make sure the companies we work for know about the books that might interest them.  In the best cases we can even position them so they have the first shot at something and get to read and make an offer before anyone else.  The easiest way to understand it is as a consulting role—we’re our clients’ eyes and ears in New York, looking out for their best interests, keeping our finger on the pulse of the book world.

Cut-Throat Reality

All true, but none of this manages to convey the cut-throat reality of a scout’s day-to-day: The endless piles of reading at night and on the weekends, the long work hours spent managing copious quantities of information, responding to clients in six different time zones, meeting and winning over anyone who might ever be in possession of an interesting book, and alternately strong-arming, cajoling or begging agents and editors in an attempt to get your hands on this week’s hot piece of material before any of your equally charming and savvy competitor scouts beat you to it.

If, like many scouts, you work for large publishers with many different imprints, it is very hard to put limitations of the kind of books you scout—it boils down to any book in any genre that is good and/or commercial enough to be worth considering for translation.  That’s a lot of books.

I once worked it out to be about 10-20 new titles per week (that’s after filtering down to the most interesting titles), many of which we hear about before they’re even sold to a publisher, and most of which we then continue to track for important developments and client interest, all the way through publication and reviews.  Keep in mind that each book moves at its own pace, (meaning this process can take anywhere from 3 months to 10 years or longer, that pub dates are notoriously moving targets), and that (despite complaints about editing being a dead art) a lot of books change form pretty dramatically between when they’re on offer to publishers and when they’re finally released into the market, and you will get some sense of the cumulative complexity involved.

“Scouting is a more than full time job,” says Chandler Crawford, the former head of Sanford Greenburger’s scouting division who left to set up her own rights agency after she decided she needed more time for her family. “All of the nighttime and weekend reading, and the lunches and the cocktail parties and the publication parties and all of the taking out agents and editors is just not really conducive when you have a child who needs you.” The social side may sound glamorous, but the relentlessness of it all wears you down after a while.  “It’s brutal, it’s one of the hardest jobs in publishing,” agrees Rebecca Gardner, who started out as a scout at Maria B. Campbell Associates and has since sold rights on both the publisher side, recently as Director of Subsidiary Rights for the Random House Publishing Group, and on the agency side in her new post as Rights Director for The Gernert Company. “A huge part of it in my mind is not only the hours and the mountains of reading and the fast pace, it’s the fact that you’re inherently never in control.”

Who Needs to Know This, And How Quickly?

Scouts never set the timing:  They must find and react to whatever is on submission, which is determined in any given week by the individual decisions of agents and rights sellers scattered across the industry. “You’re having to be so nimble all the time. I think scouting is amazing training if you’re just starting out in publishing, it taught me to think in such a big picture way, and connect dots in every way possible, to have a quick reaction time. It does cause you to think ‘who needs to know this and how quickly?’ as a knee-jerk baseline way of looking at the world all the time.”

On the rare occasion I ever got this far in an explanation of my former job, the next question would be, well, how do you find out about new books?  Aha, now we’re getting somewhere.  That is exactly the crux of it.  Good scouting is being perpetually open to the idea that the next big book could come from anywhere at any moment.  There are some predictable patterns—the fall blockbuster season, the build-up of interesting projects before book fairs—but most books are scouted through a half-methodical, half-haphazard trolling of each scout’s network, week-in and week-out.  This network ideally consists of a number of well placed editors who receive the best submissions in each genre, as well as cordial relations with the agents, who may go so far as to give a friendly scout a heads up if they’re sending out a manuscript they’re excited about.

Once a scout hears about a project that sounds interesting, the next step is to figure out how quickly it’s moving and how to get her or his hands on the material.  Again, some agents are accommodating, though many won’t share any material until a US deal is in place.  Editors are more likely to slip you a manuscript they’ve already read and rejected, which means it must have already been on submission for several days and the clock is ticking, and if it’s good, some other scout may already have it and have sent it out to their clients (a.k.a. the competition), who may be preparing a pre-emptive offer even as we speak…

You see where the adrenaline kicks in.  Nobody hands a scout a list of where a book has been submitted.  In chasing down material it is essential to have a good understanding of which editors at which imprints are likely to get what kinds of manuscripts, and the more nuanced a command you have of the particular affinities between individual editors and agents, the better off you are.  At an advanced, PhD-in-the-hard-knocks-of-scouting level, this involves an encyclopedic knowledge of the professional and, yes, personal entanglements between dozens of agents and editors stretching around the globe and back through years of deals and job moves. This hard-won industry savvy is a scout’s greatest weapon—nothing can give you control over the initial timing of a book, but having an intimate knowledge of the moving parts can grant you some predictive powers over what is likely to happen next.

