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Penguin Random House Spain, Montadori Italy, and they relied on us, their Scouts, to keep them in the know over which unpublished and published books were being talked about, which authors were rising, and anything significant in the book industry.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.
This post was written for Writer Unboxed
Dial back a good few years, and I had just put the phone down with an agent. I had acquired the UK rights for Never Fall Down, by Patricia McCormick, a powerful, hard-hitting book about a boy escaping the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. I know, cheery stuff. But to me it was an astonishing book, and a book I felt readers in the UK needed to read.
The boss, the Publisher, walked across the room to my desk — ‘Have you already signed the contract for your book?’
I told her I had. Trouble was, they had just read another hard-hitting book, and she thought that one was more commercial. But it was too late, I’d already made my move on the book I loved, so she had to pass on the opportunity for this second book.
Who knows what we told the agent or the writer about why we rejected the second book , but the truth was we only had space for one of that type of book that year and my acquisition had taken the slot. There was nothing wrong with that second book. It had nothing to do with the author’s social media followers or her publicity plan. Nothing to do with her cover letter. Just plain bad luck and unfortunate timing.
Sometimes I wonder if authors and aspiring writers really know what’s going on in publishing houses — what motivates editors and why they say yes or no to an unpublished book.
I regularly scroll through advice given online to aspiring writers about how to approach editors and how to stand out. More often than not, I wrack my brains to remember: Did I ever care about that as an Editor at Random House, or did I hear fellow editors worry about this in editorial meetings?
Sometimes yes, the advice is spot on. Sometimes the advice doesn’t match my or my friends’ experiences at all.
The obvious thing I want to point out is that editors have two forces at play when they look at a manuscript.
- Their love for a book, or their intuition about that book’s potential to be a bestseller
- The company’s position : Are they acquiring? Is there a lockdown on a certain type of book (e.g. paranormal) because the list already has enough of that scheduled in the next year?
So here are some things I often read, and here’s what I think are myths and truths.
Myth #1: An editor is looking for an author who ‘speaks the right language’ of the genre, and has a compelling cover letter.
While it’s nice if an author can make comparisons between his/her book and other bestsellers in the market, I’ve certainly invited authors in who don’t read in their genre but have produced a page-turning book.
YES, authors who can speak the right terminology are great on festival panels, but when I read a manuscript it was because an agent had convinced me with their great description to do so—and because I trusted that agent. I never picked up a manuscript just because it was described well by an author I met at a conference or fair.
Of course, it’s helpful for an agent to see a smart cover letter that sells your book well, but smart ones will get the gist of the story and read a sample to see if they like your style and writing. My advice is not to overly worry about this till you come to submit. In the meantime, just focus on your story. Once you’re coming to submit to an agent, you can take time to hone your pitch.
Myth #2 : An editor is looking for an author with a massive social media following.
I just emailed my friend who is a non-fiction editor at a large UK publishing house to double check this. I asked ‘How many followers would you need a non-fiction writer to have, for you to be interested in them? 10k?’ Her response ‘That’s way too low.’ She said it depended on the project, how topical the subject is was but at least 50k+. It’s a competitive market for non-fiction.
But for Fiction it’s a different story.
Editors are WAY less concerned about how many followers you have. I mean really, I can’t remember caring that much at all.
As an editor, I played up ‘the social media card’ when trying to convince a sales team to let me acquire a book, but it was always the cherry on the cake, not the cake itself. Unless the writer had a ridiculous number of followers, it wasn’t worth mentioning.***
Yes, it’s smart to start engaging with your community early on, but worrying about the number of followers you have is unnecessary at this stage. Focus on writing, and set aside 25–40 min a day on a social network (Not sure what to do on social media? Read this and this), but don’t worry beyond that.
Now you might point to Grace Helbig or Zoella or some YouTuber who won a huge publishing deal because of their social media following. That’s different. In my mind, they get deals because of their followers; they are social media stars first, writers second. Unless you’re interested in making social media your priority, focus on the writing.
I can think of a number of unpublished, about-to-be-published, still-early-in their-career writers I followed when they had small numbers, whose followings grew organically as they published. Nikesh Shukla, Cat Clarke, RJ Palacio, and Patrick Ness have a healthy number of fans today, but five or ten years ago it was very different!
I personally like using the Pomodoro Technique to be strict about time spent on tasks. The advice I give all authors, and try to follow myself is to show up daily but don’t obsess.
Myth #3 : An editor is looking for a writer who has a marketing & publicity plan.
