A week ago, and after a surge of concern at the way the Brit Writers company operates in a number of areas, I posted these questions on this blog. I notified the company of those questions in advance and asked for their answers, promising that I would publish any statement in full. I received no answer other than a (second) threat of libel action if I went ahead. So I went ahead.
Since then there has been a torrent of debate and speculation, almost all of which could have been avoided by a simple, clear statement of the facts. No such statement was forthcoming until yesterday, and we printed the text in full here. You’ll notice that the statement is remarkably vague about almost every specific question raised.
So I wrote again to Brit Writers, saying that I would post for a final time today and asking that they give me in confidence answers to all my key questions. I undertook that I would transmit the broad thrust of their answer, but would not release any company names into the public domain. I stand by that undertaking. Although I do now have more facts than have been initially released, I am still well short of a proper understanding of the company – the follow-up answers that they gave me are still frustratingly vague.
What follows, then, is my best guess as to the truth about the Brit Writers. To be clear: I am not in full possession of the facts, so what follows is merely attempt to estimate the reality of the firm’s operations. If I’m wrong in any of my guesses, I stand ready to make a public correction any time the BWA chooses to reveal more. (Also, to be clear, the Writers’ Workshop does compete with Brit Writers on a number of fronts, so I am possibly not an impartial judge, though we have helped and supported the company in the past. You’ll need to bear that in mind as you read on.)
So now to the key questions:
Are there any agents connected with the Agents Division?
Yes, sort of. I think the claims made in the Brit Writers’ marketing literature are probably overblown, but I do believe that the company talks to and engages with literary agents. I also believe that they are in discussions with credible counterparties as regards anthologies of poetry and short stories and that those discussions began prior to the launch of the Division.
Does the Agents Division give an honest assessment of writers’ work?
Yes and no. Brit Writers have told me that they do give an honest assessment to all writers and that probably is indeed their aspiration. I am not, however, persuaded that those making those assessments have the necessary skills to do so and I strongly suspect that the assessments contain more hope-&-hype than they ought to. I would also guess that the Brit Writers’ commercial interests in encouraging writers to pay for various services are not always as clearly presented as I would like.
But there may well be a philosophical difference here. I believe that no book will succeed if it isn’t really good. Some writers get there in a single bound without outside support. Others may benefit from first class editorial work, carried out either by a pro author of quality or by a really experienced publisher. That’s what we seek to offer. Brit Writers, it seems to me, is more focused on marketing than editing. That seems me like a terrible idea, but it’s perfectly valid for different companies to try different approaches. And if they say they aim to provide an honest assessment, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Will Brit Writers refer strong work to agents / publishers?
They’ve told me that they have already done so and will go on doing so when strong work comes along. They will announce details as and when they have anything formally signed up. No announcements to date, but I believe their statements here are credible. It’ll be very interesting to see the nature of the projects to be announced.
Who judges the awards?
According to Brit Writers: The Awards are judged by people at ‘partner organisations’, ‘independent professionals in exchange for services’ and (for the under-16s) teachers and governors. Judges’ names are kept private to avoid harassment by entrants.
These statements I find credible, but almost deliberately murky – and I certainly can’t understand why judges’ names can’t be publicly announced. If the judges are genuine authorities in the field, I think they should be named. If not, they should be replaced. Simple.
Does the publishing programme have top quality publishers attached to it?
Maybe. Brit Writers have given me the name of some of the publishers that they’ve been in discussions with. Those publishers include a broad group of smaller presses, but also include units of some of the UK’s largest publishers and one or two members of the Independent Alliance. Nothing wrong with that list of names at all. It was a strong list.
Having said that, talking to publishers is one thing, doing deals is quite another. We’ll simply have to suspend judgement on this front until we can see some of the book deals being announced. I am entirely ready to believe that Brit Writers are actively and resourcefully seeking good quality publishing partners.
Does the Brit Writers organisation look after its clients?
This, maybe, is the killer issue. I have received, both via this blog and via private messages, a number of serious complaints about things promised and not delivered by the company (or not delivered in a timely way). The list of complaints relates to prizes arriving very late, very poor quality communications, feedback promised and never received, publishing commitments reneged upon and the like.
Brit Writers has acknowledged to me that the organisation of their first awards ceremony was below-par. (Code, I think, for shambolic.) But they also tell me that this was their first huge event and that subsequent ones have run more smoothly. I accept that. Anyone can mess up once.
They’ve also said that some of their prizes were delivered very late, but that they were all, finally, delivered in full. I accept that too.
About some of the specific complaints, they’ve said that there were ‘misunderstandings’ and that the individual’s position was ‘unique’. That may also be the case.
Overall, though, I’m still left with a feeling of unease. Naturally any company will screw up now and again. I know we have. But any good company will seek to make things right, hard or costly though that may sometimes be. That will still leave a small number of born complainers – the sort who’d criticise the sun for not being hot enough – and yet I can’t help feeling that the BWA’s track record is simply not good enough. I just don’t see a company striving to meet its customers interests as assiduously as I think it ought to.
What is the Brit Writers’ attitude to open discussion of their services?
A key issue this, for me. Brit Writers have said to me that they hope to avoid ‘the debacle of legal action, which we, as an organisation wholly deplore. However, Brit Writers would like to state that despite being non-adversarial by nature, any organisation or individual must reserve the right to be free from slander and defamation, and enforce this without reserve if and when compelled to do so.’
On the one hand, yes. I wouldn’t expect the BWA to undertake never to sue anyone no matter what.
On the other hand, NO. Brit Writers were by no means ‘compelled’ to threaten me, or anyone else, with legal action, when they could just have called up to correct a factual error (made not by me, but but a commenter on the Word Cloud). Over the last week, the BWA instructed at least one client to withdraw / amend a comment made on this blog, using the force of a Non-Disclosure Agreement to compel compliance.
That approach – and the ethos which lies behind it – strikes me as utterly, totally wrong. Unjustifiable on any reasonable count.
My overall take on the company
The BWA has asked us to withdraw the accusation that it is a “‘scam’ organisation.” As it happens, I have not made this acccusation so it’s hard for me to withdraw it.
But, for what it’s worth, I think that the BWA is not a scam. I think its performance has too often been unacceptably poor, even taking into account the company’s relative inexperience. I think it needs to explain its operations far, far more transparently than it now does. I think it needs to change its philosophy and approach. But those things don’t amount to a scam. It’s not that. There may even be some good motives at work. I think there probably are.
Blog amended 18th Nov:
This article was originally written and posted on 17th Nov and relied in part on a number of written statements made by the BWA, who knew their statements would be scrutinised. Unfortunately, I now have incontrovertible evidence that the company lies, even in circumstances where its claims are likely to be closely examined. Nothing this company says can be taken on trust. Its financial promises are unreliable. The same is true of its literary promises. Writers should avoid having anything at all to do with this company. The whole thing is incredibly sad.
This paragraph replaces a previous, somewhat more upbeat, conclusion to this post. A slightly fuller elaboration of this para can be found in my longer comment below. Please tweet this post. If you have a blog, please link to this post. This post is already #2 on Google for the search term “Brit Writers”. I’d prefer it to be the #1 result.