Caveat Scriptor: The Brit Writers Awards

The writer Claire King has highlighted an email sent out by the Brit Writers Awards to various published and unpublished authors.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 It has been running for a couple of years, and claims to be ‘the UK’s largest writing project and awards for new and unpublished writers.’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Catherine Cooper for her children’s novel The Golden Acorn: The Adventures of Jack Brenin – was not only crowned Unpublished Writer of the Year 2010 and awarded with an impressive £10,000 prize, but she got an amazing surprise too.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.

Thanks,

Us.

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.

Update: More BWA fun from Jane, including the startling news that the BWA has threatened an online writing group with legal action:

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.

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23 Responses to “Caveat Scriptor: The Brit Writers Awards”

  1. Claire King Says:

    An excellent summary. It’s a bit of a mess, and it costs money. There’s a recession, you know…

  2. Bob Says:

    Shame they’ve resorted to pulling any negative comments about themselves rather than replying to people’s comments, it just looks like they’re scared people will find out about them!

    How long until they start pushing their own “patrolled” forum? I bet they’ve got one waiting in the wings……

  3. maxdunbar Says:

    There is a PR problem here. Thing is: if you claim to be a revolutionary new model that provides an alternative to evil elitist corporate publishing, you can’t then threaten, silence and censor people as a big evil corporation would.

    As you say, Bob, it’s better to argue and debate than shriek ‘defamation’ whenever anyone criticises you.

  4. BWA Brit Writers Awards – Some questions | Write Edit Seek Literary Agent Says:

    [...] an increasing murmur of concern at some of the BWA’s business practices (for example here, here and here). As an organisation active with new writers, we need to know how to respond to those [...]

  5. The Brit Writers Awards: Questions and Threats Says:

    [...] 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 [...]

  6. P Gharai Says:

    You mention Infinite Ideas a well know Oxford publisher and try to paint them as some unknown. Then you quote Harry Bingham as the font of all knowledge. Well, in a meeting I had with Infinite Ideas they were very excited to be working with some guy called Harry Bingham who had put several authors their way. Strange that! It’s OK for him to get people published by them but if anyome else does it they must be crooks. Shoddy, very, very shoddy

    • Max Dunbar Says:

      The Infinite Ideas deal was the reason I pulled my BWA entry. They may be a great publisher. But I’m not sure they’d be right for me – I never heard of them before the BWA controversy – and I certainly wouldn’t want to be published by them without my knowledge or consent.

  7. Catherine Cooper Says:

    I would like to try and clarify a few things, and as last year’s overall winner of the BW award I think I’m in a position to do so.

    Max… you seem to have picked up a bit of the blog from Jane Smith’s site but don’t seem to have read all of it. I joined the discussion to try and clarify things then and thought all that had been sorted. However, I see here some people are still under the impression I was unaware my book was to be published.

    It was made clear from the beginning the overall winner would have a publishing contract with Infinite Ideas and I was told a sample of that contract was shown to all the finalists. There’s been a lot of comments made about how my book was ‘rushed to press’ but I don’t think nearly two years of my life could be described as ‘rushed’. I entered the 2010 awards in good faith with my already self-published book, which wasn’t against the rules since I’d done it all myself and didn’t have a publisher or agent. My involvement with Infinite Ideas came as a direct result of winning the BW awards last year. Once I knew whose name was on the sample contract I did what anyone would do, I googled the publisher and also approached the Society of Authors, with the sample contract, to see if everything was in order. I was very happy with what I found out.

    You say, Max, you were not sure Infinite Ideas would be right for you, so below I’ve outlined what we’ve achieved together. I have no complaints at all and have been really happy to be under the Infinite Ideas imprint.

    Once I signed my contract the manuscript for The Golden Acorn – The Adventures of Jack Brenin Book One was re-edited and published with a new cover under the Infinite Ideas imprint. They released book two, Glasruhen Gate, earlier this year and the launch for Silver Hill ~ The Adventures of Jack Brenin Book Three, took place last month.

    The BWA gave me the opportunity to be published by Infinite Ideas, to whom I am very grateful. The Golden Acorn was taken to the Frankfurt Book Festival in October last year, something I could never have achieved on my own. The rights have been sold around the world, and this year, Infinite Ideas took it to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and the London Book Fair.

    Earlier this year my self-published book was picked up by a film company in Hollywood and I received an email enquiring about the rights, which I passed on to Infinite Ideas; in May we signed the contract. Last month we were tipped as one of four in the running to fill the Harry Potter void. The quote from the Observer is below…

    The search for a successor to JK Rowling has become a pressing issue… in the running is Catherine Cooper.
    Vanessa Thorpe, the Observer

    I’m sure you’ll appreciate, all of the above doesn’t just happen.

    Kind regards to everyone
    Catherine Cooper

    • maxdunbar Says:

      Hi Catherine

      Thanks for commenting here.

      I have to say – I’m really happy for you, it’s great that the book is successful.

      As you said, the Infinite Ideas thing was my reason for pulling my entry.

      That quote really gives the impression that your book was published without your knowledge or consent.

      I am happy for your success, but can you not see why I wouldn’t want such a deal for my own entry?

  8. Catherine Cooper Says:

    Hi Max

    Thank you for your kind comments.

    I think everyone is entitled to their own opinion and what works for one person might not work for another. I just wanted to try and explain the situation from my own experience and state the facts.

    I think the ‘quote’ could have been worded better because it does sound misleading.

    Thanks for having me on your site.

  9. Jane Smith Says:

    I have a letter from the BWA’s solicitors too.

    Catherine, you’ve always acted with grace and respect, often when people (like me) were giving you quite a hard time: I’m thrilled that Infinite Ideas has done so well for you and your book, and I hope you go on together to even greater things. I wish you the very best of luck, and lots of success.

