The following interview was broadcast by the Australian radio channel ABC, following a talk given by Rebecca Swift at the Melbourne Literary Festival 1999.
Jill Kitson: Auberon Waugh, Editor of the monthly Literary Review in London, has said, ‘The best advice to anyone wishing to write a novel is “Don’t do it.” The second best advice is “Send it to the Literary Consultancy.”
Welcome to Lingua Franca. I’m Jill Kitson. This week: Can I write? Rebecca Swift of The Literary Consultancy on the critical service TLC provides to unpublished writers.
Rebecca Swift: Obviously 99% of our job is to give detailed, constructive critiques with a market assessment that is honest. I’m absolutely not interested in misleading anybody, you know, it seems to me that that’s bordering on the criminal, to continue to take money and lead people to believe there is a market.
Jill Kitson: It used to be said that everyone has a novel in them. These days it seems nearly everyone has written a novel, or a memoir, or a family biography or a collection of short stories. Now they want to see their manuscript inside a jacket and on sale in the bookshops. If they simply bundle it up and send it to a publisher, it’s 99% sure to end up on the slush pile. Eventually it may come back to the author with a rejection slip. Does it mean the author cannot write?
At the recent Melbourne Writers’ Festival, Rebecca Swift explained how and why she came to set up The Literary Consultancy for unpublished writers.
Rebecca Swift: While I was working at Virago, I was on what they called the slush pile which was my introduction really to that incredible world of people who are writing, whose destiny is usually never to get published. And I found the numbers completely overwhelming. There’s just too much work being written to be published and too many people I think now thinking they will be published with no particularly good reason, which is a very harsh thing to say, but it’s something that I’ve learnt along the way as I’ve struggled with my own writing – and I’ve now squeezed through some very strange things, like librettos about the Buddha, and nothing particularly commercial. But I am beginning to realise what I can and can’t do as a writer, and it’s an interesting process and it’s a critical process if you’re going to be serious about writing. It’s very important.
Anyway, to get back to how TLC started: people would ring up and they would talk to me about the editorial process and would describe their book. And I would say, ‘Well that doesn’t sound like it’s a Virago book.’ Maybe it was about gardening, it was by a man and it was about gardening. So I’d say, ‘Well a) we’re a feminist press and b) we don’t do books on gardens.’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, but won’t you just have a look?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I don’t think so.’ And he’d be getting more and more frustrated, and he’d say, ‘Well look, isn’t there anywhere I can just send this for an opinion?’ And I’d go, ‘Oh, um, I don’t think there is really. No, I’m really sorry about that.’ But I really couldn’t think of anything to suggest. And it just began to click that what a lot of the people ringing in wanted was a professional response, and when they began to say they’d be prepared to pay something for that response and I still couldn’t think of anywhere to send them, I began to think this is crazy; everybody’s plying publishers and agents with their work, very inappropriately, and certainly it would be possible to have some kind of consultancy to professionalise the system whereby people got work assessed before they approached publishers and agents, in order to check out whether their work is working, how it will be received by editors and publishers, in a very honest way. Because the other thing that’s clear to me is that when people send work in to publishers, they incredibly rarely get an honest answer. I mean usually they get one or two lines of rebuffal. We were told for example to say, ‘Sorry, but our list is full’; if the writer looked like they could string sentences together, we would say, ‘You can write, but our list is full.’
One story that really shocked me was two years after a woman had received one of these standard cards, she rang in sounding very tremulous and she said that she’d just thrown the novel in the cupboard two years ago in disgust, having received the standard card, had recently gone back to the cupboard, picked it out of the cupboard, turned the card over and seen, ‘PS: You can write but our list is full.’ Did this mean she could write?
Now this is two years after asking a completely different editorial assistant, and the desperation in her voice just really touched me because it was something that I identified with. I mean, when you are struggling, that seems the big question, you know, Can I write? It’s an interesting question, I don’t even quite know what it means. Everybody can write, but can you do that thing that turns people on enough to say ‘This is also touching me, and maybe there will be a market.’
So it was a series of incidents like this, and I began to think ‘Oh, goodness me, you know, these are the people that I really want to be working with and thinking about. So when in fact Virago went through a major shift and made almost everybody in it redundant, I was given – not a golden handshake, a kind of copper handshake. I was given enough to live very modestly for a period of time without going into the Debtors’ Prison or wherever. And in that time I thought, ‘Well what will always happen is people will always write, and they will always struggle to write, with or without the market doing what it wants them to do. That’s for sure.’ What I mean is, even if the market got to the point that it said you know, ‘We will only publish 20-year-old people who are particularly beautiful’ it still wouldn’t stop the rest of the world from writing, and neither should it. And I think it’s a good thing that it wouldn’t.
