Meet the Spies of the Publishing Industry
Today’s newsletter post is extra-long – but for good reason, as we’re gaining some fascinating hidden insight into the publishing industry. We’re treating you to an interview with literary scout Sylvie Zannier-Betts, conducted by our Head of Events Anna Burtt, who says:
One of my first forays into the publishing industry was working for a Literary Scout. I had the absolute pleasure of being paid to read! Can you imagine? I would read books sent to us by whoever handled their foreign rights – so agents, or rights professionals in publishing houses – before they came out in the UK, and report on them for our foreign clients who’d consider buying the translation rights. We often only read the first 50 pages, as it can be a time sensitive job, which is why it’s SO important to get those opening chapters in top shape. It was such a pleasure to see books I loved be bought by our clients and do well across the pond. I’ll never forget the joy I felt when I reported on (Women’s Prize winner) Claire Fuller’s early work and our German publisher went on to buy it!
There are a relatively small amount of Literary Scouts in the UK and they’re a hidden, but important, cog of this often-convoluted industry’s machine. I had the pleasure of asking Sylvie Zannier-Betts about what a Scout does, how book fairs work for them, and what makes them really excited about a manuscript.
What is a Literary Scout? | Sylvie Zannier-Betts Takeover
Anna: Many people have never heard of a Literary Scout. What do they do?
Sylvie: We’re not agents or editors, we’re sort of matchmakers: matching the right book to the right publisher – our opinion, knowledge of the industry and network matter.
Literary scouting agencies are hired by foreign publishers, and now increasingly by film companies, to identify books that could be interesting for their respective markets, for translation or film/TV adaptation. Scouts often advise in regards to acquisitions for translation rights but we also establish contacts in the publishing industry, we track and read manuscripts and end up writing readers reports for clients to help them go through their submissions. We attend international book fairs and coordinate clients’ schedules for book fair meetings. And very importantly, we stay tuned on book market trends. Networking is key.
Most people outside the publishing profession don’t quite know what we do, and sometimes even people within the publishing industry remain puzzled about our role. Scouts are one of the best-kept secrets in publishing. They are not many of us: 10 offices or so in the UK – a bit more in the US, some in France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Scandinavia. I currently work for publishers in nine European countries.
My task is to be on top of what’s currently being sold and on offer, in my case in the UK. I have to know who the new authors are and need to be able to identify what can sell, what is quality writing, original, trendy etc… It is essential for a literary scout to build strong connections with agents, editors and rights people to get hold of manuscripts as early as possible.
Scouts are one of the best-kept secrets in publishing.
Finding out who the next big names and talents are requires a lot of reading – all ahead of publication. I’m now reading two years ahead of what comes out in bookshops, so from 2024 onwards. We receive material very early on – often before it’s even sold in the UK. And sometimes a manuscript sells in a foreign market before it sells in the UK. Scouts play an instrumental role in that part. When I meet agents, often we talk about the people they’ve just signed and what they’re working on. I follow the process of how the manuscripts are shaping up until they are finally submitted to Editors.
There is undeniably an element of speed in what we do. It is not just about our personal taste, but about finding books that will suit the publishers we work for. My clients want to know what the UK market is doing; what the new trends are and who the exciting new authors are. It’s part of my job to make sure that my foreign clients know what may do well in their territories. Scouts have a large overview of the publishing industry as a whole and we help set trends internationally.
UK publishers compete to acquire rights to publish a manuscript –, the same is true among international publishers. It’s a competitive market, and literary scouts help make sure the companies we work for know about the books that might interest them and help clients to successfully acquire the translation rights. We don’t take the final decision but we facilitate deals being made.
I also have a consulting role. Our clients have often the first shot at something and get to read and make an offer at a very early stage. We are our clients’ eyes and ears, jokes are being made by calling us ‘spies’ of the publishing industry. We are looking out for our clients’ best interests.
Anna: Do Scouts work on commission?
Sylvie: Most Scouts in the UK don’t work on commission but on a retainer. To a certain extent I wish I had a commission sometimes because some books become big bestsellers thanks to us and the match-making we do! I work for publishers outside the UK. I have nothing at stake if one of my publishers offers for a book or not. It’s all based on the strength of the book. ‘My clients don’t always buy the books I champion. My job is to of course push the ones I like, but it’s really to find the ones they will fall for.
Anna: How do book fairs work for you, Sylvie? You’ve just come back from the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Sylvie: Frankfurt is a joy and can be really energizing because it is the time of year where everybody, from all over the world, convenes. We exchange views and ideas on the market, on books. There’s a lot of snippets of conversation that never happen online, or on email.There’s something very serendipitous about fairs. You always meet new people on top of your regular contacts and that enriches your experience. Mine is very much a multitasking role, besides organising appointments for my publishers. It’s not just making any appointment, it’s really trying to match personalities.We do a lot of work before the book fairs – to inform all our clients of exactly what is out there and make sure they meet people who cater for their lists!
Anna: What makes you really excited about a manuscript when you read it?
Sylvie: I’m a bit of a chameleon, really, as a Literary Scout. Because I have my own taste and as a ‘more typical French reader’, I’m often picky about what I read and like. I am personally more of a literary fiction and narrative non-fiction reader. But being a scout is not about my own taste only, because I work for publishers who do a lot of very commercial books – and very successfully. So, my role is very much to recognise what makes a book special in any category and understand my clients’ tastes and what they do best. What makes a book really exciting is when it fits in exactly with what my editors are looking for and that this combination translates into commercial and critical success for them. We’re very much into romantic comedies at the moment which means, we end up reading a lot of escapist fiction as a result. I’m always looking for nice ideas and books with a great hook, in any genre, that what’s make the job so exciting. You don’t quite know what will come next but you will always be receptive to that strong and addictive voice and storyline which I know our editors and readers will connect to.
Over the last 25 years as a Foreign Rights Director and Literary Scout, Sylvie Zannier-Betts has built a large network of international contacts among literary agents and publishers. She started working as a literary scout shortly after moving to the UK in 2002. Born in France, she initially trained as a historian specialising in International Relations. After completing a Master’s degree in Contemporary History, she was given the opportunity to start a publishing career in Germany by selling translation rights from German authors to foreign publishers. A few years later, she joined the foreign rights department at Editions Gallimard in Paris, followed by a move to the US, and later on to the UK. She scouts trade fiction and non-fiction titles.