Public health advisory: hire a scout

With Bologna postponed, and the Paris, Leipzig and London book fairs cancelled, editors and agents are worried they’ll miss out on crucial deals this year. For a scout, it’s somewhat less dramatic. I’ve spent the past two months meeting with the busiest agents, checking in with all major publishers, and hot-listing the entire industry’s current output according to genre, quality, agents’ excitement and editor feedback. The scout’s aim is to wrap the fair up in a bow and present it in advance.

"Working with scouts is a huge relief for us, especially around the fair," says Ana Nicolau of Romanian publisher Nemira. "We always know what are the hot books and it saves us a lot of time trying to sift through thousands of pages of rights lists that all arrive in the last couple of weeks before a fair. It’s hard to imagine life without them."  

Scouting is sometimes seen as a dark art, but it’s really just a vast, organised data-gathering effort. We work hard to get the hottest books early, but ultimately, we receive the same submissions as publishers. The difference is, our whole organisation is geared towards understanding that teetering pile of manuscripts and triaging it. Close to the major fairs, my fiercely talented team and I literally read through the night for weeks to ensure that we have properly assessed everything on offer and put it into the right hands. This allows our publishers to pre-empt books they might otherwise have lost at auction, and provides them with an unparalleled snapshot of the global market. And it can also help to avoid costly mistakes on books that don’t live up to the hype. 

All scouts work differently but, in my experience, scouts have access to manpower which increasingly squeezed editorial teams might lack. My staff comprises senior editors, authors, booksellers and rights professionals, meaning that we are able to get an accurate take on a book’s likely chances in the market. My readers have translated books on the International Booker shortlist, led prize-winning imprints, judged the Costa Prize and tutored at the Faber Academy.  As a result, we look at a book from all angles – I’ll often commission three separate reports on a book that divides opinion. 

But perhaps the greatest contribution scouts make to the industry is something less tangible: we create buzz. In all those pre-fair meetings, we’re exchanging information, pollinating the whole industry with hot tips. I can’t think of a runaway book in in the past 15 years that didn’t have a scout advocating passionately behind it. We’re the hidden cheerleaders, the wild enthusiasts. We spread that all over the globe. 

And, yes, perhaps we spread a little gossip, too. That’s all part of the fun. There’s a serious commercial intent behind it, though: knowing who’s moving where, what’s coming next, which personalities are in the ascendancy — this is vital subtext that’s missing from the endless lists of blurbs.  In the run-up to a fair, my office feels like Grand Central — everything passes across my desk.  Scouts are trading tips, receiving submissions on all genres, from all countries, in all directions.  As one of my clients admits, the fair itself has become a bit less exciting since he hired me. There’s little he doesn’t know in advance, but that removes many of the nasty surprises, too. 

I’m hearing lately that pre-empts and rights sales are down – it’s as though everyone has been in a holding pattern, waiting to see whether the book fair would go ahead. In the longer term, there’s already been a slow decline in deal-making during the actual fairs, with many of the hottest books selling before the doors even open. 

In this digital age, it’s inevitable that fairs are increasingly finding their value in networking and promotion rather than rights trading. My aim for my clients this year is to make LBF simply the party we don’t get to have with our friends from all over the world.  

As the publishing cycle grows ever more frenetic, I predict that scouts will increasingly be seen as essential. After all, we spread buzz not viruses. 

Lucy Abrahams is the founder of Lucy Abrahams Literary Scouting.