Brit Writers offer guarded response to Agents Division queries

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11 November 2011
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Brit Writers offer an official response to criticism of their controversial new Agents Division ...
The literary blogosphere has been alive this week with talk of the Brit Writers Awards but not, sadly, for the right reasons.

Three prominent writers and bloggers, Harry Bingham, Claire King and Jane Smith, have received lawyers' letters and takedown notices after posting their concerns about the BWA. In each case, the writers asked BWA for their input before writing. The legal action has been taken, according to the BWA, not for raising their concerns or for asking questions (the right questions, at that), but for the allegedly defamatory nature of comments posted by other users.

The new concerns centre on BWA's newly launched 'Agents Division', which was announced to members of its mailing list on 20 October. The Agents Division claims to offer writers a route to agents:

During the last year, a number of partner agents have asked us to help them identify potential literary gems to save them ploughing through their slush pile. Therefore we have been asked to find potential ‘sign-ups’ for agents in the following genres:
· Novels: commercial and literary fiction
· Books for Children
· Short stories and Poetry for anthologies


But there was no mention of which agents were involved, or of who would be responsible for vetting the manuscripts, and the credentials of those people.
It would always be Writing Magazine's advice to investigate any editorial service thoroughly before signing up. In particular, you should know: Who is offering this service? What are the credentials of the experts you are consulting? Who else have they worked with and what successes have they had?
These are the core questions that Harry, Jane, Claire and many other writers, like Writing Magazine, have been seeking answers to. A swift response to those questions would have altered the face of the whole debate - their refusal to respond in public is only damaging their reputation. With that in mind, I approached BWA head of operations Zareen Roohi Ahmed by phone in the hope that she would give some straight answers.

Zareen later replied at length to further questions by email (her full response is here), but refused to reveal the details that would confirm the credibility of the Agents Division or the Publishing Programme. She also claims that BWA requested meetings with Claire King, Jane Smith and Harry Bingham to discuss their concerns, which they emphatically deny. Before posting on their blogs, each writer requested a response from BWA, which was met with no response, or the threat of legal action.

To summarise:
• the Agents Division is now being billed as a trial service. There is no fee for submission, and it is open to all.
• All of the BWA's activities are conducted behind non-disclosure agreements – this includes their authors, partners, publishers and agents – and they would rather uphold these agreements, even behind closed doors, than allow their credibility to be verified.
• The Agents Division works as follows:
Once the submission is received, it goes through an initial assessment.  This is carried out by one of a pool of experienced editors, in fact, the majority have been assessed by a former director of a large publishing house.  The main points are then noted and sent back to Hari to communicate to the author.  It is entirely up to the author to act upon the recommendations, and no fee is charged for this feedback.  We ask the author to find their own literary consultant/service provider and if they cannot, only then do we assist and refer to one of our partners.  Again, some of our partners are promoted in our awards magazine, and again, they too compete in the open market to provide the best quality service and we feel that they should only be known to the client that they’re providing a service to.  I have spoken to a couple of our consultants about whether they would be willing to allow us to say who they were, but unsurprisingly, given the current situation whereby my personal details are being shared on public forums, and with accusations of us forging the Prime Ministers letters etc.,  they do not agree to this and believe that their relationship should be with their client/author and it is no one else’s business, especially a competing editing company’s. And I agree with them entirely as it would be wrong for us to risk their privacy to be exploited in the same way as mine has and it would be detrimental to the authors they are currently working with.

In the absence of any concrete information about the companies involved with BWA or their practices, the best we can do is to look at their track record. The Agents Division is too recent to have anything of note so far, so let's consider the Publishing Programme, which asked 15 authors to invest £1,795 in development of their book over the course of a year, with a money back guarantee if they were not published by the end of 2011.
Zareen asked me not to identify the authors who have had success with the Programme so I have removed their names from my emailed questions and her response. I have no wish to damage the career of any author, but the logic behind this is difficult to understand:
• BWA have already named, on their Facebook page, those authors that they suggest shouldn't be named until contracts are signed.
• That one of them has been placed with a publisher is the best recommendation for the Programme.

I have tried to be fair to the BWA here. I hope that graduates of the Publishing Programme and Agents Division go on to great things. Only then will we know for sure that BWA can deliver what it promises.
In the meantime, I'd like to reiterate, before signing up for any editorial service with any organisation, make sure you ask the right questions: find out who they are, what their credentials are, and what successes they have had.
Jonathan Telfer, Editor
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