BWA Brit Writers – the current position

Two years ago, an entrepreneur, Imran Akram, decided to launch a new set of awards – the Brit Writers’ Awards – aimed squarely at the first time writer. In the words of the BWA’s website:

The Brit Writers’ Awards was launched in 2009 by Imran Akram, the founder of the now internationally acclaimed Muslim Writers’ Awards (MWA).

Having achieved great things with MWA in just a few years, BWA is now sharing the energy, excitement and community-building potential of a huge writing competition with the rest of the world. In line with our vision, we’ve created an international writing awards event that accepts entries from people of all backgrounds and all ages. Our first ever competition attracted over 21,000 entries from Brits in 92 different countries.

At an early stage, we were reasonably helpful to Imran and the BWA, supplying numerous judges for his first set of awards and helping to connect the Muslim Writers’ Awards with the (excellent) Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing. Over time, we rather lost contact, while the BWA’s activities have expanded in a number of new directions, including a publishing initiative and an ‘agents division’.

As some readers will already know, there has been some concern raised on the Word Cloud about whether the various services and awards offered by the Brit Writers team are of real value or not. I simply don’t have an opinion on this score – I don’t know nearly enough about it. I do, however, know that the Word Cloud has always been intended as a place where writers could share thoughts and concerns and, by pooling advice, be stronger and wiser. I think those things are important.

I was therefore rather surprised when I received a letter from the BWA’s solicitors ordering me to remove all references to the BWA (including a good number of complimentary ones) from the Word Cloud, on pain of legal action. I was not told which statements were deemed to be defamatory, nor given the true facts of the matter in question (not that I even know what the matter in question was). I was not personally contacted by either Imran or his co-director Zareen Ahmed, which seems a little harsh, given that the last time I saw them I was giving them tea in my garden. There may even have been – I can’t be sure about this – biscuits.

When I started looking further into the activities of the BWA, I came to understand the concerns of the Word Clouders. It’s not that the BWA is clearly doing something wrong – on the contrary: the whole problem is a deep lack of clarity, which inevitably gives rise to doubts in the minds of first time writers. Those doubts are perfectly understandable, but they’re doubts, not certainties.

Rather than allow this unhappy situation to endure, I concluded that I might as well list the questions that needed to be answered and seek clarification directly from the BWA. This morning, I sent a list of those questions, together with some of the allegations which prompted them to the BWA. I should add that those allegations are unproven and are (as I understand it) being vigorously contested by the BWA.

I also told the BWA that I would publish that list of questions on this blog tomorrow morning (Wednesday), together with their responses. To be crystal clear about this: I’m seeking clarity, not punishment.

This evening, at 5.30pm, I received a letter, by email, from the BWA’s solicitors. The key excerpt from that letter reads as follows:

You have prepared a draft article that you intend to publish.

The article itself, whilst at face value appears to be inquistory in nature, appears to start from the premise that our client is answerable to you for alleged misconduct or wrongdoing.

We take the view that the very tone of your article reads within the mind of the reader to conclude that our clients have or are in the process of committing dishonest acts or certainly conduct that is dishonourable in some way.

Our clients of course accept that there is a balance that needs to be struck between those matters that are legitimately in the public interest and our clients have no intention of being evasive.

We confirm that we are in the process of confirming instructions from our client on the various questions you have posed and we anticipate that a response will be given to you very shortly. We can tell you that our client does not accept any of the inferences and/or suggestions that you make to their integrity and honesty. If you proceed to publish your article without affording our client a proper right of reply to the issues you have raised, then you will of course be liable to our client in damages and legal costs.’

In reply I said:

You are wrong that I am seeking to imply that your client is acting dishonestly or dishonourably. I don’t know whether it is or it isn’t. Indeed, I mean precisely what I say in the article: the BWA may very well have excellent and honourable answers to all the questions I’ve raised. If so, we’d like to know them.

This need for clarity is all the more urgent, given the concern about the BWA that has become widespread amongst the community of new writers and those authoritative voices who comment on the industry.

I’m hoping that, rather than let those concerns fester, we can simply encourage a full and open statement of the facts, so that everyone can make up their own minds about whether the BWA’s services are right for them. I would also hope that such a process will nudge the BWA into realising that threatening legal action against those who raise honest doubts in legitimate forums is not a way to win hearts and minds. Indeed, I find it inexcusable – the one item on my list of questions where I feel the BWA is entirely in the wrong.

Finally, you state in your letter: “If you proceed to publish your article without affording our client [the BWA] a proper right of reply to the issues that you have raised, then you will of course be liable to our client in damages and legal costs.”

