5 questions for Rebecca Swift of The Literary Consultancy [INTERVIEW]

Rebecca Swift
Rebecca Swift is Director of The Literary Consultancy, which she co – founded in 1996. The TLC is first and foremost an editorial consultancy for writers to send work to for manuscript assessment. Writers they work with get a detailed editorial assessment, long before they approach agents and publishers, meaning that they have a much higher chance of success. We were interested in how the TLC is adapting to digital trends in publishing …

What do you think is going to happen to the quality of fiction as self-publishing becomes more accessible?

This is an interesting question, but do you mean the quality of fiction that is available for the public to read?  The truth is, people in large numbers wrote fiction at all levels before the advent of the internet.  Indeed,  people write in  larger numbers than were ever accepted by publishers, as I saw when working in publishing in the late 80s/ early 90s.  In fact, I was so interested in this phenomenon that  I did an MA dissertation about why people write without certain markets once, and doing my research I worked out  that there are roughly around 99% more people writing fiction than would get accepted by commercial houses, i.e. 1% would get taken on, if that.

What new technology means in terms of offering relatively easy access to self-publishing with the promise of a potentially wide dissemination, is that many of those who had no outlet before (other than ‘vanity publishing’ which was often extremely pricey and had stigma attached)  will seek to self-publish and find readers.  Some will succeed in finding readers who genuinely enjoy their work and hopefully pay something for it, and many won’t – beyond the family and friends who want to read it out of loyalty, personal interest or a sense of not being able to get out of it!

So what will happen to the quality of fiction? It will stay pretty much as it always did, although that said, due to the massive increase in creative writing teaching through MAs and other courses, the general level of quality has risen across the board – so perhaps most people are writing better than ever before.  This said, it will still in my view be the case that only a minority will be exceptional, within any genre. I think that readers in any number will always care about quality of story telling if not prose style, and shy away from the rest. It might be a problem for people to find good stuff – so I think ironically gate-keepers may become in due course more important than ever.


How is TLC adapting to the changing needs of writers?

Do you mean both unpublished and traditionally published writers?  One of the big changes that new technology has promoted, is that now anybody writing tends  more easily to call themselves a writer, whereas previously this was a status claimed only by writers who had been published by a publishing house.   TLC  wants to continue to offer to provide professional, tough critiques for people who want that. In other words, we still exercise  literary judgement from people we believe have experience and the skills to provide structural edits and who understand what traditional publishers have looked for – which is I think important. Some companies are automatically providing access to  editors, copy-editor, proof-readers and self-publishing (for a price, often through an outfit linked to self-publishing), and this may work well for many – but for TLC, it’s important to keep being honest with people about what we really think of the work, rather than just immediately saying ‘oh why not self-publish it’s so easy now.’  So we want to work with writers who really care about what they are putting out there, and who want to understand what writing as well as possible takes.

This said, we are also very open and excited about the possibilities for people writing today, and the creative challenges offered – also about will happen to literary form.  Out forthcoming conference on June 8th and 9th is about exploring what the digital age means to writers at all levels – and what their options are. We will also offer some free digital sessions for delegates in association with if:book. We will adapt with new offers as an when we see they are of real value to people.  These days you could programme in so many different directions, you have to be careful to stick to the main point about what is good for literature and writers.


What advice would you give to anyone thinking about writing a book at the moment?

I would say to anyone wanting to write,  if you feel inspired and driven to write, follow your nose and give it a go and enjoy the possibilities that are becoming increasingly available. Also, think hard about what it takes to be published by  the commercial publishing industry, if that is what you want.  Don’t submit anything before it’s ready, do your research carefully about how to submit, be balanced about rejection and prepared to work hard over a long period of time – probably longer than you ever imagined as is the case with most writers who ‘make it’ in the end.


Which of your clients are you most proud of?

Believe it or not I am most proud of all clients writing at any level who find they can use a reader’s assessment  to their advantage, even when its tough.  Those who can really process difficult responses, and bounce back as better writers, clearer about their own intentions and scope.  I admire level headedness.

Of those who we have helped to publication, I wouldn’t say I was prouder of one over any other, but I massively admire the work and attitudes of  Shelley Harris, author of Jubilee has been taken on by Richard & Judy, Kerry Young short-listed for the Costa and Commonwealth Prizes, and Leaf Fielding also recently shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Non-Fiction Award.   I am also proud of those who self-publish with pride and pleasure, and take care to get the product right, even when they have had to accept they are unlikely to be taken on commercially.


Finally, for those who haven’t seen the agenda for your conference on the 8th/9th June; what do you think will be the highlight of the weekend?

I am genuinely hugely looking forward to all of The Literary Conference: Writing in a Digital Age, as we have got together 30 speakers all of whom I really want to hear from at this moment in time.  There are still a few places left so do check out the full programme and booking here.

If I had to select a couple of things though I am looking forward to, it would be the Canon Tales event, involving  five agents and five publishers.  Canon Tales was founded by Jon Slack and Doug Wallace and is a great format, great fun and highly informative: Speakers select 20 slides and talk about each for 21 seconds and the audience can get a real sense of the person  behind the industry professional, and be inspired.  I first saw this at the London Book Fair, and loved it – and it was why I approached Jon to help me co-curate the conference. He is brilliant.

I also can’t wait to hear the self-publishing Masterclass by Robert Kroese, who we’ve flown over from America, and who is author of Kindle’s excellent  Self-Publish Your Novel: Lessons from an Indie Publishing Success Story.

There are a few tickets left so join us if you can.

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