December 16, 2011

INTERVIEW: Rebecca Swift, founder of The Literary Consultancy, on changes in the industry and getting published


Rebecca Swift is the founder of Britain’s first and leading manuscript assessment service, The Literary Consultancy, established in 1996. She talked to MobyLives about the many different paths to publication and changes in publishing over the past 20 years.

MOBY: The publishing landscape is very different now to when The Literary Consultancy (TLC) was established sixteen years ago. Which changes have made the most significant impact on the way literary consultancies function?

Rebecca Swift: When I worked in publishing in my twenties, at Virago Press (1987-93), the publishing  industry was operating roughly along the same lines as it had been at least since the 1960s, and there was no such thing as a literary consultancy.  New writers could submit their work directly to literary agents, and in many cases directly to publishers for consideration, and agents or publishers would either take that new writer on, or not.  Sometimes a writer would be lucky enough to get a thoughtful reason as to why they had been rejected, but in many cases, rejections were made on pre-printed postcards and consisted either of no personal comment at all or one or two lines that might have said ‘We are sorry but your work isn’t right for our list’ or ‘Our list is full.’

When I entered publishing I was shocked at the number of manuscripts on the slush pile, and felt guilty that we could only get around to answering people every few months—and then without any real information about why they had not been taken on. I had the idea for The Literary Consultancy whilst working at Virago, as I felt that most people who had written something, sometimes over a number of years, really just wanted a professional opinion—as much as in some cases they actually wanted to ‘get published’. At least they wanted to know why they were not being published—and when properly informed, many people changed their minds about what they wanted—and what publishing actually involved.

At the same time many more people were writing, as new technology made it easier than ever for people to want to put their stories down, yet the publishing environment was becoming more difficult than ever. The net book agreement, which had helped books fix sales prices at rates that worked for the trade was scrapped, and at that point supermarkets began to sell titles at dramatically cut rates, which really put the squeeze on income publishers could make. Bookshops stopped selling backlist titles, and for literary publishers, whose profits were only ever reliant on a few authors who actually made money, these changes proved critical. As an example, Virago was sold to a conglomerate (then Little, Brown), and lost its independence. Editors were shed from the industry in large numbers, and editing was in some companies considered a time-wasting exercise! This is a crude generalisation, and of course all good publishers still have excellent editors working for them, but the main shift from editorially led buying to sales team buying, changed the flavour of publishing radically.

My co-founder  Hannah Griffiths (currently Editorial Director at Faber & Faber) and I formed The Literary Consultancy, because there were so many good editors on the freelance market, and so many people writing who needed an opinion on their work. TLC was the first to establish itself in Britain, and to remove the stigma of people paying for editorial opinion and advice. After all, editing is a real skill, knowing the markets is another skill, and in my view people writing should consider paying for these skills—rather than expecting serious feedback for free.

Now there are numerous consultancies offering advice, a number that’s increasing as agents struggle to sell books with the confidence they used to and publishing models mutate.  Some publishers have started teaching creative writing—it is a confusing, if exciting, new world indeed. Self-publishing flourishes, but holds many pitfalls still… TLC continues to offer its team of fifty freelance editors to writers who want their professional skills—and we advise honestly about what we think the best routes for writer to take might be. We are still tough about what we think good writing is—and isn’t (otherwise what’s the point?)—but we do see that it is extremely exciting that more people than ever can disseminate their work and try to find natural markets for their work.

New technology has changed so much—and of course Amazon has changed the way in which books get sold and are now entering in to publishing themselves…

MOBY: Are there any common problems that TLC readers find recurring in manuscripts?

RS: Every writer is unique but …

One common problem the readers find is the need for writers to distance themselves from the writing. The autobiographical element is often too present in writing that is still finding its feet.

That writing is a bit cliche-ridden and dull—without the right pacing, highs and lows, and has insufficient sense of the reader’s experience. One of the best tactics to avoid boring readers is to read something out loud to yourself and see if it works—if you are boring yourself you will probably lose the attention of others. Be honest—and challenge yourself to go further with your rewriting and editing before you submit work.  If you’re writing something for an audience keep thinking of which audience you have in mind.

Although TLC readers don’t want to merely focus in on this basic creative writing slogan, there are still many  manuscripts that fail to understand when ‘telling not showing’ is working or not.

When there are successful trends in publishing, such as Harry Potter or Bridget Jones’ Diary, readers comment that too often  new writers simply mimic these, rather than developing something more original.

MOBY: Do you notice trends in the types of submissions you receive? Can you describe some notable ones? Is there one at present?

RS: Vampires! We also see a lot of thrillers that have plots referring to the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. In general though, the best part of this job is seeing the overwhelming spectrum of creativity and stories that come in from all different types of people, top executives, teachers, retired people, people submitting from countries where there are no publishing options and also very young writers in their teens. These are all very different stories.

We have had many high-quality manuscripts come through lately, but we aren’t able to discuss these fully as we are waiting for agents to respond.

Most notable right now is a story that first came through TLC in 2007 and was published this year, a book by Kerry Young titled Pao. Kerry was published by Bloomsbury and is now shortlisted for the Costa New Novel AwardPao is the story of a young Chinese boy and his family who move to Jamaica, escaping the revolution at home. Kerry’s got an incredible story to tell and a strong and authentic narrative voice. We are all very excited for her. There is also Jude Cook‘s Byron Easy (sold to Heinemann earlier this year), Leaf Fielding‘s memoir To Live Outside the Law and we have an amazing Bangladeshi novel that has just been accepted by a top agent and we know we will see more of in due course.

MOBY: Does TLC work with authors looking to self-publish? Do you have an official line on self-publishing?

RS: I guess the TLC line is yes it is exciting that more people can publish thanks to new technology, and we have seen some successful stories coming through, particularly via Amazon Create Space, but from our point of view the most important thing is that a writer understands the quality of what they have written. In other words, that they learn to discern what is going to be of serious interest to readers, or otherwise, and on what grounds. So we would want people who self-publish to think equally hard about the quality of what they have done, and to push themselves to do their best. If our reader really rates a work, they might suggest self-publishing if they can see it is good, but wouldn’t attract a commercial market. We can help people work out if they should spend time chasing agents, or save time going it alone. It’s all up for grabs—but our main concern is to help people think professionally about their writing at any level.

For information—we are going to run an innovative Conference June 8th/9th in association with exciting partners in London which will explore writing and new technology, and self-publishing in detail—what works, and what doesn’t work; what kinds of writers it works best for and how—which genres, and so on.

We recognise that the USA has leaders in the self-publishing field and hope to invite a US speaker over. The Conference will be big! Watch this space.

MOBY: How do you see the role of literary consultancies adapting to the fresh changes the industry faces?

RS: We are considering how we can responsibly add editorial services about and beyond editorial assessment to what we do. We already link people to copy editors and proofreaders in certain circumstances—but we are concerned that people understand what these different kinds of editing mean before they buy in to them! So we will continue to work on a one-by-one basis, working out what is best for each writer.  We don’t really approve of an editorial service that seems to fit all—so we’ll adapt, create a fabulous Conference to keep us up-to-date, but also keep an eye on traditional literary value, which we think threatens to get lost in all the white noise.

MOBY: What one piece of advice would you give to someone looking to get published?

RS: Don’t think it’s going to be easy to get commercially published or even to write well. Writing well is one of the most difficult things you can try to do, so go easy on yourself, do your research properly about what routes might help you improve and understand the publishing industry, and take your time. It is important to read as well as write, as it is very rare to find an excellent writer coming from someone who isn’t themselves a passionate reader. So consider your reader, as well as yourself.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.