Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Brit Writers Awards: Questions and Threats

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last December, I blogged about the Brit Writers Awards, an awards program for first-time authors, which was dogged by allegations of loose judging standards and poor communication. (Max Dunbar's blog provides a summary of some of these allegations.) I was especially worried about the BWA's Publishing Programme, which offered unpublished writers mentoring and publishing for £1,795 apiece. (Nearly a year later, I can find no mention on the BWA website of this program.)

I wasn't the only person with concerns. Jane Smith of How Publishing Really Works and author Claire King also weighed in, and last February, the UK's Writing Magazine withdrew from its association with the BWA, citing concerns over the judging process and a lack of transparency.

Now more questions have arisen.

A couple of weeks ago, Claire King received an email from the BWA announcing a literary agent referral program through its new Agent Division (Claire has posted the text of the email on her blog). According to the email, "a number of partner agents have asked us to help them identify potential literary gems to save them ploughing through their slush pile." Writers were invited to submit a synopsis and samples, which the BWA would then "consider" for a referral.

Are such programs (and the BWA's is not the only one) worthwhile? Not in my opinion. Literary agents are already the middlemen of the publishing world; as such, they expect to be approached by writers directly, and there's really no need for an intermediary to add another layer to the process. Plus, as tempting as it may seem to have someone else do the work for you, it's far more effective to control the process yourself, since you know your own work best and thus can best research and choose whom to approach.

More specifically, as Jane Smith points out, the BWA doesn't identify the agents it's working with--which means that writers have no way of verifying the agents' track records and reputations. Also, the list of requested genres includes "Short stories and Poetry for anthologies," material that reputable literary agents usually don't consider--which raises still more questions about the usefulness of this service.

Jane continues:
Some of the members of Harry Bingham’s Word Cloud sent their work in and have now heard back from the BWA, and this is part of the message they’ve all received:

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. We believe this will encourage the agent/publisher to read on to see its true potential.

You need to find an experienced literary consultant/marketing expert that can help you with this. There are many providers out there and it shouldn’t cost very much but it’s important to find the right person that knows what agents/publishers are looking for. Please do not have it edited at this stage, as this is not required. If you would like us to arrange this for you, please let me know immediately.
(The bolding is Jane's.) So in addition to offering referrals to literary agents, is the BWA also offering referrals to literary consultants? If so, this is odd--I can't think of any industry expert who'd suggest that writers hire a literary consultant to tweak their synopsis. Also, if the BWA is providing consultant referrals, what's the relationship--if any--between the BWA and the consultant(s)? Transparency is extremely important here, since, even though such a program may be perfectly above-board, referrals of this sort have been extensively abused over the years.

If you tried clicking the link in that quote from Jane, you'll note that it leads to a deleted page. Here's why: Harry Bingham received a threat of legal action from BWA's solicitors. (He has since received another.) And when Claire King wrote to the BWA (at the BWA's own invitation) with a list of questions, she was told that "this matter is now being investigated and dealt with by our solicitors and they will be contacting you."

One has to wonder why the BWA has chosen to address the situation in this manner. Whatever bad press may be generated by skeptical bloggers--and despite the questions that have been raised about the BWA's structure and operations, I'm not aware that anyone has accused it outright of dishonesty--the kind of publicity created by attempting to silence critics with legal threats is orders of magnitude worse.

Today, still under threat, Harry Bingham posted a series of questions for the BWA about the Agent Division and the BWA in general. He concludes:
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.
Hopefully the BWA will respond.

Edited 11/11 to add: The BWA has responded to some of the questions about its Agents Division.

Also, a national newspaper is investigating, and would like to hear from people who've been shortlisted for or won one of the BWA’s awards, entered its Publishing Programme, and/or received consultancy advice from its Agents Division. More details and contact information at The Writers Workshop blog.

Edited 11/16 to add: In a statement dated today, the BWA has withdrawn its threatened legal action against Harry Bingham, Claire King, and Jane Smith. However, it has largely declined to answer Harry's questions.

Edited 11/21 to add: Harry Bingham's final word on the BWA--originally posted 11/17, but amended 11/18 as follows:
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.

21 comments:

BuffySquirrel said...

If the synopsis needs basic formatting, you don't need a consultant. You need a search engine and a word processor.

Weirdmage said...

I was looking at the Brit Writers Awards website when I saw this:

http://www.britwriters.com/david-logan-wins/

And I couldn't help having a couple of more questions pop into my head.
-Is/was David Logan really a member of the Brit Writers Publishing Programme? The headline seems to say so.
-If the answer to the question above is "yes", why didn't they do an interview with him? -Or at the very least write an article about it? Seems like the perfect way to get publicity to me.

I must add that I am very skeptical to the way that item is presented on the BWA site. If I had known nothing about Pratchett's award or the BWA before visiting the site, I would have assumed from what little information I got there that Pratchett's award was associated with the BWA in some way. Only the headline hints that it is not the case.

The article is in fact verbatim, including the photo caption, what was in the Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jun/02/terry-pratchett-reveals-winners-debut-writers-award

Seems to be missing the usual "reprinted with permission, copyright belongs to", or similar that articles copied with permission has. That could just be an oversight though.

