LITERATURE The author’s godmother
The Literary Consultancy, giving honest and informed advice to putative writers, is 20 years old and has become an invaluable bridge between authors and publishers. Simon Tait talks to founder, Rebecca Swift
When Rebecca Swift started the Literary Consultancy 20 years ago it was because she was worried that good authors were getting lost in the publishing system. She was “shell-shocked” by analysis she did for her MA dissertation in 1991 that showed that 0.01% of writ- ers would be published. Things have changed since then so that today she reckons the figure is more like 5%, a huge shift but still a tiny number.
Swift was born into literature. Her mother is Margaret Drabble, her step- father is Michael Holroyd, her aunt is A S Byatt, and the advice they are free with is golden. It was an atmosphere in which getting a publisher’s attention was never an issue, and be- fore she left Oxford she was already a published poet.
After university she had gone to work at the pioneer publisher Virago as an editorial secretary, “absolutely the most junior member of the team”, and one of her jobs was to look after the “slush pile”, the mass of unsolicited manuscripts that pours daily into a publisher’s in tray. “I was a bit shocked and a bit moved and a bit fascinated by the numbers of people that were submitting manuscripts that were, to put it bluntly, inappropriate on different grounds – completely wrong for the publishing house or the writing is really not good enough” she says. “I was appalled at the gulf between how publishing works and
writers”. She even took on the high- ups at Virago to champion the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women which Virago “unaccountably” decide not to take on.
The situation by then was that most publishers had done away with slush piles and were relying on literary agents as intermediaries to find writers with promise, something some publishers are still uneasy about because of the opportunities for unscrupulous agents who can charge up-front fees with promises they cannot fulfil, or further up the line negotiate exorbitant serial fees that can tilt the publishing economy. But the thousands of hopefuls who were missing out were getting no professional advice on their writing, often slipping into the shadows with their raw talent to never emerge.
In 1996, with her friend Hannah Griffiths who now commissions writing for film and TV, Swift set up the Literary Consultancy (TLC) as a kind of professional godmother for putative authors, the UK’s first editorial consultancy offering professional, in-depth advice to anyone writing in English. The publishing legend and Virago co-founder Carmen Callil prophesied that TLC “will build a bridge between publisher, agent and writer-and be of use to all three”, and so it has.
Today TLC is handling 600 manuscripts a year, putting them out to 90 experienced readers dotted around the country, who will give detailed feedback on everything they read. Only one supplicant has ever been turned down, a writer who believed that there was a Jewish plot to destroy the world. There are fees, ranging from £90 for short stories to £410 for full manuscripts of 60,000 words or more, though advice for hopeful novelists is to submit an opening extract at first of up to 15,000 words for £195, all inclusive of VAT.
In TLC’s 20 years publishing has changed out of all recognition. At first the Net Book Agreement, whereby publishers and booksellers agreed fixed prices to combat undercutting, was abandoned after almost 100 years, opening the way for supermarket price slashing and the demise of many small independent shops. The NBA was ruled a restrictive practice in 1997.
Then came Amazon, the internet and online self-publishing, which gave writers a channel to success that by-passed both agents and publish- ers, and the effects have been both good and bad. Traditional publishing is struggling to come to terms with Amazon’s stranglehold in price set- ting and distribution, “so for some writers getting through the eye of the needle into the traditional publishing world is much harder than it was” Swift says. “But every year several clients of ours get book deals – though whether they can stay in print and have careers is another matter”.
One who did make it is Tina Seskis, a novelist who took her first book, One Step Too Far, to agents who regarded it as not meeting the “chick lit standards” of having a conventional happy ending. With TLC advice she created her own online mini-publishing house; in six months she had sold 100,000 books, and the tables were turned with agents who had passed her over before now courting her. She has now written two novels and is published by Penguin. “Tina was a lesson for us” Swift says. “The policy now is to encourage anybody with a quality manuscript to consider the self-publishing route, and try to match them up responsibly with people who will not over charge, not sell them dreams but practical information about how to make their books work in cyberspace”.
Since 2001 TLC has been funded by the Arts Council to run the Free Read scheme which offe3rs free manuscript assessment to talented low income writers. To do so the consultancy works with 17 regional literature development bodies. It will also give mentoring where needed and the Chapter and Verse scheme, also ACE funded, offers one-to-one mentoring by established authors.
Today, November 11, TLC is marking its 20th birthday with an all day symposium, What’s Your Story?, exploring the landscape that has developed over two decades, with a keynote talk from Swift entitled The Book Inside – “exploring the aphorism ‘every- body’s got a book inside and in most cases that’s where it should stay’” – more seriously the health of that book inside. There are no confirmed figures, but the rise in people wanting to write has been exponential, and the trend is a good one, TLC thinks.
“Amazon has been the big player in these years, and has missed important opportunities” says Swift. “Amazon had to do something really imaginative and radical around publishing – I’d like to have seen it actually having some kind of system around owning what it is it’s publishing, but it leaves it up to algorithms to decide.
“The missed opportunity is both to care about books and to have the power to distribute and find readers” she adds. “So the other thing I hope we’ll do at the symposium is to attack directly the lack of concern at what happens to curated publishing. There’s a lot of ignorance about what has to happen to keep the best of our literature alive.”