The Enigmatic Role of Literary Scouting in the Publishing Industry

When it comes to publishing, there’s quite a bit that goes on behind the scenes, unseen even by other people in the industry. Literary (or book) scouting is a very specific niche of the industry that often gets overlooked—even as a publishing student, it wasn’t until I got a job with a scouting agency that I fully started to understand what the job entails. Over the past few months, I’ve gotten an inside look into the world of scouting and the impact that scouts have on an international level. So, in the spirit of more transparency in the industry, here’s a quick run-down on scouting.

Scouts are the eyes and ears of the publishing industry. They need to know which upcoming manuscripts are the hottest in the industry, and report any information they receive to their clients—before anyone else does. Scouts are usually employed by a scouting agency, which is in turn employed by their clients. These clients are publishing presses abroad (outside of the US) and/or film studios.

As most people in the industry already know—publishing can get very competitive. US editors often compete for a popular manuscript at auction, and these bidding wars can get intense. Publishers want to snag up the rights to these manuscripts before this happens, preferably at the lowest price possible. The same is true for publishers abroad; if a book gets popular in the US, there’s a good chance that audiences abroad are going to want to read that book as well (there are larger cultural implications to this, but that’s for another post). These publishers are also competing against others in their markets, so they want to hear about manuscripts and secure the rights before anyone else can swoop in. Scouts find that information and forward it to their clients, giving them a succinct list of titles that they might be interested in acquiring. The process is similar for film and TV. Book-to-screen adaptations can be highly profitable due to their built in fanbase, so film studios also benefit from being kept up-to-date on any titles making big waves.

A day in the life of a scout is never boring. It’s extremely fast-paced, and not for the faint of heart. The pressure to acquire and deliver important information quickly means that scouts are basically always on the clock. A lot of their time is spent reading manuscripts to determine if they are worth talking to their clients about. Another huge part of the job is networking. In order to find out about manuscripts before anyone else does, scouts need to have good relationships with the major editors and agents in the industry. This role is definitely for the more extroverted book-lovers out there (yes, we do exist). There’s also a travel component! Scouts attend all of the major international book fairs, including the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the London Book Fair, and the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Although scouting is an esoteric role in the world of book publishing, it’s a really impactful position. Scouts have a strong influence on which books become international bestsellers, as well as which ones become movies or TV shows. It can be a demanding job, but it can also be rewarding for those who want to be an influential force in the media industry worldwide. For those who feel better suited for other roles in the industry, it’s still important to understand how scouts affect the market and what goes on behind the scenes. If you want to learn more about this side of publishing, I recommend taking a look at this article from Emily Williams on Publishing Perspectives or this one from Book Scouter.