Why Editors and Agents Work with Scouts

Okay but why, you ask, still puzzled, would editors talk to scouts in the first place?  Couldn’t they get in trouble?  What do scouts have to offer editors?  A very good question, considering that scouts trade in very little that is tangible or quantifiable.

“It’s an information source for editors,” explains Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publisher Bruce Nichols, “It’s information you might not get elsewhere from someone whose self-interest is not so direct in any given project.” For example: “To hear about something that’s out on submission that might not have been submitted to me, sometimes you can call the agent and get in on something if the agent hadn’t been thinking of you.  But more often, it would give us a sense of what people around the world are thinking.  Sometimes we’re being offered world rights and sometimes we’re not, or sometimes it’s negotiable, so to have some clue that there were already great reads in various territories can be very helpful in figuring out what we want to try to buy or how much we want to try to spend.  And then sometimes, even if we were only thinking about North American rights, just to hear other perspectives on the reading is valuable.  We still trust ourselves for our own market more than anybody else, but it’s intriguing when something that didn’t seem spectacular is getting phenomenal reads, or vice versa.”

This, to me, is the essence of the role scouts play. Ultimately, whether we’re editors or agents or scouts, the encounter with a new book comes down to one person in a room reading, that solitary endeavor we all fell in love with to begin with.  Except that agents and editors are then asked to make financial and business decisions on the basis of that subjective experience.  This can be both exhilarating and moderately terrifying, and the tension only grows as the money in a prospective deal mounts.  Because of the unpredictable nature of the book business, the acquisitions process is based much more on gut instinct than scientific method, and while every professional has to trust their own skill as a reader, honed over many years and hundreds of books, it can be reassuring to check one’s reaction against a small community of your peers. Scouts act both as disinterested readers as well as a useful conduit for information about how other editors, in the US and around the world, are reacting to a manuscript. This generally has the effect or amplifying the negative reads that can cause a manuscript to sink without a trace, or on the positive side, building up the buzz and excitement.

How do agents feel about this? “At the moment it’s really hard in terms of selling, and I think agents generally feel the more the merrier,” says Gardner. “I think agents absolutely love it.” Agents have made the same solitary calculation about a book’s market potential, and in doing so they have taken on the hopes and aspirations of an author, for whom that manuscript may represent years of labor. The submissions process is often the first test they have of whether the book will live up to the potential they saw in it.  When the reaction is positive, scouts can help generate momentum. Gardner continues, “Smart agents understand the power of how scouts can drive attention for a project and I would be amazed to meet the agent who felt anything negative about having an editor call them about a book they hadn’t been submitted because they heard about it from a scout. The agent might play it that way with the editor, but 98% of the time an agent is going to be very happy to get that phone call because it’s going to mean that people are talking about their book, and that is what they always want.”

Tracking Heat and Priming the Market

Crawford concurs. “I do try to get manuscripts to scouts as often as I can as quickly as I can, because I know it can be a great gift to an agent and an author. I also know these days that people will get it electronically so I’d rather do the scout a favor and send it to them myself rather than have to make them use up one of their favors with an editor, getting it from an editor. If I give it to them then I suspect it might be accepted more graciously.”  The scouts’ enthusiasm can be such a powerful tool, in fact, that there were times during my own time as a scout when I was worried we were helping to drive up the price of manuscripts.  Scouts are paid on retainer rather than commission, their primary motivation is to keep their clients happy and financially solvent—and since those clients are publishers, and the price set in one territory is often translated proportionally to the next territory, overpaying for books is not something they’d want to encourage.

Nichols’s response was reassuring.  “It is certainly true that if pretty quickly on the heels of a submission you hear from a couple different scouts that there’s a lot of buzz going on it just automatically ratchets up the expectations and attention.  Does that by itself mean you’re suddenly increasing your offer? No, but I have seen frenzies happen pretty quickly.  There is some indefinable quality about buzz that’s partly scout-related and -generated but not only.  I think ultimately some publisher has to drive the buzz by starting off and saying, I think this is going to go for a lot of money.  But scouts can definitely grease those wheels pretty well.”

