On publishing top authors: Rory Scarfe interview

literay agent

Rory Scarfe spent ten years as a non-fiction publisher, most recently as the director of the HarperSport division of HarperCollins, where he published some of the biggest names in sport, including Mike Tyson, Usain Bolt, and Team Sky. He joined Furniss Lawton in 2014, where he works with a range of non-fiction and fiction authors. Here Norah Myers interviews him about the new venture.

1. Vlogger and blogger Fleur de Force recently published a book called The Glam Guide. Please tell us about the process of working with her.

Fleur is a client of James Grant, of which we are the literary division, so she and I were put in touch a year or so ago when Fleur was thinking she would be interested to write a book to accompany what she was doing online. Fleur and I met, along with Fleur’s manager, and talked about the kind of book she wanted to write and how she would see it being published. It was immediately clear that Fleur had a very strong vision for the book and was adamant she would write it entirely herself; so then it was about she and I working together to produce a proposal to send out to publishers. We found an illustrator whom Fleur admires and created a proposal with sample text and illustrations. We had lots of interest from publishers, as you would expect, but ultimately it was Headline who presented the best case to Fleur. It has been a hugely successful relationship; the book is fantastic – a labour of love for Fleur – and her fans adore it.

2. Fleur is a blogger and her book is based on an established blog and video blogging brand, but it’s not content lifted directly from her blog. How do you work differently with a new book based on a brand and a book that started out as a blog?

One of the first things Fleur decided was that she didn’t want this book to be a re-hashing of the content that is already available online. From the start, Fleur had in mind that this book would be a beautiful, special object as much as anything and that the whole thing had to be something her fans would feel complemented the online stuff (as that is, after all, her main theatre) but which would also stand apart and go beyond the vlogs. In some sense that presents a challenge, but on the other hand to have such a dedicated and highly engaged fan-base who can be targeted directly is a dream scenario for a publisher. Sarah Emsley and her team at Headline were brilliant at helping Fleur to bring that special vision of the book to the page.

3. Where do you see your relationship with Fleur progressing in the future, and what sorts of books could you see her and other beauty Youtubers producing?

Fleur will publish further books. If you watch her vlogs you’ll see that while she has her core interest in beauty she is also interested in wider lifestyle topics. The first book has been a great success, so we have an excellent platform from which to continue to build Fleur’s publishing. I expect, and hope (!), Youtuber publishing will continue going from strength to strength for some time yet. I now have three Youtuber/online-based authors – all of whom have exciting publishing deals in place and all of whom we expect to do extremely well. I think when the Youtuber books phenomenon began some of us in publishing half-wondered whether it was another short-term bubble that would produce a few stand-out stars before fashion moved on. But now it looks like that anxiety was short-sighted and based on a misunderstanding: the books are just one part of this incredible shift in the way people (chiefly young people) are viewing and interacting with a new cast of stars who resonate with them and speak to what is important to them. How long any given star will last remains to be seen, as ever, but the online medium will continue to evolve and prosper and so long as it does books will represent an additional, exciting creative option for its stars.

4. There is a recent surge in Youtubers coming out with books: Zoe Sugg, Marcus Butler, Tyler Oakley, and Louise Pentland, among many others. As an agent, how do you choose whom to approach and why?

Our situation within James Grant means that we have this wonderful pool of ‘Social’ talent on our doorstep. That said, timing is everything and we would never advise a client to pursue publishing if we didn’t feel there was yet a sufficient appetite nor a great idea in place: in that sense the normal rules of good publishing apply. Clearly, it is extremely useful to have tangible, measurable statistics with Youtubers that can give you an immediate sense of how many subscribers a given Youtuber has etc. – but I think this can be misleading as much as it can be helpful: the data can only give you so much of a picture and I think it is unwise to conclude someone will have success publishing a book based on that information alone. To take an example of how I approach decisions using a client of mine from outside the James Grant family; I represent Chris (Simpsons Artist) who is a kind of absurdist cartoonist who makes brilliantly witty, off-kilter observations about modern life. I approached him because he is phenomenally popular (600,000 fans on Facebook alone), yes, but in the first instance I was drawn to him because his work makes me cry laughing. So, in that sense, I was guided by my personal taste and instincts as an agent and it paid off.

5. What was something you were surprised to learn about your job as an agent while working with Youtube talent? How is it different from working with authors who do not have an already-established brand?

One of the first things you realise when you meet Youtube talent is that these are young people who have achieved great success on the back of their intelligence, their charisma, their incredible initiative and (in almost every case) they have done it all completely on their own! It is startling when you think that these stars have taken a camera and an idea and just launched themselves from their homes to have millions of fans around the world. So, from my experience, when it comes to conversations about publishing Youtube talent are always bursting with ideas and they know what their audience wants better than anyone. That is different to so many authors (even some celebrities), who might know how to write a book and understand their profile but rely on the publishers when it comes to the actual selling and promoting. Obviously, this is another reason Youtubers are such a dream for publishers (and I mean this as the highest compliment), because they are geniuses of self-promotion!

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