As many of you know, I spent the last four months interning at Greenburger Scouting, a literary scouting agency based in New York. Scouting is, by my reckoning, one of the least understood niches of the publishing industry. I did research before I applied, of course, but details were few and far between. Even people in the publishing don’t always seem to know what scouts do.
Helpful person that I am, I am here to educate you all. Of course, all the common sensical disclaimers apply. I am not a scout and have never been a scout. I interned for scouts. I am speaking based on what I witnessed while interning. For the best idea of what a scout does, ask an actual scout. Okay, now that that’s out of the way…
To really understand what a scout does, first you have to understand how rights work. This is overly simplified, but you’ll get the basic idea. When a publishing house sits down with an author to buy their manuscript, what they buy can vary. For American houses, the three main options are North American rights, World English rights, and World rights. North American rights means the publisher has the right to publish the book in English in North America (so the U.S. and Canada.)
World English means that the publisher has the right to publish the book in English anywhere in the world. This includes not just English-speaking countries like America, Australia, the U.K., etc., but also anywhere else. So if, for some reason, the publisher wanted to produce an English language version of the text in Pakistan, they could. Only in English, mind, but it could still be done.
World rights means that the publisher can publish the book anywhere in the world in any language. Also, just because a publisher has the rights to a particular language or territory doesn’t mean the publisher itself has to create that version. A publisher can use a right or sell it to someone else. So if Publisher A has World rights to a book, Publisher A can then turn around and sell, say, French rights to Publisher B. Publisher A gets a percentage of the profits but doesn’t have to do the work. (As a sidenote, it’s also possible for the publisher to buy, say, World English and Japanese but nothing else. It’s not as common to pick and choose like that and normally happens when a publisher has a foreign branch [ex: Random House Japan] with a market that would suit the book but doesn’t want to pick up World rights.)
Any rights that are not bought in the initial deal remain with the author and their agency unless/until the agency then decides to sell the rights to someone else. So if Publisher A bought World English rights, that means that the agency retains the rights to all the other languages. So while Publisher A toodles around with English, the agency can then find publishers overseas willing to buy French, German, Arabic, Japanese, etc., etc.
So, what does that have to do with scouts? Scouts make their money by connecting foreign interests with American works. A publishing house or even agency overseas will pay a scout to scour the market, looking for the next big thing to make waves in the client’s country.
Say a Chinese publishing house is looking to obtain American books for translation. They don’t have the time or the connections to sit down and read everything coming out of our publishing industry. Instead, they’ll pay a scouting agency to watch specific markets (YA, MG, adult, non-fiction, whatever.) The scout will report back on what they think is promising and might work well for Chinese audiences, and then the Chinese will decide how they wish to proceed. Scouts will also often pass along news so that overseas clients will know about big news, upcoming trends, and so on. Knowledge is power, after all.
This is where rights come in. Scouts need to know who has rights to what at all times. If they hear of a big book coming down the pipe, the next question is, who has the rights to their client’s territory? The agency? The publishing house? Have the rights already been sold to a publisher overseas? Is there an auction brewing that the scout’s client needs to get in on?
If any of this sounds interesting, you might be wondering what it takes to be a scout. I’m glad you asked!
First and foremost, a scout must know the market. They watch Publisher’s Weekly and Publisher’s Marketplace, keeping an eye out for new deals and ground-shifting business decisions. They know what’s been big, what will be big, and what failed. They read constantly. I read pretty quickly, but I honestly have not met anyone who read more than my scouts. It’s a little frightening.
Scouts also have to be sure they know not just the American market but also the market of their client and the tastes of their client. What works here may not work overseas. Other countries have their own history, culture, and society. Their people have their own beliefs and their own tastes. A genre that’s big over here may sink like a rock somewhere else, and different topics may appeal to or repel different audiences. And just as different publishing companies are known for different kinds of stories over here (Harlequin vs. Tor, for example), so it is overseas. A scout needs to be able to know (or guess very accurately) what works here, what works there, what works for their specific client, and even what might normally not work but will just this once (a dud topic that is successful because of its famous author, for example.)
Scouts also have to be quick. The earlier they know about and can get their hands on a manuscript, the better, because that’s all the sooner the client can make their move. If a book is destined to be a hit, the client can scoop competition and get a pre-empt on a book before anyone else has even read it. If the scout thinks the book won’t work for whatever reason, the client is then free to focus on other things.
Of course, scouts must be discreet. There’s no point out-hustling the competition if you blow your lead by running your mouth. Again, knowledge is power, so scouts master the art of telling little while hearing much.
In order to do all this, a scout must also have (and maintain) connections. Scouts are crafty little spider spies. They build a web out of contacts and friendships, maintaining the lines with business lunches, happy hour meet-ups, favors, and friendly emails. It’s pretty impressive to watch. Scouts know anybody who’s anybody, right down to the lowly assistant, because you never know when a connection might pay off. An early manuscript here, a bit of gossip there, and bada bing bada boom, a coffee date has just been leveraged into an advantage.
Note: I don’t mean to say scouts are smarmy people. Some of them may be (as in any profession,) but not the people I worked with. They simply know the power of being a pleasant, outgoing person when it comes to getting what they need.
So basically, if you’re a somewhat nosy but close-lipped, charming, friendly person who loves books and knowing things before anyone else, you might be a good scout. And if you’ve ever read a foreign version of an American book, you may have a scout to thank.