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Inside the Secret World of Literary Scouts (Part III)

By Emily Williams

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In Part I we looked at the essentials of how scouting works and in Part II we discussed the changes scouting is going through. Today we look at what the future might hold for scouts.

The close professional ties scouts develop with their clients, sometimes over decades, are key to the role those scouts play in helping the editors they work with sort through the never-ending stream of new books on offer — a relationship where trust is fundamental.  “This is what many people who haven’t been scouts don’t know,” says Chandler Crawford, a former head of scouting at Sanford Greenburger, who has since started her own rights agency, “that at those meetings after Frankfurt or after BEA or after London, a foreign editor will say, ‘Well what do you think about this book?’ And the scout will say, ‘Oh it’s garbage, just forget about it,’ and then the editor puts a big cross by that title and it’s done. That editor is not even going to read it. And I think that’s the power of a scout that is probably not talked about very much.”

This is why a negative assessment of a book is something a scout takes very seriously, because it often means the scout is making the decision for the clients, who won’t even look at the manuscript themselves.  “But on the other hand,” says Crawford, “if a scout loves and adores a book it can really help the cause.  For instance with The Kite Runner, it was Mary Anne Thompson who was really pushing her clients Piemme and Belfond to buy the translation rights, and also Bettina Schrewe, who really pushed for her publishers in Sweden and in the Netherlands to buy the book.  And when The Kite Runner was a manuscript, it was not a wanted item.  For all four of those publishers the book was a huge bestseller, and they bought it very, very cheap, very, very early because they had really good scouts. So it works the other way as well.”

However The Kite Runner model of an early sale based on a not-entirely-perfect manuscript is tougher to pull off these days, both for the rights sellers trying to convince the editors and for the editors trying to win over their editorial boards.

American Hegemony Is Over

There is increasing competition from other media for consumers’ attention all over the world, and this is putting sales pressure on publishers everywhere. Editors no longer have the luxury of imagining what early material might turn into, and are instead being asked for guarantees. As a result, they are becoming more conservative in their acquisitions.  It may be tempting to go out with early material that has tremendous promise, but these days it seems better to wait and present material with its best foot forward.

In the US this means that agents are spending more time working a manuscript over before submitting; and on the foreign side, rights sellers are more inclined to wait for the full, edited manuscript to come in.  And while there has traditionally been tremendous overseas demand for American fiction — something scouts could rely on to create a need for their services — that, too, is changing.

“The reign of American hegemony for fiction I think is pretty much over,” observes Crawford.  “Where you used to have on the German bestseller list: American, American, American, Italian, Italian, American, American, Italian, American, with maybe a Brit thrown in…now you see Stieg Larsson or Zafón, and it’s not an oddity to have European fiction leading the bestseller lists all over the world anymore.”

This has made the job of US rights sellers, who are still pressed to contribute to their company’s bottom line, more difficult.  “It’s harder to sell something that’s not big, that doesn’t have a lot of support behind it in the US and the UK,” Crawford admits, “though the gems, luckily, do still get sold and appreciated.”

The Human Element

The speed of the market today, combined with the rapidly shrinking margin for error in editorial acquisitions, has forced scouting to adapt. The business is less about finding and advocating for undiscovered treasures, of which there are far fewer than there used to be, than about being faster and more resourceful than the competition and pushing your clients to be the same.

Fortunately, amidst all this electronic correspondence, there is a human element to the business that has only grown in importance. When clients come to visit the US, a scout’s network of friends and colleagues is put at their disposal, and schedules are often quietly labored over for weeks in an effort to create the perfect trip.

“The whole matchmaking aspect of scouting, I think, is one of the greatest gifts a scout can give to their foreign publishers,” says Crawford. “Setting up [a new] relationship can often turn into a close friendship where these like-minded people continue to talk about books that they love, and do so for decades!”

“It’s like the hidden weapon of scouting,” agrees Rebecca Gardner, Rights Director for The Gernert Company. “The scouts who are creative about it and really take scheduling seriously, that’s a huge benefit.  That value is always going to be there.”

It’s not just about exchanging tips on individual books, either.  “Now the industry is going through so many changes, a perfect storm of elements that it hasn’t seen in a long time, I think it’s even more important for foreign publishers to be able to have one-on-one connections with people in New York,” says Gardner.  “Because, let’s face it, the States is the forerunner of most changes in publishing. E-books and royalty rates, and all these things that people are struggling with on the retail side, we are going through it first.  Scouts can bring tremendous value to their clients by reporting on these trends and even more if they are able to give their clients the opportunity to talk to industry leaders about these things in person.”

Does Scouting Have a Future?

Crawford agrees that scouting will still have a role to play as we all move forward into whatever the book markets of the future hold in store: “It’s really an amazing and wonderful part of international publishing, and I think the publishing world is much, much better off for having scouts.  I loved being a scout and when I left scouting I was very sad because I thought, what else can I do? I found my dream job. And it’s very hard, because I’ll never be as close to publishers as I was as a scout.”

Bruce Nichols, publisher of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, believes scouts will continue to be useful to publishers so long as they continue working at a pace that’s faster than the prevailing industry and continue to help expedite decision-making.  “You might think that scouts over the long haul would be less needed than ever because it’s so easy for information to get around now, but I think that the very fact that everything has accelerated — good stuff gets spread around so fast, so when there’s a frenzy it’s faster than ever, seemingly for more money than ever — makes them very useful.”

What’s more, he says, the increasing complexity that editors need to navigate as publishing groups continue to merge and consolidate internationally makes them an important resource — both for publishers at home and abroad.

“Foreign publishers of a particular size are always going to want to be in the know about what’s going on [in the United States],” says Gardner, adding, “and as long as that’s the case scouts are going to exist, and if they’re smart and nimble about how they position themselves and what they do, they’re going to thrive.  If there comes a point where publishers really are not interested in knowing what’s going on here,” she concludes, “then we’ve all got much, much bigger problems to face.”

Next week, the final piece in our series will look at scouting from the perspective of overseas publishers and, in particular, the difficulties they have selling translation rights to their books in the United States.

DISCUSS: Does Book Scouting Have a Future?

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One Comment

  1. linda clark
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    As we are well aware sometimes book publishers ,whether large or small cannot process all the information that scouts send and would rather deal with fewer books submitted to them directly from agents in their own country.
    The results of the cost of scouting are sometimes seen as intangible and publishers, especially these days would prefer to put their money on something with more immediate and visible results such as hiring an additional editor.
    There is so much information on books being sent that this service can become overwhelming to editors who have to respond. A sad but true fact of book publishing today is that the profits are coming from a smaller more concentrated number of books and that publishers dont feel they can diversify so much to include smaller first novels without any track record. However as the marketplace becomes more diffifult then a scout becomes more important than ever.If publishers are buying only a limited number of books in translation then a scout can help to cut thru the hype to see the value-both commercial and literary in those books which might have a chance.Without a scout the competetion will snag the gems ,leaving the publisher without the scout lost and floundering.

One Trackback

  1. By Does Book Scouting Have a Future? on January 4, 2010 at 3:01 am

    [...] Today’s piece by Emily Williams quotes a number of respected publishing figures as saying that scouting has a future, provided scouts can continue to remain in a position to garner information and act on it faster than their constituent publishers. This may be so, but scouting also depends to some extent on the deep pockets of large conglomerate publishers who can afford their not-insignificant fees, as is made clear by Publishing Trends annual list of who’s scouting whom. And the bottom-line expense for scouting is something that may or may not survive the belt tightening that continues at the big houses. [...]

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