Monday, April 19, 2010

Question on Scouts

Phoenix asks,

One topic I don't see discussed much is the role of scouts in publishing. Can you elaborate on how they work, when they work, for whom they work, and if there's anything a writer can do to, um, you know, influence their recommendations? ;o)

If by "scouts" you mean "people who find writers to do particular projects" (that is, that we reach out to you with a project idea rather than you reaching out to us), there are two basic categories of scouting activities.

First is done by book packagers. I don't know much about that corner of the industry, so I'm perhaps not the right person to explain this. With that caveat, I can tell you that packagers generate concepts and find writers to execute those concepts. (Think "Sweet Valley High.") The books tend to be written as work-for-hire, meaning that the authors don't earn royalties. Packagers look for authors who can write to specs -- meaning that if the author is provided a guide sheet and plot/character summaries, they can turn out a book to match those criteria. And they also want professionals known to meet deadlines, execute well, etc. Of course, we all want that. Nothing really special about that. (Note: TO spec is not the same as ON spec. TO spec means you're given a "bible" of specifications to follow and are expected to craft a story that matches the details in the specs. ON spec means you write something independently and submit it on speculation, meaning there's no contract or even a quiet nod of approval from anyone with acquisition authority.)

Second is done by editors, but it's not quite the same type of scouting done by packagers. We build networks over time. We know who's good, who's reliable, who's fast. If we find ourselves with a sudden hole in the calendar, we can reach for our rolodex and start making calls.

Sometimes those calls go out to authors we've already worked with, as with an invitation we recently issued to an author to submit something we particularly need right now. I told her editor to ask her for something. We asked her specifically because she's very upbeat, a good worker, reliable, a strong writer -- all the qualities that would lead to her completing a solid draft fairly quickly. (And she did complete it quickly, and we evaluated it quickly, and now she's got revisions to work on. We started with a high opinion of this author, and she proved us right, and I love her for it.)

Sometimes those calls go out to new-to-us authors. This happened recently when an author dropped out of a project, but we wanted to continue with the project itself. We called someone, a journalist used to working on tight deadlines and with heavy editorial involvement. She's never written for us before, but I know her from way back. She's part of my network. I know I'm handing her a challenge, but I also know I can trust her to nail it. This isn't all that unusual, by the way. Ghostwriters and book doctors are often hired the same way, straight out of an editor's rolodex.

So, that's kind of the nutshell version of how scouting, such as it is, works in publishing. The truth is that we don't do much scouting because we don't have to. Good new writers tend to self-identify by actively submitting, attending conferences, etc. Agents act as gatekeepers, personal referrals turn up new candidates, and as always, the two key ingredients are writing well and putting yourself out there in a positive way.


Phoenix Sullivan said...

Thanks for answering!

Actually, though, the scouting you're discussing wasn't quite what I had in mind, though it's fascinating to see how agents and editors scout out talent for work-for-hire, package, and other projects.

Another type of scout I only very occasionally hear about is the one who scouts work for translations, usually at the trade shows. Also not the type I was referring to in my question.

Then there's the scout like the film industry has. The secret-agent type who has a handle on the "big" projects being shopped. The one who helps fuel the auctions and option the work before it's sold to a publisher. The one who ferrets out the leaks in the biz and helps manipulate the sales. I'm wondering how they get their info -- from the agents? from editors? from others in the publishing houses? ever from authors?

Those are the scouts I'm really wondering about.

Edittorrent said...

You make it sound like an action movie! lol -- it's pretty mundane, really. Typically they get their information from agents before the sale. After the sale, they get it from whoever happens to hold those subrights. Editors may have some tangential involvement, but not much, because we aren't really in the business of selling rights.


Riley Murphy said...

Geez, Pheonix, that sounds like it would make a great book! And hey, if you wrote it and a scout tracked you down - think of the irony...

Murphy :D

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Another balloon busted. I kind of hoped there was more intrigue there.

Many thanks for clarifying!