I read this advice online and had mixed feelings about it. In today’s publishing houses, it’s a guess as to how much help you’ll ever have from the publishing house. Smart authors, whether self-published or traditionally published, will consider the Long Term Launch. At some point it’s smart to have a publicity plan, and if you’re in a position to choose between multiple publishing houses, then knowing what a publicity plan should look like will help you decide on the best company for you. However as an editor, at the stage of reading a manuscript, that was never on my mind.
By all means start researching marketing & publicity (you can find inspiration by reading Six Lessons Seth Godin Taught a Literary Novelist, and 12 lessons learnt by Tim Ferriss’ marketer) But for now, at the stage of writing and submitting, spend some time reading about how other writers are helping themselves, and focus on the writing.
Truth #1: An editor is looking for an author who is great to work with & personable.
An award-winning author once emailed me in the middle of the night, a long rambling message, with some insults thrown in. I’m pretty sure he was on drugs, complaining about the draft cover we had created. Turns out he had been looking at the wrong image.
He wasn’t easy to deal with; he really wasn’t. By contrast, years later, I still remember kindness and gratitude shown to our team by authors like Daniel Suarez (Daemon) and Michael Williams (Now is the Time for Running).
It’s like any relationship with a client or colleague, everyone would rather work with people they like and can get along with. Try to be that person.
Truth #2: An editor is looking for an author who has potential to grow and develop.
When an editor is persuading the company to acquire a book, the first thing they do is talk about the book itself and how wonderful a story it is, etc…
The second thing they do is talk about the author him/herself. What a publishing house wants to hear is that an author has the potential to GROW, that an author has more ideas and even more fabulous books up his/her sleeves.
It makes sense, right? A publishing house is taking a chance on a debut author, and it takes time for the author to blossom. Household names like Jacqueline Wilson, Lee Child, and Murakami have developed over decades and over multiple books. The best authors become brands in themselves, and the money they make a publisher allows the publisher to invest in lesser-known authors.
Truth #3: An editor is looking for a story that is a potential award winner and/or bestseller, or fits a gap in the publisher’s schedule.
We all want to be successful, to have our work matter. An editor at a publishing house is no different.
Being the editor who acquires EL James, or JK Rowling, or Lee Child can change your career. Discovering small authors who perform well can still save your head when the company is downsizing. I remember having lunch with an editor during a time when his department was downsizing, and he told me he knew he wouldn’t be made redundant because he had ‘discovered’ a book that had gone on to win multiple prizes around the world.
Editors battle across publishing houses, and even internally within publishing houses, to be the first to see potential award winners and bestsellers.
As an editor, when you’re reading a manuscript that you think will be the book of the year/decade, it’s like winning the jackpot — it really is. Of course you might be wrong . I remember being the first person at Quercus to read Genesis by Bernard Beckett, which was acquired by the boss with big fanfare and—although I still absolutely love the book—it didn’t make or break my career or the company’s. But an editor always hopes…
I don’t think there is a simple solution for having the right manuscript. Editors read your manuscript and compare it to books that the public hasn’t seen yet, to trends that haven’t emerged yet. And they do get it wrong, sometimes, of course. Choosing the next big book is an art, not a science. The best advice I’ve seen for writers is to read broadly so that you have a sense of what else is popular; and of course, the simple advice to ‘just write,’ with focus, without distraction.
Have advice you’d like to share? The floor is yours.
***Note from Parul: After I submitted this to Writer Unboxed, I had a slight panic – was I out of date? After all, it has now been 4 years since I worked at the Big Five. I texted two of my friends, a senior editor & an editorial director both at different publishing houses to check what they had to say. The first answered, ‘It has changed since you left. I do look up an author’s profile online and it is helpful if we know they can engage online.’ The second said, ‘No way, I think you’re right. It’s not important for me, and frankly it would be depressing if we cared about a fiction writer’s Twitter account at the submission stage. It’s great if they can build a following after, of course.’ So there you have it.
A first in the series of Publishing Uncovered interviews. Our first interview is with Kirsten Armstrong, a former editor at Penguin Random House
Kirsten worked as an editor for 7 years, including at David Fickling Books and Penguin Random House. After editing hundreds of children’s fiction books, she now works as Creative Manager at Unicef where her job is to bring real children’s stories to life.
A year ago you were an editor at Penguin Random House: tell me about some of the authors you worked with’?
Kirsten: I edited many fantastic authors, ranging from established bestsellers to debut writers. I was incredibly privileged to work with the late great Sir Terry Pratchett on his later children’s publishing, including Dodger, Dragons at Crumbling Castle, The Witch’s Vacuum Cleaner and The Shepherd’s Crown.
