The writer Claire King has highlighted an email sent out by the Brit Writers Awards to various published and unpublished authors. The BWA is a literary prize for new writers. It’s a very glitzy operation with London ‘gala’ awards ceremonies, glossy websites and a £10,000 prize. It has been running for a couple of years, and claims to be ‘the UK’s largest writing project and awards for new and unpublished writers.’
The email, by the BWA’s Hari Kumar, continues: ‘We are still the new kids on the block, but two years on and amidst bookshops closing down and publishers resorting to celebrity deals in order to stay afloat, Brit Writers continues to scale new heights in the world of publishing and has seen our authors successfully published and even become best selling and award winning literary stars.’ BWA are now apparently offering a referral to ‘a number of partner agents’ which ‘have asked us to help them identify potential literary gems to save them ploughing through their slush pile.’ Kumar invites writers to send in a synopsis and three chapters of fiction.
I entered the Brit Writers Awards in 2010 and 2011. Last year, I pulled my entry after reading this, by the indispensable Jane Smith. Jane listed a number of concerns in her post but what really jolted me was her quote from the BWA site, on the 2010 awards:
The overall Brit Writers’ Awards winner – former Shropshire teacher Catherine Cooper for her children’s novel The Golden Acorn: The Adventures of Jack Brenin – was not only crowned Unpublished Writer of the Year 2010 and awarded with an impressive £10,000 prize, but she got an amazing surprise too. Unbeknown to anyone except a tiny handful of people, we had arranged for Catherine’s novel to be published in time for the evening, ready to be distributed in UK shops this week!
If that doesn’t scare you, you don’t know enough about writing and publishing. Cooper commented on Jane’s site and said she was happy with the deal she got with the publisher, a company called Infinite Ideas which you have never heard of. If it had been me, I would have been horrified and my agent would probably have shot me. The BWA website should carry a disclaimer: ‘Warning: we may give away your first rights to an unknown outfit, which will publish your book without your knowledge or consent.’
Several writers and bloggers have covered BWA. You can get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material that is out there, but I will try and summarise the issues.
1) Award entrants claim to have experienced numerous admin and communication problems with confusion over status of their entries, changes of award venue, chaotic event management and lack of communication from BWA.
2) Former judges have also raised concerns about BWA. The writer Tania Hershman complained of a ‘confused’ judging process, problems with the online system and poor event administration. Another former judge, Debi Alper, said that she had ‘serious concerns about the process’ and that her name was used in BWA literature for the 2011 awards even though she was no longer judging. Alper adds: ‘I just want to make it clear that I was not involved this year and won’t be in the future.’
3) The BWA lists partnerships with schools, claims to have a ‘substantial network of experts, agents and publishers’ and even displayed an endorsement from Gordon Brown, on Downing Street letterhead, at the time of the 2010 awards. However, the letter was dated June 2010 – after Brown lost the premiership.
4) In December 2010 the BWA sent out an email asking people to apply for its ‘publishing programme’. The email stated 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.’ All this for ‘a one off fee of £1,795′ which is ‘fully guaranteed and fully refundable if you are not published within 12 months.’
5) It is very unrealistic – Jane says impossible – to place this kind of deal in twelve months, and no publishers are named. But: Jane points to what appears to be a BWA self-publishing arm advertising promotional packages for up to £2,000. She also estimates that – at 21,000 entries with a £10.95 entry fee – the 2010 awards earned the BWA £229,950 for standard entries alone.
Let’s turn to this new venture. Hari Kumar’s email, sent October 20, had a deadline of October 25 – just five days to prepare an agent submission. No agents were named in the email. Claire comments that the BWA agent division is little more than an unnecessary middleman. After all, most agencies take unsolicited submissions direct. You can look them up in the W and A.
As Martha Williams points out, the BWA ‘service’ is, in essence, this:
Dear Writer, please prepare a submission package that is the industry norm for most agents, and send it to us. We can’t promise to pass it on, but we might.
So in comparison to submitting to the agent directly, what they are offering is, in fact, a postal delay?
Nevertheless, some writers did respond to Kumar’s email and have already had feedback from the BWA. You can read samples on this thread.
The responses, again from Hari Kumar, appear to be variations on a pro forma email. Kumar begins by managing expectations: ‘As you know, there are no guarantees in the publishing industry and we cannot guarantee that an agent would consider taking you on, even after a referral from Brit Writers.’ After a boost of praise for the work (‘This is a captivating, stylishly written book and is timely as it addresses current issues’) Kumar identifies problems with the synopsis, pitch or formatting that mean that ‘the assessors could not refer your work to agents immediately.’
But there is hope: ‘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.’
