While I was working as an editorial assistant at Virago Press in the early 1990s, I had an idea for a short story. In it, two editorial secretaries responsible for overseeing the ‘slush’ pile rebel and send letters of delighted acceptance to all those they should reject. They invite them to a party to celebrate, at which the publishing directors of the firm feel it would be too mean to now disabuse the motley crew of ‘no hopers’ of their bliss. Ironically of course, the books get published and become cult best-sellers, echoing the twist in Mel Brooks’ ‘The Producers’ when a sure-fire flop becomes a massive hit . . .
Even then I must have had sympathy for and identification with the would-be writers. My mother is the novelist Margaret Drabble, and I have published work in various genres myself. Sympathy, however, was soon replaced by irritation, for the truth is that many people sending work in to publishing houses do display an alienating naivety.
Most people have no understanding of how publishing houses really work and editors within the industry usually give them short shrift due to pressure of time. After several writers had said to me on the phone that they would be prepared to pay for a responsible critique, it became clear that a company that took it upon itself to try to perform acts of translation between the world of the writer and the industry should, as Carmen Callil later put it in in a ‘quote’ for us, ‘bridge the gap between agent, publisher and author and be of help to all three.’
I was made redundant from Virago (along with most of the other staff in a shake up) and felt I wanted time to continue to work with writers. So, with literary agent Hannah Griffiths, I decided to ‘go for it’ and in 1996 set up The Literary Consultancy: a fee paying editorial assessment service which provides market-informed feedback for writers writing at any level in the genres of fiction, non-fiction and poetry.
By word of mouth, advertising, recommendations from the industry, clients, men and women in equal numbers, began to trickle through. We began to receive a surprisingly fascinating array of projects, from Prue Leith the cookery writer turned novelist to the lady tailor with the short stories and piano music she received in dreams; from memoirs by already published writers to a positively inspired Blakesian vision by a man living in a doss house in Edinburgh. I started to feel as if our clients were like Chaucer’s pilgrims. illustrating the rich diversity of human life or like a literary ‘Big Brother’ . If, on occasion, like ‘Big Brother’, our client’s work is fascinating only on grounds of its mesmeric dullness, we will not disregard it out of hand but instead try to work out why something is not holding our interest – and therein lies the challenge.
Whatever we have been doing we must have been doing something right, for in five years the turnover has increased four fold and we now review in the region of 400 manuscripts a year. Last year we opened a branch in Canada and this year received a three-year Arts Council award. Still, one asks oneself questions: Has TLC worked in a genuinely responsible way? Do people feel they have spent their money wisely? Have we been able to link marketable work up to the industry? Have our readers gone completely bananas? Slightly to my surprise the answer to all but last of these questions (thank goodness) is yes. More often than I might have expected clients write back to thank us. Many are pleased simply to have had the amount of attention and detail we provide paid to their work. On only four or five occasions have we had letters back from angry punters. I am not so naive as to think many of those we don’t hear back from aren’t smarting in silence, after all, getting feedback on ones writing is an acutely sensitive process, but I have learnt that silence does not always mean dejection.
Two years, for example, after she had received two editorial reports from readers at TLC, Fiona Mountain called to say she had been shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award with her novel Isabella (Orion). Cookery writer turned novelist Prue Leith sent us her first novel Leaving Patrick via her agent. We heard nothing for a year and then her reader Julia Bell received an invitation to the book’s launch party. Other “success” stories are Max Kinnings whose first novel Hitman, rejected from one literary agent, came to us and got forwarded, with minor recommendations, to Annette Greene who secured him a two-book deal with Hodder within the week. His second novel The Fixer came out last month. James Flint, whose first novel Habitus got forwarded at the synopsis and chapters stage by us to Curtis Brown, sold to Fourth Estate for a large sum.
Although the percentage is low (I should say between five to ten per cent of all who submit), we have helped a higher number than I might have feared place work within the industry. This ratio is higher than those on a publisher’s slush pile (about one per cent), perhaps because people have to think hard before paying for their work in the first place. Of course, the better our reputation as editors, the better quality of writer we can attract to get over the stigma of payment and use our service.
It is however a notoriously commercial industry to crack and no one should be in any doubt about that. There are, our readers have discovered, more good books being written than are finding a market. I do not only mean the decently hacked out thriller that simply doesn’t elevate itself above its competitors to bite (and there are many of those) but there is also good literary work, for example, that is struggling for outlets as well as plenty of good poetry and stories.
The harder job and one of which I am equally proud, however pious that may sound, is the job that successfully helps somebody see why, and then to accept, why a work of theirs may never make it in commercial terms. It is true to say that the fax that perhaps made me proudest of all and most convinced that what we were doing was genuinely useful was from a client who said he had been “put out of misery and could get on with his life” when I told him straight, as he had asked, whether he thought his stories would ever be published. The evidence is that such directness can also give birth to new and better work, or the capacity for the energy used for writing being channelled in other, fresh directions. The hope is that TLC in one way or another gives a writer a shake-up and enables him or her to think more realistically about their work.
Rebecca Swift, Independent on Sunday, 15th July 2001