How to choose a literary consultant

Literary consultants are a fairly new phenomenon – they first came onto the scene about fifteen years ago – but they’ve radically altered the landscape for new writers. You certainly don’t need to use one … but at the same time, your manuscript is very likely to improve if you do.

What do literary consultants do?
A good consultant should read your manuscript cover to cover and provide a detailed written report on what’s working, what’s not working and how to fix the stuff that isn’t yet right. We’d think that a decent report should be no less than 3000 words long. Quite possibly, your report will be twice as long as that.

Can’t my Mum give feedback?
Uh, yes. Thing is, though, you probably want an ongoing relationship with your mother afterwards. A consultant’s job is to be tough. To tell the brutal truth. A good editorial report will spend about 10% of its time or less saying the nice stuff. The rest of it is just going to be about stuff that needs to get better. Additionally, you need your consultant to be a literary professional. That means either a pro author or a professional commissioning editor. Only those people truly understand what a manuscript needs to achieve and how it needs to achieve it.

Which would you recommend: an author or a publishing editor?
That depends. Our experience at the Writers’ Workshop is that if your manuscript is at a very advanced stage – that is, if your writing technique is already very solid – then you will most benefit from a commissioning editor’s eye for the market (ie: what’s selling successfully today). Most manuscripts, however – and by ‘most’, I mean well over 90% – are likely to have some issues of technique. Those technical problems are almost always best addressed by authors, because only authors have the practical daily experience of encountering and overcoming those problems in their own work. So a pretty solid rule would be: to start with use an author as your consultant; later on maybe graduate to a commissioning editor.

What kind of background does an author need to be a literary consultant?
Two things matter, but only one of them matters a lot. The thing that matters a lot is that the author in question has sold big books to big publishers. If an author has achieved success with Random House or Penguin or HarperCollins, then they have excelled in one of the toughest careers that exists anywhere. If they’ve published a slim volume of short stories with HereTodayGoneTomorrow Press, well … you can be the judge. Secondly, it’s a good idea if the author has written in the same kind of field as you. At the Writers’ Workshop, we have about 80 authors on our team so we almost always have a consultant who matches your genre very closely. On the other hand, good authors are remarkably versatile. One of our best crime consultants, for example, is a literary author by trade – he just loves crime novels. So he knows the market very well, he has outstanding writing technique – and his clients love him.

Will a consultant recommend my work to literary agents?
They should do, yes – but only if your work is strong enough. Agents won’t take work just because a consultant recommends it. They’ll take work if they love it and think they can sell it. So 99.5% of what a consultant needs to do is to help you bring your book to the right standard. Once that’s done, then a really good consultancy firm – like my lovely colleagues at the Writers’ Workshop – will certainly help find an agent. And indeed, over the years, we’ve found countless agents for countless writers, some of whom have gone on to become bestsellers or prizewinners. But for now, you shouldn’t focus on that. Your focus needs to be on getting the manuscript perfect. Achieve that, and everything else is easy.

What kind of costs am I looking at?
It varies, but budget a few hundred pounds.

And I just need to sit back and relax, right?
Wrong! Editorial feedback is only as strong as the client lets it be. We’ve seen some relatively unpolished manuscripts turn to gold because the author has been so damn committed to getting it right. We’ve seen other quite decent manuscripts never take a real step forwards because the author seems averse to taking the advice that he/she has paid for. So getting good advice is only half the story. Using it is the other, bigger half.

Please may I see some sample editorial reports?
Of course you can – and may I say how very nicely mannered you are. If you want to see what a Writers’ Workshop literary consultant might say about your manuscript, then please feel free to review some sample reports. If you want to know how to go about getting feedback, then you can get everything you need here. And of course, please feel free to contact us if you have any questions.

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  • Great page and interesting post. Worth noting that, here in the States, “editorial consultant” seems the more common title (at least in the circles I’m familiar with). Either way, it is a highly recommended step in the publishing process, especially for authors who are self-publishing.

    Also, I caught a little typo in one of your lines: “Editorial feedback is only as strong as the client let’s it be.” I thought you’d want to know, given the nature of this website!

  • Harry

    Thanks for the typo spot – and yes, “editorial consultant” is really a more logical term. The original British editorial agency called itself “The Literary Consultancy”, a term which has introduced some uncertainty into how British freelance editors call themselves. There’s also uncertainty about what to call the thing we deliver? Editing? Editorial advice? Editorial feedback? Manuscripts assessments? Manuscripts critiques?

    In the US, it’s very common for consultants to offer line-editing services, something we are capable of doing, but tend to shy away from. (Because you can’t sensibly line-edit anything that has real structural issues … and the things with no real structural issues are mostly written by capable writers who don’t need the intensive line-edits.) But again, we quite often find ourselves having to explain what it is we do.

  • Pingback: Writing and Self-publishing: Do you need an editorial report? « The Curse of the Would-Be Author()

  • Sabah

    Very informative post. Do you recommend any specific consultancies? I have checked the TLC and quite like it- but not sure whether to use the mentoring service or the manuscript assessment. Is there a rule to be used before making a choice?

  • Harry

    Uh – Sabah, we’re a literary consultancy and we’re probably the best there is. No one at all has more successes than we do. You almost certainly need a manuscript assessment, and you can either upload your document here to get started, or drop an email to my colleagues at

  • Michel

    There is another typo in the same para: “because the author seems to averse to taking the advice…” You need to zap the first “to”.

  • Harry

    Thankee. Duly zapped.