Jane’s thread attracted hundreds of comments and became a riot of claim and counterclaim with various people connected with the BWA or one of its partner organisations making an appearance. When people write about this they often get BWA admins contacting them to complain that bloggers are being so negative and all the BWA is trying to do is promote new writing and provide an alternative to the corporate status quo.
However, a cynical and negative person, like myself for instance, might speculate on the possibility of a company called, say, ‘BWA Consultancies’, which authors responding to Hari Kumar’s call for agent submissions may be referred to for paid ms editing and consultancy services.
Here’s the thing. People used to make money from readers. Increasingly, though, people make money from writers. Creative writing courses, literary consultancies, manuscript editing firms, all these things basically sell the dream of publication to unpublished writers. Many novelists who can’t support themselves through their own published fiction will make a literary living by selling the idea of getting published to less successful writers. The usefulness of all this is disputed. Claire again: ‘I don’t know a single agent who would advise people to pay a consultancy to work on their synopsis and/or pitch. What counts is The Writing, The Writing, The Writing!’
But the digital revolution, the invention of the ebook and the boom in self publishing means that just about anyone can claim to offer a revolutionary new paradigm that will promote new writers against the evil corporate publishing world.
In other words, there has never been a better time to make your living as a vanity publisher.
I do not want to accuse the BWA of running a game, and am happy to assume that their staff have the best of intentions. Here’s a comment from their Head of Operations:
As this is a groundbreaking initiative we know there are lots of questions out there, but you’ll appreciate that we’re creating a new model here which we believe will revolutionise the way people get published in the future. What everyone knows for sure is that the current system is not working – as a result, the publishing industry is overly complicated, elitist and inaccessible and even the ‘top’ publishing houses are having to resort to publishing trashy celebrity novels to make ends meat, rather than find those gems THAT WE KNOW EXIST OUT THERE.
I’m happy to more or less take that as is.
But, based on what is in the public domain, and what has been written and researched by good writers and bloggers, people I respect, I would not want any involvement with any BWA project. And I would not recommend any other writer get involved.
As I say, all the spadework has been done by the bloggers listed above. I want to close with some words from Debi Alper:
I should begin by saying that gaining recognition through these awards is a great achievement and should definitely be celebrated.
I was one of the judges last year and I posted some of those 213 comments [on Jane's site]. I had some serious concerns about the process and chose not to be involved this year, though I understand my name was still on the site until recently. BWA have some new initiatives and I’m sorry to say that my anxieties have only intensified. I’m not at liberty to go into details as the person I’ve been communicating with has asked me to keep the info confidential. All I would say is that the dreams of aspiring authors are an easy target for exploitation. Please take care.
And from Jane herself:
I’ve tried to be fair to the BWA while writing this: but I also have to be fair to writers who might be considering entering the next competition, or applying for a place on the BWA’s mentoring scheme, and with my hand on my heart I just cannot recommend that anyone gets involved with either of them at the moment.
A short note to state that I have received a letter from Brit Writers’ solicitors requesting that I remove all references to the BWA from this website. I have therefore done so. I request that all Word Clouders refrain from mentioning the BWA in any way on this site. Any new posts or comments will be removed.
I reget having to take this step, but I am being threatened with legal action so have no sensible alternative. We continue to wish all writers entering the BWA Awards the best of luck with their submissions.
Please DO NOT reply to this post. Sorry!
This adds to my long lists of reservations about the BWA. Does the Booker board throw writs at bloggers who criticise its shortlists?
Again, if you receive an email from the BWA, asking you to send in your fiction, my advice would be to delete it unread.
Further update: It looks like Claire King has also been threatened with legal action.
And again: Harry Bingham – the first writer threatened with legal action – has posted a definitive list of questions raised about the Brit Writers Awards.
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?
That is it. You cannot claim to be the ‘new kids on the block’ challenging the elitist corporate publishers, and at the same time bully and threaten people in the very worst corporate style.
And another: Jane Smith also received a solicitor’s letter. I didn’t want to point this out as I wasn’t sure if she wanted this made public.
It’s all academic now as the BWA appears to have dropped its lawsuit against all three writers.
I would say this is a small victory for a smart and courageous bunch of people, and a small lesson for censors and bullies.
Here’s a final word from Harry.
Yet another update: The Times (£) has now picked up the story.
It is worth the paywall for this fantastic quote from Brit Writers CEO Imran Akram:
To our recent critics, I would say: I am not answerable to you in any way.
When we do discover more literary gems that become global bestsellers, this will not only be a total vindication for Brit Writers but will also give me great personal pleasure and confidence to motivate me to scale ever-greater heights in the service of literature.
Endgame: It appears that the BWA has dissolved.