Crawford agrees.  “From the agent’s side, people aren’t going to buy a book for a certain price unless they choose to spend that amount of money.”  From the agent side, though, higher prices are all to the good, as Gardner points out.  “I think most agents do perceive that’s a way to ‘use’ scouts.  But as far as the price goes I feel fully that the market takes care of itself.  If Spain can spend a gazillion dollars on something, it’s because they see it.”  Besides, says Gardner, “It’s the nature of the beast.  As a scout your job is to track what is the stuff that has the most heat under it.

Do scouts create that heat?  On some level yes, but not something out of nothing. The great publishing model that everyone would always like to have is buying that little gem that nobody else sees, you pay no money for it, and it turns into The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and therein lies profit that you don’t get when you’ve bought The Gargoyle for a million dollars and it has to be a humongous success out of the gate and it doesn’t even break even.  From a foreign publisher perspective I can understand…but that’s not what they’re paying scouts for.  If you’re of a big enough size and you’re going to work with a scout, then my feeling is that really their value is knowing what the big stuff is.  Now that publisher can at any time make the judgment call as to whether they want to get in on it.  It’s not the scouts who are driving up the price, it’s just that the scouts are drawing attention to things that are good!  And good things, a lot of people want them, then you get your competition, and they get more expensive.”

Nichols takes a similarly pragmatic view. “As a general rule projects that go in heated auctions or for fast pre-empts go for more money than they could possibly earn out.  If there’s a whole lot of buzz and it just cranks the price up, whoever really, really wants it is probably going to be increasing its numbers just to get there.”  Crawford adds, “Look, if you get more people being enthusiastic about a book, maybe it will make the price go up, but it means that there’s something to be said for the book, and I never think that’s a bad thing.  And prices are not as high as they were, let’s be serious!”  And, as Gardner notes, there are worse fates for a book than being the subject of a heated auction.  “I think that’s one of the benefits of working with scouts, you’ve got this extra engine drawing attention to your projects.  At the end of the day it’s better to have the attention than nothing at all, which is death.”

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 next Monday.

VISIT: The Web site for Maria B. Campbell Associates, perhaps the best known of all US literary scouting agencies.

READ: A recent profile of Anne-Louise Fischer, the legendary UK scout, from the newsletter of the London Book Fair.

BONUS: What Have You Done to Get an Early Look at a Book?

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8 Comments

  1. Posted December 14, 2009 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    A clear, succinct, and loving description of one of publishing’s more esoteric branches. It ought to be required reading for all book publishing courses.
    However I still don’t quite understand why agents and editors aren’t chasing scouts as hard as scouts are chasing them — they are the WD40 of trade publishing.

  2. Posted December 14, 2009 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Thoroughly enjoyed this and look forward to the next installment.

  3. Posted December 15, 2009 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    As a first-time author I found this article fascinating. It makes sense that a person in this capacity would be a valuable asset to agents and editors. Just as the sports scout can find a gem of a player at a small high school and bring him to light at a big university, these scouts can discover a gem of a manuscript and bring it to a publisher.

    I plan to share this article with other writers in a post on my blog. Thanks for the information.

    Ginger B.
    http://coppertopcollins.blogspot.com
    http://www.gingerbcollins.com

  4. Posted December 16, 2009 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting article. Thank you for sharing and giving us an insight to literary scouting.

  5. Posted December 16, 2009 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Emily, an interesting and informative article, especially since I’ve just had a partial of a contracted book in first draft scouted. I’m looking forward to reading the next instalment.

  6. Posted December 16, 2009 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    There is, I sometimes think, a scout-envy in publishing. They get to travel, engage in kind of international relations, read more (and more widely) than most agents and editors, and get the best news first, before the rest of us hear about it. Of course, they are also expected to keep hours that rival bond traders’, balance interests with the nimbleness of a politician, and know when to keep secrets and when to spill the beans. Most of the scouts I know seem similar to Emily–they may love the rush of discovery and deadline, and enjoy the constant flurry and buzz, but they do what they do for the love of books.

  7. Posted December 17, 2009 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Thanks Emily for an informative post. Cheers, Simon.

  8. Posted December 21, 2009 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    If sifting through piles of query letters is so hard for agents, and there is such a thing as literary scouts, I have a tough time understanding why the favorable review I got from Kirkus Discoveries didn’t generate interest from one of them. @Gwynn Headley: Maybe they’re too busy with their esoteric stuff, eh? Ah, how to get noticed? I’m a writer, not a spammer.

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