This is a curious statement, given than I have afforded you a right of reply. You have had all day to consider your reply and you come back to me at the close of business with no information beyond a blanket denial and a further threat of legal action. No newspaper journalist would have given you as lenient a deadline, or allowed you to read, in full and un-edited, the draft article. You cannot possibly claim that I have not invited a full response from you, nor given you ample opportunity to construct one.

At 2.30pm tomorrow, I will publish my article. If I have had a reply from you by then, I will do my best to reflect that reply in the article. I also undertake to publish every statement and letter from you and your client in full on my website, so that the truth – finally – can emerge from the secrecy.

And that’s it: where we stand right now. The BWA may be doing truly wonderful work and if so, I’m happy to sing its praises. But we need to know what it is doing in enough detail that it’s possible to make a sensible judgment.

I would also strongly, strongly recommend that the BWA drops the legal thuggery and starts to engage constructively and wisely with new writers and those who represent them. And, you know what?, an apology would be nice. I gave them tea.

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  • …and (possibly) biscuits.

  • Harry

    Yes, but you see that’s just it. I know there was tea, but I’m not always Mr Reliable on the biscuit front. And even if there were biscuits, could I prove it? In a court of law? Under cross-examination? Sheesh!

  • Alison

    I am a newbie writer and ignorant of many aspects of publishing, but I am puzzled. I ran a business for fifteen years and always answered any queries or worries with complete transparency. Honest discussion and willingness to talk about a problem not only earns you brownie points, but often gains you credibility and ultimately more business.

  • Harry

    I agree! It’s business 1.01. Anyone can screw things up – the WW sometimes gets things wrong – but then you do your best to explain and make good. If your efforts in those respects are sincere, no one EVER minds that you messed-up. Imran is a smart guy, so he must understand this. Like you, I’m puzzled.

  • Harry, Harry, Harry. When will you remember not to serve your guests those crumbly custard creams from the bottom of the tin? They deserve your best chocolate digestives and nothing else!

  • here, here Harry!! I think you have an overwhelming base of support.

  • Pete

    Given the amount of work being handled by their solicitors, I doubt they will be now able to afford to afford a decent Digestive or Hobnob in return so I wouldn’t get too worried about biscuit etiquette.
    I’ve never seen a business run in this way before. I do hope they change their minds.

  • Nicola Morgan

    I have been trying to find out about the BWA, so that I can best decide whether to recommend it to aspiring writers, but all I seem to be able to discover is what I’m not allowed to ask about. I find this really odd. You know when you ask questions and someone taps the side of their nose and then sends in a solicitor? (No, nor do I. But that’s what they are making me think of.) I’m not being facetious: I really want to know what the BWA is about and how it works and for whom.

  • Harry

    Ha, not on the biscuit front though. I think my base is crumbling. Boom, boom.

  • Oh dear! let’s hope they don’t drop the legal proceedings and force you into a joke-off! 😉

  • Nicola Morgan

    PS Any biscuit, as long as it has decent chocolate on it.

  • Where do I send the packet of Australian “Tim Tams”?
    Seriously, there is something very wrong here. Polite requests for information to allay concerns should not be leading to threats of legal action.

  • I’ve got to say it … I mustn’t say it … No, it’s no good, I have to say it …

    … Crumbs!
    There. I’ve said it.

    As one of the judges in 2010, I was happy to throw my weight behind BWA. I gave them lots of publicity on my blog and was happy to be associated with them. I ignored the niggling anxieties I began to have about the process and gave them the benefit of the doubt, deciding that their hearts were firmly in the right place, but that they’d been wrong footed by the level of response to the awards. They were on a steep learning curve, but that’s OK. We’re all learning, all the time.

    But surely we can all only learn by listening to feedback. If questions are raised, we think about the issues. We decide if they are valid. If we think they are, we admit we might have got something that might, with hindsight, be perhaps not the best way to handle things. We learn, we grow. If we don’t think the questions are valid, we engage with the debate and justify our approach.

    What we don’t do is attempt to stifle debate. We’re writers. We use words to communicate, to look beneath the surface and search out subtexts. This is what writing is all about.

    I just find this all rather sad, particularly for those people who have been left bewildered and disappointed that an initiative with such laudable aims could resort to seeking legal means to stifle debate. It’s the internet, y’know? This is what it’s for.

  • Whisks

    Aww Harry, how can you be such a meanie? They’re kind to kiddies, after all. At least they’ve told us clearly they’re kind to kiddies, so it must be true. Have they told us anything else clearly? *scratches head, looks at ceiling, furrows brow, sucks little finger* Hmm. You might have got me there.

