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

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People are lazy. The average person will stop listening to you once they think they understand what you’re saying. I’ve always known this in the abstract but didn’t realize how immediately and entirely people stopped listening to me—eyes sent to a far corner of the room, head nodding up-and-down like a child’s bobble toy—until I started working as a literary scout.

Since scouting is a very small, specialized, and secretive niche of publishing, I find myself enduring some iteration of the following conversation at least twice a week:

– So, what do you do?
– I work as a literary scout. We act as advisors to international publishers.
My interlocutor inevitably narrows her eyes, smiles conspiratorially, and lowers her voice in jest:
– So if I wrote a book, you could get it published?
– No. That’s a literary agent. I’m a scout. We don’t find talent. We help sell American books to international publishers.
– Oh, cool. So you’re reading international literature?
– …no. We only work with American, English-language books. We keep track of the market for our clients, who are international publishers, act as front-line readers, and advise them on what to publish, in translation, in their countries.
Most conversations end there, with what’s either understanding or feigned understanding. People are lazy and fundamentally uninterested in strangers unless they have a reason to know you. And anyway, they get the gist: I work in publishing.

But as a result of this general human condition (laziness), it seems to me very few people outside of publishing have heard of the literary scout, much less understand what we do. I speak from experience: one of my college friends, who graduated two years ahead of me, worked as a literary scout for a year and a half; however, I didn’t truly understand the job until I started in my position in September 2012.

Scout is a word with glamorous associations: it simultaneously conjures hazy images of James Bond-style espionage and a well-groomed businesswoman with an L.A. corner office. The literary scout is a cross between the two. Like spies, we are employed to gather information before it becomes general knowledge, and, like talent scouts, we read with the goal of finding the “next big thing.” However, although the moniker “literary scout” accurately describes what we do, I’ve learned to shy away from using it in conversation. People tend to fixate on their personal associations with the word “scout,” or simply refuse to see past its lacquered surface.

Instead, I usually say that I am a literary consultant to international publishers. The term is perhaps more descriptive than literary scout. My company is on retainer to eight international publishers for whom we gather information regarding the books being sold, bought, and discussed among North American agents and publishers. These eight international publishers, our clients, rely upon us (1) to keep them in the know about big projects that are relevant to their list; (2) to help them prioritize the many submissions they receive daily from U.S. agents and publishers; and (3) to act as frontline readers, advising editors, most often to either read a submission immediately or to turn it down. We reach these recommendations based on a mix of editorial insight and contextual knowledge, combined with the specific needs of each client’s list. In addition to advising clients about specific books, we also take on targeted research projects, which range from compiling a list of every significant Christian publisher in the U.S. to tracking down the rights information for out-of-print titles, on an as-needed basis.

A scout’s greatest fear, and what drives our frenzied reading around the London and Frankfurt book fairs, is the fear of being “scooped.” That is, the fear that a publisher in France, for instance, will buy an amazing novel (the next Franzen! the next Zadie Smith!) that our client—another French publisher—does not even know about. If we don’t want to get scooped, we need to know everything. For this reason, scouting has a reputation not only as one of the most reading intensive jobs in publishing, but also as the one with the highest stakes and the fastest daily office pace. The need-to-know aspect of our jobs has also given scouts, in the minds of some, a reputation as pushy information-seekers; however, in my ten months as a scout, I’ve never been asked to extract information or manuscripts that wouldn’t readily be offered to me.

Aside from writing and reading, the bulk of our work, and the bane of the job, is scheduling for our clients, most of whom attend both the London and Frankfurt book fairs in addition to coming to New York once a year. This means we must create hundreds of appointments on their behalf—a process which entails producing the lists of proposed appointments, mapping out the schedule’s time table, actually scheduling each appointment, and then triple-checking each address and time. I have always been called conscientious and hard-working, but I did not know what “detail-oriented” meant until I took this job.

Since I began scouting, fresh off an internship at W.W. Norton last year, people in the business have been telling me that it’s the best place to start in the industry. I now have enough experience to agree with them. A mere week after my first day, I was able to write directly to clients with recommendations on titles I’d read. After six months, I had not only learned the names of every significant agency, agent, publishing house, editor, and rights person in the U.S., but I had even gained a sense of the attributes particular to each list. What’s more, since the scout isn’t limited to a single genre, both the quality and breadth of my reading tends to be uniformly higher and wider than that of the average editorial or agency assistant. In the past ten months, I’ve learned more about my personality and taste as a reader than in all of my years of reading before. And although I do sometimes complain about the volume of reading or work, more often than not I find the pace of office life invigorating, and it’s fun to be always “in the know”—even at the cost of effortless cocktail party banter.

Emma Winsor Wood is a literary scout, vegetarian, and part-time pirate. She grew up in New York and is fascinated by all things Russia. You can read her tweets @emmawinsorwood.

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