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Literary Scouts: The Secret Agents of the Publishing World

While attending AWP this weekend, the subject of literary scouts came up a few times, and the main conclusion I drew from these discussions is that very few writers – even established writers, who’ve written several novels – know what a literary scout is, or what a literary scout does. 

Literary scouts are very influential in publishing, and if your main profession is writing, you should probably know a bit about what they do.  There have been several pieces written on this in recent years, so what I think I’ll do here is give you my take on what scouts do first, and then conclude with a roundup of some of these other articles. 

What You Should Know About Scouts

- The first thing that springs to my mind when I hear the words “literary scout” is “insanely busy person.”  Scouts work crazy hours.  They probably attend more parties and spend more time reading manuscripts than anyone else in publishing.  I’ll loop back around to explain why this is so in a minute. 

- They are tastemakers.  Scouts are generally on retainer to publishers, foreign publishers, and movie studios.  They are tasked with discovering the hottest new manuscripts (most typically, a manuscript that has been contracted for publication here in the US but hasn't been published yet) before anyone else does.  Publishers will often buy a title on a scout’s recommendation.  They can also pass on a manuscript based on a scout’s recommendation.  These aren't agents; they don't represent a list of writers as clients.  They probably don't ever meet a whole lot of writers.  I suppose the best way to describe it is to say they are professional recommenders.  

- Scouts have secret and effective ways of getting a manuscript before anyone else.  Example: I happened to be working at a literary agency when my own agent (Emily Forland of Brandt & Hochman) sold The Other Typist to Amy Einhorn at Putnam/Penguin.  We hadn’t announced the deal yet, and Amy planned to keep the manuscript under wraps until we’d had a chance to edit.  Meanwhile, a scout came to pay a visit to my literary agent boss.  “Suzanne just sold her book,” my boss said when the scout came over.  “Oh, I know,” he replied.  “I’ve already read it.”  I asked him how that was possible.  “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” he joked.  Or, at least, I think it was a joke… 

- This brings me back around to where I left off in my first bullet point.  Literary scouts attend more parties than anyone else because they rely on a network of trusted insiders to pass along manuscripts to them.  And they read more than anyone else because it’s their job to know about EVERY MANUSCRIPT OUT THERE, ALL THE TIME. 

- I imagine this last bit – being held responsible to know about every manuscript out there, all the time – must be stressful.  The young folks I’ve known who have gone to work for scouts have all burned out on it within a handful of years.  The people who have gone on to found their own agencies are very tough, hard-working, take-no-prisoners types. 

And finally, there are a few conferences where scouts are particularly active: the London Book Fair (taking place this week, BTW), Book Expo America (usually late May/early June), and the Frankfurt Book Fair (October).  Lots of foreign deals are made during these conferences, and the buzz panels at BEA are very instrumental in bringing publishers’ lead titles to the attention of distributors and booksellers.  For those writers who have no clue how their book gets bought by a foreign publisher and how that works, I think I’ll write a more detailed post on this topic soon.  In the meantime, below is a list of online pieces written about the tiny but influential world of literary scouts.  As a writer, you probably won’t ever meet any of the small number of literary scouts that exist (unless you live in NYC and habitually hang out at industry parties) but it’s an education to know what they do and understand scouts’ influence as tastemakers.  They are certainly an unusual and fascinating part of the publishing puzzle.  The secretive manner in which they are able to get their hands on the latest manuscripts is particularly intriguing.  As it turns out, the publishing world is quite leaky – for the right people, that is, and these people are scouts. 

Other sources: 

Inside the Secret World of Literary Scouts  

Twist and Scout 

Searching for the Next Big Thing: Life as a Literary Scout 

A list of current scouts and the foreign publishers/TV/Film groups they represent can be found here