Earlier this year I began to see questions about the Brit Writers’ Award competitions cropping up on writers’ message boards. Writers were being notified left, right and centre that they had made it through to the various shortlists; very few writers who entered ended up being told that their work hadn’t made it that far; and communications with BWA seemed less than satisfactory. Several writers had submitted more than one piece of work but were never informed which piece had reached the shortlists; people were offered free tickets to the prizegiving, but just days before the event they had heard nothing more; and when they did get to the event it was chaotic and didn’t seem to deliver all that had been promised:
Well that was a let down folks …
Then the doors opened and we started to go in then a young woman who looked in charge, sort of, said oh only VIPS in first standards wait here. ( we were standard tickets)
After they had gone in we ‘standards’ were taken up to the balcony area and then were, well, just left. We didn’t have any particular seats so we sat at the front. Down below were all the tables where the VIPs the £60 ticket holders were having their dinner and also there was the stage …
There were no book signings or chance to mingle with anyone like promised on the ticket it said’opportunity to mingle with authors, agents,publishers.’ So that was a big let down.
The winner of the £10,000 prize was Catherine Cooper for her young adult book, The Golden Acorn, which she had previously self-published. I found this paragraph on the BWA site very disconcerting:
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Catherine Cooper for her children’s novel The Golden Acorn: The Adventures of Jack Brenin – was not only crowned Unpublished Writer of the Year 2010 and awarded with an impressive £10,000 prize, but she got an amazing surprise too.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!
Judging from comments I’ve read elsewhere Ms Cooper appeared to have no idea that her book was going to be published. So either the BWA published it without her knowledge or permission; or Ms Cooper was well aware of what was going on and the person who wrote that piece is either very ill-informed or is deliberately misleading us. I find both those alternatives worrying, in all sorts of ways; but there’s more. Judging by this odd piece from The Bookseller, it seems that the book was brought to the market in just a month: such a rushed schedule is likely to have serious implications for the quality of the final product (and yes, I find some of the comments in that article quite ridiculous*); the publisher, Infinite Ideas, appears to be more of a packager than a publisher; and although the people who work for Infinite Ideas do have a reasonable amount of publishing know-how between them this is the first young adult book they’ve published; although it’s possible that they have previously published young adult books through their self-publishing service, Infinite Authors. And I’d love to know exactly what the distribution deal was for Ms Cooper’s book because as is hinted at on the Infinite Authors website, being available from bookshops if you place a special order is not the same as being available on bookshop shelves, and that difference has a huge impact on the number of copies a book will sell.
But back to the BWA. To give praise where it’s due, the BWA did round up an impressive list of endorsements for its competitions from people like Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg, and David Cameron but those endorsements can’t compensate for the apparent lack of publishing expertise involved in the project. According to the BWA website,
The Brit Writers’ Awards was launched in 2009 by Imran Akram, the founder of the now internationally acclaimed Muslim Writers’ Awards (MWA).
While I don’t doubt Mr Akram’s good intentions, I can find no evidence that he has any experience in publishing or editing apart from that which he’s gained in working with these two award schemes (if anyone knows otherwise do please let me know so I can give Mr Akram the credit he’s due). Despite this apparent lack of experience, the BWA is now offering a paid-for mentoring scheme: just last week the BWA emailed a whole stack of writers inviting them to apply for their Publishing Programme:
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. This is fully guaranteed and fully refundable if you are not published within 12 months.
It is impossible to guarantee anyone a trade publishing deal under those circumstances; I suspect that few of those fifteen writers will even get a whisper of a decent offer within twelve months. And yet the BWA is guaranteeing a publishing deal with “a top publisher”, or they’ll refund that big fat fee.
I guess that the answer to this riddle comes in how they define a “top publisher”. And here’s a great big hint. The BWA has recently set up a self-publishing scheme called Your Book, Your Way and although the fees for that scheme are not made clear on the website I did spot this little beauty:
Book promotional video trailer are available as part of the YBYW service. Upload your book trailer on to your website, social networking sites and YouTube. We have great packages. £300, £750 and a premium trailer: £2000.
Bearing in mind that most self-published books sell fewer than 200 copies each (or 40 copies, depending which statistics you rely on), then the real cost of taking advantage of those promotional packages is £1.50, £3.75 or £10 per copy sold if the writers concerned sell 200 copies of their books; but if they only reach that lower average, then they will have paid a staggering £7.50, £18.75 or £50 (yes, £50) on that promotional trailer for every single copy sold; and that’s in addition to the fees involved in publishing their books through the BWA.
And just in case you doubt that the BWA will attract much attention with this publishing scheme consider this: the first round of BWA competitions, held this year, apparently attracted 21,000 entries which would have earned the organisers £229,950.00 at this year’s entry fee of £10.95; the top prize this year is a stonking £10,000, which is more than many writers earn in a full year; and, even more worrying, they claim that “over 400,000 children are now involved from Schools across the UK in the Brit Writers Creative Writing Programme for Schools”.
Girls and boys: this is not how publishing should work. If you want to pay for help with your writing take a course with the Arvon Foundation, which is excellent; consider working with a good editorial agency; but be very wary of paying out big fat fees to be mentored by people who have little or no apparent experience in publishing or writing, and who have a vested interest in steering you towards their vanity-publishing schemes.
* I love The Bookseller and turn to it often when I need well-informed and publishing-savvy information: but sometimes the stories it covers are more than a little bizarre. This quote, for example:
In the wake of the firm’s involvement in the inaugural BWA, Burton has called for a new relationship to be forged between publishers and writers.
He said: “This was its first year but BWA has already become the world’s largest literary prize and a large community has developed around the award and its vision, which tears up the book of traditional publishing.”
The first paragraph is nothing but rhetoric; the second is complete nonsense. There are several awards which pay more than £10,000 to their top prizewinner; and several awards which attract more than 21,000 entrants (for example, the Richard & Judy novel competition attracted two, three, or four times as many entries, depending on which news reports you read). I’d love to see Mr Burton explain exactly what he means by those comments and back them up with a bit of evidence.
Edited to add: Harriet Smart has pointed out on Claire King’s blog post about this that the BWA website proudly displays a letter from Gordon Brown, Prime Minister, 10 Downing Street etc., in which Mr Brown expresses his support for the BWA. The only problem is that the letter is dated 26 June 2010 when we all know that David Cameron became Prime Minister and moved into 10 Downing Street in early May 2010. Ooops. I wonder what happened there, then?