But in the meantime, the sensible thing seemed to be to try to put into process the sort of long-harboured fantasy of The Literary Consultancy, and with a friend called Hannah Griffiths who was a publicist at Virago, and made redundant at the same time as me, she was absolutely fabulous at saying, ‘Well Becky, just stop sitting around and get up, and what are your leaflets going to look like, and how are you going to charge, and how are you going to organise this, and where are your readers going to come from, and what are we going to pay them?’ And you know, the nuts and bolts of how it would work. And so we sat and we talked and we talked and we talked. And then the first TLC leaflet was launched and we didn’t realise that TLC was TLC. I’ve had cheques since made out to Tender Loving Care. It is tender loving care as well, it’s a sort of caring way of approaching people’s writing. But having said that we’re quite honest as well. The people that we chose to be readers were largely in the first place people working for editors I knew from within publishing who were now freelancing quite often, largely because they also were now – you know, it seemed to me that a lot of the very good editors were cut out of the main body of publishing in the late ‘80s, and they were sort of swimming around with their talents bemoaning the state of things. And it’s a lot of these people that I targeted to be readers for the consultancy.
We’re just coming to the end of the third year, and when we launched we got that quote from Auberon Waugh in the Literary Review. It just was – I mean there were other quotes that we got as well, there was an unexpected level of interest in the English press, because it did seem to symbolise what was happening in the industry, that it sort of filled a certain gap if you like, and the work that we turned over in the first year is almost threefold in the third year. It’s hundreds and hundreds (of manuscripts) that we get annually. We have a steady flow now of about ten readers who are pretty much at full stretch, reading five or six works monthly. But I make sure that they don’t get overburdened because there’s no point in a slack read. I mean the quality of the read seems to me to be everything.
Another source of very good readers was the University of East Anglia in England which does a MA and PhD in Creative Writing, where they have to study the novel for three years and produce a novel and write a thesis about the novel and their own work. And the people who enter the PhD or the MA already have to be published writers, even if it’s in a small form. But these people are amazing readers. I mean, in some ways, their strengths are better than the people who’ve worked in publishing only. The people in publishing know the market slightly better, but the young writers who have also had their faculties trained, who then may have done a bit of reviewing, a little bit of work in a publishing house, they are fabulous, because they also identify with a writer and they’re very detached; they can provide some extremely useful editorial assessments for people.
One of the joys of the job for me is that we have the most amazing variety and range of people come to us. I mean they’re largely based in the UK but we have had clients from Australia, from South Africa, from Hong Kong, anywhere where there’s a prevalence of English speaking, because we run ads in the Literary Review, the London Review of Books, and now The Author, and they go – I don’t know where they go exactly, but they go overseas, maybe some of you in the room get those papers. And we have a little advert in there. I think that’s a source of a lot of it.
Another one is word of mouth. I mean we have client from a tiny village in Venezuela. If you’re writing your great Venezuelan/English novel in a tiny village, and you might have spent two or three years doing it, and you’re also a development worker or whatever else you might be, you know, the task of sending cold to an agent or a publisher or getting friends to negotiate their way through this absolute minefield is very daunting, and if you can raise a certain amount of funds: at the lower end 75-pounds for an assessment of a synopsis and extract; a full-length read is more, you know it seems to me that 75-pounds is something that most people, if they put their minds to it, can come up with and get an awful lot of feedback back from, even if they can’t get a full read. He can send that to me, and if his work is good, I can hook him up to an agent or a publisher in the UK, that’s the other part that I need to mention.
Part of my job is to establish links with agents in the UK and to try to keep abreast of what’s happening in the publishing industry, which no-one could ever pretend to do. Really, it changes every day. But if you have enough people with enough variety that you can approach, it’s like a filtering service as well. So we might get those people. And in England we get everything, from a tailor who rings me up and says, ‘I have had this incredible inspiration’ and I say, ‘Oh what?’ and she goes, because a story came to her about the end of the world and Iraq and a butterfly and all these characters came to her. And you know, I get very engaged in these conversations. I mean if you’re in the UK obviously the client rings and we have a sort of preamble chat which if I were a lawyer I suppose I should charge for, but I haven’t quite got that together, and it seems to me part of the job to try. If I’m going to be setting up a consultancy where I’m asking people to come to me with a fee to be read, you know, they’ve got to trust the service they’re coming to, so a lot of my job is about trying to persuade the people that their work is in trustworthy hands.
So we’ll get her work. So all sorts. And from Prue Leith recently, the cookery writer whose agent came to us for some help. And Prue Leith came and had a read from one of our readers and it was rather miraculous, because we didn’t hear from her again and I kept thinking, ‘When are we going to get that enormous novel back?’ and it didn’t come back, and suddenly we were invited to her launch party. And Julia Bell, a very good reader at home, was invited along and Prue Leith then gave us a big acknowledgment in her introduction, which was absolutely fabulous of her. So at the other end of the scale we see well-known clients whose books are likely to be bought if they can just get it into reasonable shape to people with wild inspirations in the middle of nowhere, to people living in Venezuelan villages. I love it.
Jill Kitson: Rebecca Swift, of The Literary Consultancy in London.