Agents

The World of a Literary Scout–and International Rights

My story starts with J.K Rowling…

Literary Scouts know a lot, but they’re not mind readers.

It was my first week as a Scout at what was then Anne Louise Fisher’s agency (now Eccles Fisher), and the office was buzzing. Constant phone calls. It was the buzz of publishers from around the world; the news had come out that Robert Galbraith, a low-profile crime author who had sold 500 copies on publication, was in fact J.K Rowling.

‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ a publishing client asked our agency.

Well, of course, we didn’t know; NO ONE knew. It was leaked by Rowling’s lawyer, for which he was sued. Rowling had wanted to live like common people and she had succeeded, for a bit.

Our clients were a dozen European and US publishers across the world like Penguin Random House Spain, Montadori Italy, and they relied on us, their Scouts, to keep them in the know over which unpublished and published books were being talked about, which authors were rising, and anything significant in the book industry.

At any one time, a good Scout can tell you the top 10 books editors or agents are reading; their job is to know. But they are human and, as in the case of J.K Rowling’s secret, there are things that simply can’t be known.

But let’s rewind a bit.

Scouts fit into the big puzzle of international rights, so to understand them you need to know the basics of how books are sold from writer to publisher to foreign publisher.

My simplified version of how authors get their books published around the world. (Skip if you already understand this.)

Authors sell books to a publishing house, normally in their home country. That publishing house will often ask if they can buy the international rights as well, so that they can sell the rights to publishing houses in different territories like Germany, France, Spain, etc. In other situations, agents will try to sell international rights themselves. In the case of Robert Galbraith/Rowling, her agent, The Blair Partnership, held onto international rights. Whoever has the rights, they try to sell them to other publishing houses and take a fee for sales. Open the book market and of course it’s like any other industry, a complex marketplace–the products are books, the brands are authors.

Now, the official way of selling rights is for the rights team to contact editors in international publishing houses and persuade them to buy. For example, see below for how Little Brown advertised Robert Galbraith’s book, available for sale in their Frankfurt Book Fair 2012 catalogue. You can see they’re naming the Blair Partnership (an agent) for translation rights. It would be a year later before the secret became public.

Cue — the Scout.

However, if a publishing house wants a warm body on the ground, a local informant, assessing what’s really going in a country, they employ a Scout. This will be someone who know the local market, knows the agents, the editors, knows what’s being talked about, and what deals are about to be made. As a reader, you won’t have heard of a Scout simply because you’re not their market. But if you’re reading an American book that’s been published in the UK, or see a UK book that’s popular in Sweden , that book has likely been read by, and possibly recommended by, a Scout to a Publisher.

A good Scout knows what’s hot before anyone else does.

Forty-eight hours before huge publishing deals like Fifty Shades, you’ll have seen a UK Scout on the phone to their US clients telling them they have to read the book NOW.

Everything for a Scout is about relationships–how much the local editors and agents like and trust you, and how much your client trusts you. Being a Scout involves a lot of face-to-face meetings, coffees and drinks galore . It’s your job to know everyone.

As a Scout, I jotted down storylines that agents told me they were reading from full or partial manuscripts, sometimes no more than a line. If I knew a manuscript was coming in on the 10th of March, I’d have a note to call that agent or editor on the 11th to ask if I could finally see that elusive manuscript. Maybe it would be groundbreaking, maybe it would be mediocre; whichever way, I needed to read it and find out.

And when a story was right, I’d pass that information to clients in territories that I thought were right for it.

As a Scout, you have to be able to get your hands on what your client needs without compromising your relationship with editors and agents (who often don’t want you to have the manuscripts until they’re ready).

A Scout has a unique overview of the entire market.

Walk into any book fairs where editors come to buy and rights teams come to sell (Frankfurt, LBF and Bologna are the biggest in Europe), and in that crowd there will be a handful of Scouts keeping an eye on dynamics and sending daily reports from their phones about which books are selling like hotcakes.

As an editor, I went to book fairs and had scores of meetings with US, French and other foreign publishers selling their books to the UK. It was busy but fun, like window shopping, only for books. The only stress was worrying that we might be missing ‘the next big thing’ (likely from the US).

As a Scout, my experience at a Book Fair was a completely different and thrilling experience. I went to Bologna as a Scout, and I had to know what every UK children’s publisher was selling, even the books that were ‘hidden’ for a surprise announcement.

I remember our Hungarian clients arrived late to the fair and had back-to-back meetings about to start. I stood huddled in a corner of the conference room, with a publisher and editor. I had 20 minutes to give them an assessment on the top 200 books that were available at the fair and a few others that agents were talking about but not selling until after the fair. I pulled out my 40-page report and highlighted the top 10 for them, and sent them off, asking them to call if they needed help with anything. I visited all the UK publishers throughout the day, and called my client when a book they wanted had started to sell across the world. I was on call the entire time but loved being so deep in the early stages of publishing, and playing the role of matchmaker, on speed.

Of course, the real hard work had started around 6 weeks earlier when I was talking to editors and agents about what they were reading. And 3-4 weeks before, I was reading manuscripts I thought would be most important for my clients.

Did I mention that all the reading was on my own time?

Daytime was for meeting editors and agents and writing reports, and in the gaps of every other moment, I read — while brushing teeth, walking (I nearly got run over), during dinner, after dinner; I read myself to sleep. My head was a mashup of a million brilliant storylines. I picked up late night emails from clients that would be hilarious in any other context.

I had just started dating someone, and thankfully my new girlfriend was amused rather than annoyed by my permanent attachment to my Kindle.

Even after I left Scouting (it was a maternity cover), I would, for the next 2 years, see new books released in Waterstones or on Amazon that I had read years previously, unedited.

What Scouting taught me:

As a Scout, you see from afar hundreds of books passing through the marketplace, editors around the world chasing and rejecting the best books. I saw an editor at a small publisher get excited over a book that I could tell on my system had been submitted years ago and rejected repeatedly. I could see trends come and go across the world. I saw how a senior editor snatched the book EVERY editor wanted by reaching into the company’s fat wallet and paying stupid money for it hours after it was sent out to editors. Would the company make the money back? Were they the best publisher for the book? I’m not sure, but they had the clout to wade in and take what they wanted.

As an editor I romanticised individual publishing houses. As a Scout, I could see which ones had bigger hits, struck better deals, and had the best rights team. It’s all subjective opinion, but it changed the way I saw publishing and it made me see publishing as it was — editors and publishing houses gambling on what they thought readers would like. Sometimes they got it right, sometimes they got it wrong, but they were driven by a love for stories and a desire to do well for themselves and for their company.

It was always about the story.

So what did all editors talk about? We did discuss history, awards, how personable an author was, but universally I saw that conversations with editors across the world was always about the story. Okay, sometimes, like in the case of Minecraft books or a brand like Peppa Pig, we also discussed popularity and fan bases, but for the most part, editors chose or rejected books based on whether they loved the story — whether it moved them, stayed with them, and whether it was right for their country.

Publishing can be a hard-nosed marketplace where editors hope for bestsellers and potential award winners, but in my experience as a Scout, what we all loved the most, talked about the most, and what I always tell writers to focus on, is the core of it all–the story.