  • Andrew James

    I have never found the BWA’s offering particularly engaging, for no reason other than that I have yet to be convinced that they could assist me in taking my novel where I want it to go. After 25 years in business, though, in a different life, I am also yet to be convinced that the quickly (potentially) litigious have much to protect beyond their egos.

  • Andrew James

    …although Chocolate HobNobs remain an essence of making my opinions somewhat more malleable.

  • Tony

    Let’s hope it all ends amicably and you can serve up some Nice biscuits at your next garden party, Harry. If they carry on evading the issuse you just might have to break open the Jammy Dodgers.

  • Jane Struthers

    I’m watching all this with great interest and I look forward to reading the BWA’s answers to your perfectly reasonable questions. One of the things that concerns me about all this threat of litigation and the general lack of clarity from the BWA is that they add to the suspicions of some new writers about the probity of the publishing industry. Some new writers already think that agents are the latter-day equivalent of highway robbers and that publishers are twirling their moustaches like Victorian cads, so this does not help one bit.

  • Harry

    That’s very true, Jane. And in reality the publishing industry is (A) open to anyone who writes well and (B) has extremely few bandits in it – and those few operating at the distant margins. Hey ho. We’ll get some answers today, I trust.

  • Looks to me like a case of a lack of product information. Folks are concerned because it is not clear what they are paying for. If I was going to buy a car and I had some questions about it so I could be sure precisely what I was buying, I would expect the motor dealer to answer them. Same as if I approach a publisher with a submission. The manuscript might be my latest baby (*cue fluffy emotive feelings*) but at the end of the day it is still a business transaction. I want to be confident in how they operate and make sure contracts check out etc.

  • Harry

    Claire King’s blog had this fine comment which I is so good I just had to steal it:

    “I find myself reminded of the case of Arkell v.Pressdram

    For those for whom this might be legal arcana, I qote from Wikipedia. I hope they don’t mind:

    An unlikely piece of British legal history occurred in what is now referred to as the “case” of Arkell v. Pressdram (1971). The plaintiff was the subject of an article relating to illicit payments, and the magazine had ample evidence to back up the article. Arkell’s lawyers wrote a letter which concluded: “His attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of your reply.” The magazine’s response was, in full: “We acknowledge your letter of 29th April referring to Mr J. Arkell. We note that Mr Arkell’s attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of our reply and would therefore be grateful if you would inform us what his attitude to damages would be, were he to learn that the nature of our reply is as follows: fuck off.”

    Posted by Rowley Files, QC”

    Love it.

  • David

    I’m not sure that I can add any further comment to this quite astonishing behavior on the part of the BWA that hasn’t already been adequately expressed here or elsewhere. Per se.

    However, I’m in the business of observing the modern use of Social Media, by companies and individuals, and in so doing I occasionally notice behavioral patterns.

    This is just a shot in the dark, and I may be quite wrong, but I find myself tempted to make a prediction:

    I think that, shortly, someone who has never been observed here or on other blogs on the subject will post a comment in vehement defense of the BWA and, possibly, criticizing those who seek to press them for answers.

    I further predict that that if that person is challenged on their views, or asked for further information, they will either fail to reappear at all, or will post a supplementary comment that reaffirms the views in the first comment without answering any questions that were put to them in any kind of tangible manner.

    I’ll bet you a packet of Hobnobs. Chocolate, no less.

  • John Taylor

    Many an eminent scientist (and the odd Nobel prize winner) softened when my mum offered them a ginger nut. Keep the biscuits circulating, Harry.

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  • I believe, Mr. Bingham, that so long as biscuits were offered, even if they were not accepted, the burden of proof for your biscuit truancy would fall upon the prosecution. Ex post biscuit, as it were.

  • BDM

    Wow, I’ve only just caught up with all of this and it’s taken me all evening to browse through the blogs and information. This is what happens when you never get time to go on the Word Cloud!

    Harry, I can’t believe how far this has gone and I’m hugely disappointed in the BWA. I currently support them on my scheme (for children) and Catherine Cooper is one of our authors. It looks like Catherine has had unnecessary stick for this too so I thought I better get myself clued up to make a decision for myself as to whether I’d still like to support the BWA through my website.

    And I’ve decided not to.

    There is much more I’d like to say on the matter but I’m keeping a lid on it.

    Let’s just hope that a few apologies are dished out soon.

  • Unparalleled accuracy, unequivocal clarity, and undeniable imoraptnce!

  • This will be my second time in the brit writers and I have enjoyed it so far. Although sceptical about the referral services, I’m currently going through the process with my children’s book. I hope it to be fruitful.
    Oh, and just thought I’d mention, while on the tea and biscuits subject….
    I have a lovely album out called “Tea” with a beautiful song about tea and biscuits in a garden… It’s called “Happy garden”