The rest of their website doesn't give much real information either but it seems to be a work in progress, so that is somewhat understandable.

I hope that BWA understand that their actions look suspect to anyone who has been following Writer Beware, and that they make a statement to clarify any misunderstandings, and answer the questions people have. As it is, they just make themselves look more and more like a shady operation.

Anonymous said...

I have seen the works of new writers and they are horrendously awful, including the works of the authors of this blog, equally as horrendous. Why must these horrifically untalented writers take up any one's time without paying for it? There is no market whatsoever for such rubbish, and if it is to be remodeled why all the hubbub? Just get on with it and stop wasting time looking for freebies--you get what you pay for.

P.N. Elrod said...

:Elrod stares at the post by Anonymous 11/09/2011 7:37 PM and attempts to draw sense from it.:

I'm getting nothing. Moving on.

Thank you, WB, for this information. Unlike Anonymous, you're not wasting anyone's time.

Deb Salisbury said...

The post by Anonymous is incredibly rude. I wonder why that person felt the need to write it. They couldn't be associated with BWA, could they?

Thank you, Victoria and Writer Beware, for this information.

Victoria Strauss said...

For the record, I'm pretty sure who Anonymous is--and they have nothing to do with the BWA.

Jane Smith said...

I can only echo Harry's comments: if the BWA would answer questions and respond to people's concerns then much could be gained; but by trying to silence people, they are implying that they have something to hide.

Janet O'Kane said...

I think Weirdmage is being exceptionally generous in describing the BW website as a work in progress. The organisation has existed since 2010 and surely the first rule of marketing is that you don't announce a new initiative until your website is updated in readiness for visitors wanting to find out more. Another example of something that could simply be incompetence or is open to interpretation as obfuscation.

Rachael Dunlop said...

Weirdmage - David Logan signed up for the Publishing Programme but won the Terry Pratchett prize before starting any work with BWA. He withdrew from the programme then. David Logan posted this information himself on Jane Smith's blog:
http://howpublishingreallyworks.com/?p=3682

He says he still has a good relationship with BWA, so he may have been happy for them to post this article and attach his name to the programme.

blackdogtales said...

I entered and got my feedback report (£50) today. Reasonably happy with it, in terms of depth, critique and suggestions, although later than I hoped. The novel will be published next month but not through BWA!

Weirdmage said...

@Rachel

Thanks for the link, hadn't seen that. Good to get at least something answered.

But I must say it makes me wonder even more why they went with the Guardian article instead of doing something themselves.

Victoria Strauss said...

@Rachael--thanks for that info.

@Janet--it's interesting to look at my blog post about BWA a year ago, where the links I posted to various informational portions of the BWA website now default to the main page. There used to be a lot more information available on the website than there is now.

@blackdogtales--good to know that you received the report and that you're satisfied with it.

Nyki Blatchley said...

I know nothing about the BWA, and they may well be completely on the level. However, I see warning signs when a body setting itself up for literary expertise sends something out with a basic typo like "we suggest that you need a consultancy to advice on your synopsis".

BuffySquirrel said...

Poor Anonymous, forced to consort with awful writers who don't want to pay them money. It's almost enough to make you go into the bank robbery business instead.

Danielle said...

Well, to be fair to Anonymous, new writer's work is not generally amazing *at first*. But new writers don't need to go through 3rd and 4th parties to revise their work and become great. This past year we've had tons of amazing debut authors come out!

I wouldn't pay a consulting party to look at my stuff before sending it to an agent to look at my stuff before sending it to a publisher to look at my stuff. Seems redundant.

BuffySquirrel said...

I don't feel any inclination to be fair to someone who comes on here merely to be abusive. That's my job!

David Logan said...

Yup, Weirdmage, David Logan was really part of BW's Publishing Programme. Also, no, BW had nothing to do with the Pratchett Prize; that was between Sir Terry, Transworld and Waterstones.

David Logan said...

Hi Rachel Dunlop

You're almost right. I had started with the BW publishing programme, I just hadn't started anything substantial. Sorry if my other post was unclear about this.

Kelly Robinson said...

I find the admonition not to edit quite odd. What agent is against the writer doing more editing?!

Robert said...

I am a former member of the BWA’s Publishing Programme. Also, I worked for a short time as a Publishing Consultant for them. Having waited ten months to receive payment for work done in January 2012, I am now struggling to get a refund. Regarding the Publishing Programme I long gave up and found my own deal. Promises upon promises have been made but not substantiated. I will be taking the BWA to court, as will, a whole bunch of others. Strongly recommend that everyone avoids any dealings with the BWA. In my eyes they have proven themselves incompetent and although not intentionally a scam, may as well be regarded as such. I wish I had never heard of them. Imran Akram is a man of many an empty word.

Victoria Strauss said...

Robert, if you do go to court, could you please update me on what happens? Contact me at beware [at] sfwa.org. And if you're in touch with others who've had similar issues, please give them my contact information. All info shared with Writer Beware is held in confidence.