I also edited Andy McNab’s action-packed books for young adults, featuring battles, blood and bullets; I worked with Jamila Gavin on a beautiful fairytale collection; I even found myself working on abridging Bradley Wiggins’s autobiography for children.
How many submissions did you get a week? How many could you actually read?
Kirsten: Our editorial team would get anywhere between 10–30 submissions a week, depending on the time of year and whether a book fair was taking place. At any given time, I’d have around 8 submissions queued on my Kindle. I would try to read at least the first three chapters.
I prioritised ‘buzz books’ that I knew might get snapped up quickly. As an editor you build relationships with individual agents, so they have a good idea of your personal literary tastes and what you are looking to commission. So submissions from certain agents would get bumped to the top of my reading pile, as I knew the material they sent would be more relevant to me.
Editors turn down manuscripts they love, right? Do you remember you doing that? Why did you turn it down?
Kirsten: Sadly I’ve had to turn down a number of books that I thought were brilliant. A lot of it depends on your acquiring remit and the focus of your publishing house.
I once fought hard to acquire a book that I loved — a very brave, literary YA that I felt was incredibly powerful. But to secure in-house support I needed to be able to edit the manuscript to make it more commercial, and we would have needed the opportunity to buy certain rights in order to make the P&L sheet look healthy enough to get signed off.
Ultimately we were unable to offer for the rights we wanted, and so the business case just wasn’t strong enough. Also, after exploring potential edits with the author, it became apparent that they felt strongly about changing certain parts of their story.
While their reasons were completely understandable, I felt that the changes suggested would have enabled the book to reach a bigger audience. I still think that the submission had incredible potential — I remember it vividly many years later — but as a result of these factors I had to turn it down.
It’s easy to romanticise the publishing industry — after all, there is certainly more than a pinch of magic to be found in the incredible story or first finished copy that has just landed on your desk.
But publishing is fundamentally a business, and for the industry to survive it needs to make money. So even if a submission was really strong, I needed to ask other questions: what would be a realistic sales level, based on the market? Is there a knock-out USP or story hook that would help the publicity team create a splash around the book? What level of advance would we need to pay to secure the rights we wanted? How are similar books performing in the market?
Are there colleagues who share my passion for this project, who would help me champion the book internally? Based on all this, what financial margin do I think this book could make? And am I so convinced of this book’s potential for success that I would invest all my own money in it?
There are always exceptions to the rules, and editorial passion can go far to galvanise a sales team. But as the industry faces increasing pressures, business considerations come to the fore.
Would you recommend that authors submit directly to publishing houses or to agents? Why?
Kirsten: Always submit to agents. They will leverage their networks to give your manuscript the greatest possible opportunity. The best agents will also provide early-stage editorial feedback, so your manuscript is in the best state possible when it’s sent out to editors.
Becoming a published author is a lonely and sometimes challenging experience, and so agents can be an invaluable source of moral support — as well as using their expertise to negotiate the best deal for you when it comes to advances and royalties.
What advice would you give an author who is getting rejected from publishing houses and/ or agents
Stay positive. As I said earlier, there could be all sorts of factors at play, and it isn’t necessarily a reflection on your writing ability and talent.
Listen to the feedback you are receiving, and if you are consistently hearing the same comments then try to take them on board. However, if you fundamentally don’t want to change your manuscript, or if you have exhausted all your contacts, it may well be worth exploring self-publishing.
I think a lot of it depends on your motivation for writing. If you simply want to share your ideas with readers, go for it and self-publish. If you want to become rich from writing then stop right there! Regardless of how you become published, the reality is that very few authors make a lot of money from it. Most have part-time or even full-time jobs alongside their writing. Write because you are passionate about it, and have ideas you want to share.
Do publishing houses always get it right, with what they accept?
Kirsten: No! There’s always a risk in accepting any manuscript. Even with vigorous interrogation, there are some books that end up losing the company lots of money — and others that got away and went on to perform brilliantly elsewhere.
What would you say to writers who have been rejected but are still keen to be published by a traditional publishing house?
Kirsten: Read widely and get to grips with the market. Build a social media following — having a good Twitter network can help to reassure an editor that you will be proactive in promoting your book but don’t prioritise it.
And develop a thick skin — if your manuscript is acquired by a publisher, it must go from being a purely personal work to a creative collaboration.
Even the strongest manuscript will be subject to some editorial changes. An editor is there to preempt any negative comments that a reader might have, and to give your book the best chance of getting stocked in bookshops and into the hands of readers.
You may not always agree with their suggestions, but remember they are on your side and want the book to be a success just as much as you do.