  10. Catherine Cooper Says:

    Thanks Jane.

  11. catherinegracehughes Says:

    Hi Catherine (and all)

    It’s wonderful that you’ve had such great success with your book. i have read some of your comments elsewhere but I wondered if you might be willing to answer a question that I haven’t seen mentioned on the blogs I’ve read so far, that being: how many copies have you sold?

    If I’ve missed this info somewhere along the line, I do apologise.

    Also, a question generally for those that know more than I do: when a book is optioned for film rights, am I correct in believing that this does not always lead to an actual film being made of the novel? I seem to remember reading somewhere that film-makers often buy the options on books that rival something they are working on so as to block competition and prevent others making it into a film. I hope no-one minds the slightly off-topic question but it’s one that intrigues me.

    Thanks to everyone who has brought the BWA thing to notice. I entered the first competition (luckily, fee-free as I was a Writing Magazine subscriber at the time) but I will not be entering again. i still get emails from them even though I have asked to be removed from their mailing list. Any organisation that answers legitimate queries with lawyers isn’t an organisation that I would wish to be involved with, but that’s just me!

  12. Catherine Cooper Says:

    In answer to the questions from Catherine Grace Hughes…

    I’ve been asked before about book sales but they change daily, so even if you’d seen that information, by now it would be out of date.

    If you want to know the exact book sales you’ll have to contact my publisher, Infinite Ideas, as I don’t hold that information. My own sales to date total 3518 (I keep a running total).

    I know we’re not suppose to plug our websites but if you visit mine you’ll see that on September 8th (International Literacy Day) we reached our 100,000th download of The Golden Acorn from Amazon Kindle, which has now generated sales for book two, Glasruhen Gate and book three, Silver Hill. I don’t have a more recent figure.

    With regard to the film rights. I’ve said all along I have my feet firmly on the ground and know a film isn’t a film until you sit at the premiere. However, having been named by the Observer as one of four in the running to fill the Harry Potter void I would hope the chances of the film being made have increased slightly. In this present climate who knows what’s going to happen. Some films have been started and never finished so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

    I hope that answers your questions.

  13. catherinegracehughes Says:

    Hi Catherine – thanks for the info on how well you’re doing. I am delighted for you. It certainly does seem to have turned out exceptionally well for you – must be so exciting!

    I do hope that the film aspect of things turns our equally well. I was more curious to know if I’d read correctly and whether, on a general scale, film rights really are purchased defensively. It seems an expensive tactic to run off competition – or, at least, it does to me, but then I have no clue as to the nature of film rights and whether they attract substantial amounts. It was a question that was sort-of-related to the discussion, hence my apology for going off-topic a little.

  14. What’s the story with BWA? | martha williams Says:

    [...] UPDATE 21/11/11: I have found THIS very interesting comment by Catherine Cooper, about the publication of her book, plus information on sales and film rights in the same [...]

  15. Catherine Cooper Says:

    Hi Max

    I see from a comment you made on Facebook you’ve already read the article in the Times. I’d like to assure you and anyone else who reads the article, ‘threatening’ is not my style, no matter what it says.

    The truth of the matter is, the BWA promised to pay my prize money into my bank account and it didn’t happen. The first deadline passed, another was made, and another. All came and went. By this time it was the beginning of September.

    The BWA decided to arrange for a ‘publicity’ event to take place in Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford where I would be presented with a dummy cheque. My response was that I wasn’t happy about receiving a ‘dummy cheque’ for publicity reasons when the ‘real’ cheque had not been paid into my account. I also asked them for guidance on what to say in a radio interview because one of the questions I’d been sent was… ‘What have you done with the prize money?’ I have all the email communications with the BWA and I only ever asked polite questions or voiced my concerns.

    The handover of the dummy cheque was scheduled for the 14th September. A few days before the event my prize money was finally paid into my account. Two days before the event an email was sent out to ‘members’ on the BWA mailing list to say my book launch was to take place at the bookshop in Oxford and everyone was welcome, they could even bring a friend. I also received the invitation. This was the first time I’d heard any mention of a ‘book launch’.

    Someone wrote, in one of the blogs, about the event. He was present and, like others, wanted to buy a book. Unfortunately, the BWA had failed to arrange for any books to be there, other than the five they had on the shelf. I felt very sorry for the people who’d travelled a long way to be at the event. I’m not even sure the press were present. I can only remember BWA staff taking pictures.

    On the bright side I can say my BWA ‘book launch’ was a sell out! I hope the forthcoming book launches the BWA arrange for their ‘soon to be published’ authors turn out better than mine did.

  16. Rebecca J Cunningham Says:

    The assessment was cogent and on the ball.
    BW want to make money, as most publishers/writers/agents/identity-yet- to-be-confirmed do. They see the hunger of some writers for recognition, and develop their strategy accordingly. Kindle, digital publishing must be manna from heaven for such improvisors.
    You can’t blame them for trying. But, having tried . . .

  17. Phillip Wand Says:

    A friend of mine won one of the Brit Writers awards in 2012 and has nothing but praise for them and their dealings with him. This isn’t meant to be an out-and-out endorsement, but it is based on known facts rather than some of the criticisms I have read here, which seem to based on speculation and unfounded suspicions.

  18. Sue Says:

    BWA still owes me £1795. The guarantee was worth nothing as they haven’t honoured it. Instead BWA applied to wind up of the company without bothering to pay up. Imran Akram doesn’t respond to emails. Another 20 people who similarly lost money also got nothing back. BWA has now got CCJs against it.
    Imran Akram and Zareen Roohi Ahmed – remember their names. Yes, they sure made their mark on the publishing industry.

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