The Brit Writers Awards sprang from a noble intention: a desire to honour and support new writers. Unfortunately, we have noticed an increasing murmur of concern at some of the BWA’s business practices (for example here, here and here). As an organisation active with new writers, we need to know how to respond to those concerns and, at present, we don’t.
Because we want to give the BWA / Brit Writers every opportunity to address those concerns in a public forum, I’m happy to list the questions which are in my view arousing the greatest anxiety. I have already supplied those questions to the BWA (more backstory here). The BWA is welcome to post their responses directly in the comments to this article. Alternatively, they can contact me and I will transmit their response in full myself. If I am factually incorrect on any point, I will correct the matter instantly.
Because I am operating under the repeated threat of legal action, I need to make it clear that all allegations reported are merely allegations. The BWA vigorously denies all wrongdoing (whether legal or ethical). I am not myself in possession of the facts, so do not seek to express any view. I’m just keen to get some answers. We have nothing to gain but the truth.
My questions to the BWA are as follows:
1. Your ‘partner literary agents’
In one of your communications (full text here) you state that ‘a number of partner agents have asked us to help them identify potential literary gems’. Can you please state which agents have asked you for this help and state which literary agencies they represent.
2. Poetry and short stories
You state in the same communication that literary agents have asked you to help them locate poetry and short stories. I have never heard of an agent wanting to find new poets. Equally, although I do know some agents with an interest in short stories, I’ve never met one who would be interested in one-off pieces for anthologies.
It would therefore be good to know which agent at which literary agency is interested in poetry, and which agent at which literary agency is interested in one-off short stories.
3. BWA Agents’ Programme: value added
Any writer can approach any literary agent with their work. Nearly all major agencies take the work of new writers seriously and will give real consideration to debut novelists and authors of non-fiction.
Can you please explain what value you add to unpublished novelists by getting involved in this submissions process. What do they get by submitting to you that they cannot get by submitting work directly?
4. Form responses
It has been suggested (see Jane Smith’s round-up of internet discussions here) that your response to some of those submitting work to your ‘agents division’ follows, at least in part, a standard template. That template is said to include the following text:
“from what you have submitted, the assessors could not refer your work to agents immediately, but they see great potential here. The issues highlighted above can be rectified easily, so before you go any further with this, we suggest that you need a consultancy to advice on your synopsis, positioning the book for an agent/publisher, highlighting USPs and ensuring that the main plots are woven into the synopsis which also needs some basic formatting.[…]
You need to find an experienced literary consultant/marketing expert that can help you with this. […] If you would like us to arrange this for you, please let me know immediately.”
Can you please confirm if you do use (or have used) this text as part of a standardised response. Please also provide answers to the following questions:
What proportion of new writers are told that their work has high potential? Is it your view that the formatting and presentation of a synopsis is likely to sway the decisions of your ‘partner literary agents’. (And again, please, it would be good to know who these agents are.) Do you derive a financial benefit from referring writers to ‘experienced literary consultant/marketing experts’ and, if so, what is the benefit, who are the consultants and what is their literary background?
5. The Brit Writers Awards
In relation to the BWA Awards, it has been alleged (here, for example) that ‘Writers were being notified left, right and centre that they had made it through to the various shortlists; very few writers who entered ended up being told that their work hadn’t made it that far.’ You can see the reported experience of one prize entrant here.
Given these reports, it would be good if you were to publish your shortlists in full – and indeed the names of the judges who drew up those shortlists. After all, if it’s good enough for the Booker …
6. Publishing Programme
In December 2010, various writers have claimed that they received an email from the BWA / Brit Writers stating that:
“We are looking to work with 15 unpublished authors over the next 12 months on an intensive one-to-one basis, who we guarantee will be published with a top publisher before Christmas 2011. These 15 writers will be sharing their progress on the BWA website, while at the same time, behind the scenes film footage will document their journey to getting published.”
I have not been able to locate the relevant progress updates on your website, so could you please supply the link. (It may well be there; I just couldn’t find it.) Please also state who specifically has carried out this one-to-one work, and what their qualifications are. Additionally, please state who the ‘top publisher’ is. Can you confirm that this publisher is either one of the Big Six (Hachette, Random, Penguin, HC, Macmillan, Bloomsbury) or part of the Independent Alliance? If the top publisher is not in this elite group, can you please explain what makes them, in your view, a ‘top publisher’?
