An interview with… Sarah O’Halloran

For my Writing 4 Children slot in Writers’ Forum, April 2017, children’s book literary scout, Sarah O’Halloran, explained to me the differences between a literary scout and a literary agent and the trends she has noticed in the children’s book market.

Sarah explained that although a literary scout and a literary agent have very similar job titles, the role of a literary agent and a literary scout are in fact very different. Literary agents represent authors, sell their books to editors and take a commission from any deals they make on their author’s behalf. Literary scouts don’t work with authors at all. Literary scouts work on behalf of foreign publishers, telling them what is happening in the UK market. They work with about a dozen clients around the world and it is their job to help them find titles that might work for them in translation.

In order to do this, a literary scout will develop relationships with agents to discover what authors are submitting, and with editors who will inform a literary scout what they’re receiving from agents. At its most basic, a literary scout will read and report on these manuscripts for their clients, as well as providing them with more general information about the UK book market as a whole. 

“Scouting is a great job You get to develop relationships with agents, editors and rights people, to read a whole load of books and to work with creative, hard-working people who are passionate about books.”

Sarah O’Halloran

There are some similarities between the two jobs. Both jobs rely heavily on building relationships and developing your professional network, and both require you to have a keen editorial eye, a broad understanding of the market, and to read an awful lot.

To be a good literary scout it helps if you can read quickly. It’s also important that you read very broadly in order to develop as comprehensive an understanding of the market as possible. To be able to successfully evaluate a book’s potential, both in the UK and for translation, you need to be able to place it in the context of other similar, competing titles. As well as this, organisation and the ability to prioritise your time are both really important given the volume of material we receive. Finally, you need to be quite sociable and even a little bit nosey.

Sarah revealed her own personal area of interest is teen and YA, and these are some of her favourites:   

  • The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hithcock is the most beautiful literary YA novel about the lives of four teenagers in Alaska in the 1970s. It is visceral, powerful, poetic, raw and honest and I loved it! 
  • Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill is a biting satire about society’s obsession with beauty, and it is exactly the kind of book I love. There are lots of smart, funny, angry feminist voices in YA at the moment and this was one of my favourites.
  • We Were Liars by E.E. Lockhart is a dark, utterly gripping thriller about a family with a dark secret, and it has a shocking and unexpected twist. It was a massive bestseller so I wasn’t the only person who loved it! 

As a literary scout she doesn’t work on projects herself, when she is submitted material by agents or publishers she can often tell if she thinks a project has potential before she has even looked at the manuscript. There are a number of things we look out for in an agent’s submission letter – some of them are more obvious than others – and lots of them are the same kinds of things that agents look out for in the submission letters they receive from authors.   

Sarah told me:

“It may seem obvious but a great title always helps. And if the book can be pitched in a concise and intriguing way that is also very encouraging.  A one or two sentence tag-line is often the way that agents pitch to editors, editors pitch to their marketing and sales teams, sales teams pitch to booksellers, and ultimately the way booksellers pitch to readers, so it’s impossible to exaggerate its importance. For me, it’s all about the voice. Although a strong plot is essential, I think an editor can work with an author to tighten up a slightly messy plot, but if the voice doesn’t feel authentic it is very hard to make a book work.”

Sarah O’Halloran

An agent will often compare a book they are submitting to other books, and if a book is reminiscent of a bestselling author, that suggests that there is a receptive market for that kind of story.

Sarah’s tip to aspiring children’s book writers is that although it’s helpful for an author to keep an eye on the UK market and to know a little bit about where their work sits in relation to other books, don’t try to write to a certain trend. By the time you’ve identified a trend it’s probably already on its way out.

Sarah also revealed that book Fairs are an essential part of a literary scout’s job. Often agents will submit their biggest titles just in advance of the book fairs so there is always a lot of material to read and a lot of rights deals to keep on top of. In advance of the fair a book scout will create a report for our clients directing them towards the titles that are generating the most interest in the UK, as well as titles they think are the most interesting for their market. At the fair, they meet with their clients, as well as with agents and publishers from around the world.

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