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What Is A Literary Scout?

Gill McLay

Scouts. . .what do they do and why?

The world of children’s books entered a golden age twenty years ago when the success of books like Harry Potter, then Twilight and The Hungers Games shone the light on a resilient sector of the publishing industry that keeps on growing.  The need for scouts as a result was only a matter of time…

The world of scouts has existed for decades. Talent scouts have watched Sunday league football and junior sport competition looking for the next David Beckham. Graduate art exhibitions have been closely scoured for the next Grayson Perry. The X Factor is scouting on a global scale for the next One Direction. And in books, a business like any other, has a need for scouts looking for the next J K Rowling, too!

People often think of publishing as a gentlemanly and cosy industry, but those days are behind us and one must question if they ever really existed. Todays’ publishing world is competitive and demanding and like any other business. Return on a publishers’ investment needs to be demonstrated and to get that return through international rights deals and domestic sales means they need to source that elusive next big bestseller before somebody else signs it up. And to get the next big book, you need to see it as soon as possible. Scouts help alert book editors to manuscripts that they might not have seen – particularly from overseas agents and publishers. By having a literary scout on your side, exclusively dedicated to making sure you are in a position to consider all the latest ‘hot’ submissions, publishers can maximise their chances of not missing that next big thing. 

So how does a scout work? 

Scouts are only as good as their contacts and relationship network and they talk to everyone. They absorb information and are the industrys’ experts. A great scout has an encyclopaedic knowledge of their chosen specialist area and for that information publisher around the world will sign them up and pay for it. Scouts work exclusively for one publisher in each language territory and the contract between those parties means they share information exclusively with their publishers.

What does this mean for a publisher?

The primary publisher will benefit from getting there first. Sometimes books can be given a pre-emptive offer and other publishers won’t even get to see it. The key part of this, however , that is important to understand scouts is they work for multiple publishers in multiple territories. For each book of interest they don’t just get one publisher involved. Scouts can bring multiply territory deals to the table at the same time. They can help to ensure that the primary publisher or agent who has retained translation rights makes their advance money back in a timely fashion and maximises deals for the author. 

When scouts get excited about books it can make all the difference. At book fairs like in London, Bologna and Frankfurt scouts talking about a book favourably will create a buzz that attracts more interest to a book property. Having the ‘Book of the Fair’ can bring considerable financial rewards. 

As a writer do you need to know scouts? 

No, and you probably never will. Scouts are involved at such an early stage of the acquisition process that you can leave this role/relationship to your agent and publishers. That said, it’s good to know they exist and more importantly the greater understanding and knowledge of the industry you have, the better. Being a successful author is about more than writing books. It’s about being the author people want to work with and only by understanding the industry you are about to enter, and knowledge of all the parties that come to the table, can you become that person.

After graduating with a Publishing and Marketing degree from Oxford Brookes University in 1996, Gill has worked in the world of children’s publishing ever since.

Working with small independent publishers, Barefoot Books, to large global publishers, Egmont, Gill has a huge amount of industry knowledge.

From product development to co-ordinating marketing campaigns with UK retailers, Gill’s experience offers an understanding of all the different roles and sectors within the world of children’s books that together take author’s stories from idea to reader.