A blog by Nikki Dudley about the gaps in everyday life...


Wednesday, 15 December 2010

There is more than one way to skin an... author?

Some interesting developments of late. Pearson, the large educational publishers, now want to offer and even award their own degrees. Read more here. In the same week, Curtis Brown, a large literary agency, also want to start a Creative Writing School. And this is what I really want to talk about.

Wow, how strange I thought. You pay £1600 for a 10 week course, have one weekly evening course and a few extra sessions conducted by "leading writers and other publishing professionals". The reward? A critique by someone from Curtis Brown. AND if they like your work you could even be offered representation, at the usual 10-15% commission of course.

The comments on The Bookseller website are enough to show people's lack of support for this idea. In fact, some of the comments are downright angry, including one from a fellow literary agent who writes:

'As a literary agent I am dismayed at this development. Agents should not be taking money from prospective clients up front. It goes against every principle of agenting and will just give agents a bad name. What were you thinking Jonny? Writers pay for the course and then have to give you 6 weeks exclusive option on their work? WOW! Make your money the old fashioned way - earn it!'

Another unimpressed person commented:

'Instead of vanity publishing, we now have vanity agenting! Pay a part-time member of staff's wages for three months and they'll give you an insider's view to publishing. Writers would be better off doing an unpaid internship at a publishing house or literary agent's. Or finding respectable outreach programmes and writer development scemes, such as Inscribe by Peepal Tree Press, Signposts in South Yorkshire, The Writing Squad, etc. Sorry folks, but if you think £1,600 is a shortcut to getting published, and is even worth it, then you're sadly deluded. If agents can't make their money selling authors and their books any more, then I'd seriously doubt the qualifications of said agents to teach anything.'

Gosh - angry or what! But I found myself agreeing with a lot of the comments. For £1600, you would expect a bit more than a weekly evening course. Plus, those extra sessions don't seem to have any weight attached to them and they sensibly don't specify how many you get! It also does seem to be a way of Curtis Brown a) getting authors to come to them instead of actually searching for them (God forbid they do any legwork), and I think this makes me suspicious that they will most likely try to get said 'students' to write in a way that suits them and b) earning themselves some extra money in desperate times by taking advantage of other people's dreams and c) getting long-term commission money in the bag by securing a few writers from the course.

All of these points are not necessarily bad. I think it's obvious and understandable for Curtis Brown to want to make money. However, I think what people are especially upset about is the price tag (you could undertake a certified Masters course at a university for a whole year for around £3000-4000 - with more lectures, support and that small thing at the end of it, hmm - a degree!) and also a feeling that this move is backhanded and unfair (particularly for taking money in advance, which is what agents and publishers are not meant to do - unless it's self-publishing!)

It's definitely a big change for the literary world and I wonder if it is something that other organisations and businesses will begin to do more often, or if this is a one off experiment. Time will tell...

Note about the cartoon: It has nothing to do with my piece really but I thought it was funny!


  1. Well said, Nikki. There are plenty of reputable places where writers can pay for critiques of their work. They get what they pay for and in my experience have to part with far less cash! There are also plenty of reputable places, as you say, where a person can learn the craft of writing, and even maybe get a degree. Again, you get what you pay for. But more importantly, you KNOW what you're paying for. This scheme sounds like they're trying to have the best of all possible worlds. I'm not currently agented but if I was, I'd like to thnk my agent was out there earning their commission, not spending time taking evening classes or giving critiques. Now I'm sure that Curtis Brown tell their prospective clients exactly what they're paying for, but paying an agent to read your book sounds to me uncomfortably like giving them a reading fee. What was it I was always being told to watch out for when searching for agents? Avoid those charging a reading fee!

  2. We often pay an agent to come and deliver a one day workshop which provides an inside view on publishing and finding an agent. It's a win win situation: the agent gets the opportunity to scout prospective talent, the writer the chance to perfect their approach to agents. The agent takes a fee for delivering the session. All of which strikes me as entirely sensible.

    Although I can see that taking a fee before representation places an agent in an awkward position, I don't think it's necessarily wrong (though £1600 as you say is disgusting). For me, the problem comes when agents use this as a chance to cut back on all the other, more traditional ways of client scouting. Agents hold a privileged position in the world of publishing and they should not use this as an easy way of making money from hopeful authors.

    Thanks for bringing this issue to my attention, Nikki.

  3. Thanks Sam. I have no problem with workshops and the like, and this course in many respects. I don't want you to think that.

    However, as you say, the price tag is disgusting and I have an issue with the fact that you don't even get any type of certification at the end of it. And as you rightly say, the usual methods of scouting still need to be employed and for me, this does compromise the relationship between hopeful authors and the agent in question.

    My main worry as well is that there may be a leaning towards certain types of writing that will be certain to sell, as can happen with lecturers too, but with such a short time-frame and such a big investment on the part of the writers, perhaps they will be less likely to stand up for their genre and content for fear they will never see their work in print.

    After my BA and MA, I learnt that it was okay to disagree with my lecturers on my writing, with good reason, and I am not sure I would've felt the same if I undertook a course like this where relationships are less well formed and not necessarily based on a solid exchange of ideas in a safe learning environment.

  4. No worries- I quite enjoyed the cartoon...

    There is scouting and then there is scalping when the price tag is a hefty 1600 quid for an evening class.



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