This is one I excavated from the archives. I didn't manage to migrate all my old blogs across at the same time.
S couts are like the Black Ops of the Publishing World
“We’ll send out the scouts,” my agent said. Literary agent, that is. “And they’ll create buzz with the international markets.”
“What are scouts?” I asked. Because when it comes to understanding the publishing landscape, I had a steep learning curve. As an example, when my agent called to say that HarperCollins Canada wanted to make a pre-emptive offer on THREE SOULS, my first words were, “That’s nice. What’s a pre-emptive offer?” But I digress.
Did you know about literary scouts? We all know about agents and how tough it is to get one. We know about the various species of editors: the copy editor, the line editor, the developmental editor, and that all-powerful deity, the acquisitions editor. But scouts? They’re practically invisible to people outside the industry. One article referred to literary scouts as the black ops of the book world.
Despite all the doom and gloom about the industry, it’s a highly competitive doom and gloom, and a brave new book is no less valuable than before. I’ve been told that editors are hopeless romantics, just waiting to fall in love with a book. But first they have to lock eyes with that book across a crowded room. One of the ways that book gets in front of them is through a scout.
Scouts typically work for editors/publishers outside the U.S.. International editors need eyes and ears in New York to stay on top of what’s being sold in North America. They keep their ears to the ground, stay in touch with the network they’ve built up over the years of agents, editors, and other scouts. Literary scouts do the same work as other talent scouts – they are intimately familiar with the types of books their clients (acquisitions editors) want and keep an eye out for books that fit the profile.
Scouts will read several manuscripts a week to make sure they’re current with the latest submissions because their job is to make sure the really good books get into the hands of the editors who hired them.
When agents submit a new book to editors, they will also send it to some scouts in hopes that the scouts will read, love, and generate buzz with the editors – including those who didn’t get a copy of the manuscript. In many cases, scouts have to be the ones to ferret out information about new books that agents are about to send out, and figure out how to get a copy. They stay in touch with friendly editors, who may hand them a manuscript they’ve rejected, but which may be a really good fit for another editor. It’s highly competitive and requires constant vigilance; at any moment of any day, another scout could be getting their hands on a future bestseller. It’s all about relationships, building trust, knowing what their editors want – and proactively working contacts to stay informed.
This is where it gets kind of amorphous and the best term I can think of is “domain knowledge”. Apart from the work of finding out about exciting new books and getting them to the editors they work for, the main value-add a scout brings to the process is information about what’s happening. Which editors might be reading a certain book. Which books are getting raves. It’s a dynamic landscape that changes all the time, depending on what books are out there, what editors feel they need in their product mix, or which book on the bestseller list is making agents and editors rethink their assumptions about what is marketable.
Scouts take the temperature and pass on the information, which helps editors make business decisions of whether or not to make an offer and how much to offer.
The main takeaway I got from reading about scouts is that the best ones are like surrogates for their editors. They know an editor’s taste and requirements so well that they can read a manuscript absolutely know whether it’s something the editor would love or be willing to chance. Yes, it’s a gatekeeper role but one that is informed by relationships and a lot of intelligence-gathering.
The other thing I learned is that scouting is one of the hardest jobs in publishing.
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Thank you for such a wonderful blog Janie! I’m a librarian and historian, and I absolutely love your historical fiction/family history. And how excited I was to see that your newest book has a reference to libraries in the title! Have a very happy Chinese New Year from a fan who’s celebrating her first CNY as a wife ❤️
Thank YOU for your kind words, Melissa. May I suggest you take a look at this blog, which links to the article I wrote for TIME Magazine about the real journey to save a priceless library. When you read it, you’ll understand why I had to write this book.
Thank you for sharing that amazing article, I’m so glad that it could reach such a large audience in Time! You and that story deserve so much recognition. It’s very similar to my own research on librarians/curators preserving important literature (and creating their own) under Occupied France. I hope your future books share more stories about wartime China. I like reading yours taking place during the fall of the Qing dynasty-early WWII, and then reading Elieen Chang’s novels on the Japanese Occupation!
Well, fiction requires conflict, and if you’re writing about China there’s plenty of that to choose from!