Also, 12 months is a very short time to publication even when a manuscript is effectively complete and polished. To attempt such a swift run to publication even when the manuscript has not been written seems extremely fast. Can you confirm that your publisher will be operating a normal “sell-in” with the trade? And if not, why not?
7. Website & partners
The BWA / Brit Writers website has largely blank pages under the “Publishing” and “Services” tabs. The “Partnerships” tab contains a request for partners, but does not disclose the names of any current partners.
Could you please state your current list of partner organisations and the nature of your relationship with them. Could you also give a date at which the “Publishing” and “Services” tabs will have complete information. And can you confirm that the names of supportive literary agents will be included prominently on those web pages.
On a related topic, I understand that Writing News withdrew from their relationship with you. (I will publish their statement in the comments immediately following this post.) Could you please comment on that withdrawal.
8. Who are you?
For that matter, it is not altogether clear from your website who is behind the BWA or what their literary background is. Please could you confirm the names and backgrounds of your principal officers and employees. Will you keep that information prominently displayed on your website at all times?
There have been a number of curious incidents of mistaken identity related to the BWA. Somebody calling themselves Claire King commented on Jane Smith’s blog, but it wasn’t this Claire King. Equally, your colleague Hari Kumar is alleged to have written to certain Word Cloud users signing himself off as ‘Harry’ – which is my name, not his. These things are probably just one of those internet oddities, but, for the sake of clarity, can you confirm that there is no deliberate attempt on behalf of the BWA, its owners, employees or associates, to disguise or confuse their identities in online or emailed communications?
I note from Companies House (here) that at the time of writing, your next return is more than 1 month overdue. Can you confirm that you are a going concern and that your financial accounts are in order.
As you know, the Writers’ Workshop operates The Word Cloud, a social networking community for writers. That network is, and always has been, free, friendly and supportive. It has been founded on the philosophy that writers need a place to share concerns, air questions, and get advice.
Following discussions among certain writers on the Word Cloud (discussions now deleted), you asked Andersons Solicitors to write to me, Harry Bingham, threatening legal action and a possible ‘claim for damages for defamation’. (You did not tell me what the supposedly defamatory comment related to, so I still don’t know.) My understanding (here) is that you are considering comparable action against Claire King.
So my last question is this: do you believe that such legal thuggery is consistent with your published philosophy of ‘encourag[ing] and inspir[ing] unpublished and self-published writers of all ages’? (text from your website here). Do you believe that it is appropriate or honourable to use legal force to prevent unpublished writers from discussing in public whether your services and awards are right for them? Is that part of the philosophy your awards seek to embrace?
To reiterate: these are questions only. There are, in principle, honourable answers to all of them. (Except perhaps the last, where I think a retraction and apology would be in order.)
Indeed, let me be even clearer than that. I run a literary consultancy, which makes money by selling consultancy services to first time writers. We’ve run some (small) prizes. We work with literary agents. We have, on occasion, dealt directly with publishers. None of these activities is wrong or shady in any way. People ask us questions about them all the time, and we’re happy to answer. Our website discloses the backgrounds of our employees and consultants. We regularly name – with joy, pride and delight – those lovely agents who help our clients on the path to publication. We will explain any aspect of our business to anyone at any time.
We’re pretty conventional in the way we operate. That is, it’s pretty rare we think an author is not best served by getting an agent and then getting a conventional deal from a top publisher (Big Six, Independent Alliance or other obviously outstanding player). On the other hand, the world IS fast changing and I’ve no reason to think that other publishing models might not work. They’re certainly worth experimenting with.
In short, I know tremendously little about the BWA and its operations, and have no reason to think that its activities are any less honourable than our own. If its model is non-conventional, that’s fine too.
On the other hand, the torrent of internet gossip and implication threatens the BWA’s reputation and, to some degree, the reputation of all those who, like the Writers’ Workshop, do their damndest to help the new writer.
In conclusion – and here I’m addressing the BWA / Brit Writers directly – your current non-disclosure of information is, in my view, causing legitimate concern amongst the community of new writers. We will always vigorously champion any organisation or initiative which helps the new writer. I hope we can champion you. But at present we need some answers. I invite you to supply them.