Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Brit Writers' Awards - the unfolding story

There.  See that title?  That's me taking the splinters out of my butt and coming off the fence.

I recently blogged about Brit Writers' Awards but, at that point, I didn't name them because of the threats of legal action that had been taken against anyone who blogged about them.  I have, however, commented on most of the posts that I've linked to below.

I don't propose to go into a lot of detail here, as just about everything has been covered in those other blogs and the comments.  For now, I just want to make my own position clear.

Back in 2010, I was proud to be associated with Brit Writers as one of their 'high profile' (their words) judges.  I blogged about the gala awards night here.  I had no problems supporting their stated ethos of encouraging a love of writing and finding new and innovative ways to bring books by talented debut authors into print.

Though alarm bells were ringing, I ignored the concerns I had about the judging process.  Brit Writers' Awards were new.  They were establishing a mould-breaking model.  Teething problems were inevitable. They had been overwhelmed by the response. The problems, I told myself, were organisational.

Then we got to the point when BWA launched their Publishing Programme - an initiative that felt wrong to me on many levels. I could no longer ignore the anxieties I'd had about the judging of the 2010 awards.  I was alarmed to see other judges speaking out in blog comments.  Knowledge is power and the internet enabled full discussions to take place and information to be pooled.  At this point, I decided I no longer wished to be associated with Brit Writers and felt unable to recommend them to new writers.

But that was far from the end of the story.  BWA recently launched a new initiative from their 'Agents' Division' and blogs and forums started buzzing.  All the posts and comments were asking questions.  Not making accusations, you understand, just asking questions.  Fair enough?  Surely, BWA would respond and explain the thinking behind their new initiatives.  They would want to announce who their partners were, which publishers and agents they were working with, how their schemes worked etc, wouldn't they? Not to do so would be counter-intuitive.  Why on earth would they have a problem with this?

But they did have a problem.  Instead of giving answers and allaying legitimate concerns, they lawyered up and began sending out solicitor's letters.  First to receive one was Harry Bingham, swiftly followed by Claire King and Jane Smith.  There may be others - I don't know.  Private messages and emails started to flood in to my inbox from people who been involved with BWA.  Award winners, people who had been shortlisted, participants on the Publishing Programme, recipients of that email who had received confusing offers of paid help for their synopsis and pitch ...

But - and here's the thing - these people didn't want to speak out and be named because they had all signed confidentiality agreements with BWA. Whaaat????

The internet won't be silenced though.  Telling writers they can't write is always going to be a bad move.  Telling internet savvy people that they can't raise questions and share info runs counter to the ethos of the net itself.  Telling communicators that they can't communicate?  It's never going to work.

So I've finally raised my head above the parapet.  There's so much info available, in spite of the legal attempts being made to stifle the debate, that I thought I could be useful here and pull it all together in one place.  If I've missed anything, please do let me know and I'll add the links in updates.  I'm keen to present every angle, so if you know of any positive posts then I'd like to know about them too.  Please also note, there are further links within all the posts.

How Publishing Really Works - 2010 post re the Publishing Programme
Writer Beware - re the awards
Claire King - re the Publishing Programme
Claire King - re the Agents' Division
WordCloud - message re deleted posts after legal threats
How Publishing Really Works - re Agents' Division
Claire King - re questions she asked BWA by email and their response
Writers' Workshop - Harry Bingham's response to Brit Writers' Awards
Harry Bingham's list of questions to Brit Writers
Discussion on Absolute Write - includes response re schools' programme

Sally Quilford - re removing BWA from competition listings
Caveat Scriptor - Max Dunbar's view
Writer Beware - re the legal threats 
Writers Online - includes a response from BWA - discussion is here
Vanessa Gebbie - adds her voice

The BWA site is here. Many of the pages are still under construction. The old site had much more information.

I'm sure we're far from the end of this story. One thing it does demonstrate is that people should always do thorough research before getting involved with companies and organisations - and certainly before parting with any money.

BWA have removed the threat of legal action and have sent a response to Harry Bingham which you can see here.

New post by Sally Quilford
Also, see the latest comments on the How Publishing Really Works post here
Harry Bingham's final post re Brit Writers (he hopes) dated today
Claire King's response - also today

If you checked the above link to Harry Bingham's post about Brit Writers yesterday, you might like to check again as he has changed the final paragraph.
It now reads as follows:
This article was originally written and posted on 17th Nov and relied in part on a number of written statements made by the BWA, who knew their statements would be scrutinised. Unfortunately, I now have incontrovertible evidence that the company lies, even in circumstances where its claims are likely to be closely examined. Nothing this company says can be taken on trust. Its financial promises are unreliable. The same is true of its literary promises. Writers should avoid having anything at all to do with this company. The whole thing is incredibly sad.
This paragraph replaces a previous, somewhat more upbeat, conclusion to this post.

Just found this post by Martha Williams who is trying to make sense of this whole situation.

Pah! A ridiculous challenge to me personally on Harry's blog to reveal my email correspondence with Brit Writers. If I did, it would be extremely embarrassing to them - and reveal nothing about me that you couldn't find out on this blog.

There's an article in the money section of The Times tomorrow (Sat).  It's at this link but you have to pay to view online. The title is: The guide: Eager for recognition and acceptance, beginners with a manuscript are dazzled by a promise of publication

Martha Williams has posted an interview with BWA's CEO.

Feedback is coming in from some of the people who were on the publishing programme. See the Writers' Workshop blog here and here.  


Vanessa Gebbie said...

I think you are doing aspiring writers a very useful service by pulling together these threads. Good for you.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

oh, and adding a link to this to my post...

Debi said...

Thanks, Vanessa. Supporting aspiring writers is in my DNA. I think that's also true for the others whose posts I've linked to.

Anonymous said...

As one of those aspiring writers, thanks to everyone for their activities.
Like many, I still hope for a positive result from all this, that we can just understand how it all works. Then we can all make up our own minds whether it is something to be admired, approached with caution or to be avoided.
Sadly my 25 years in the world of business says that the hefty use of lawyers, NDAs and lofty claims of a new 'model' without evidence and testimonials to back it all up don’t often bode well.
I expect them to make a financial return from their venture but when I don’t have a clear view on how the various elements of the BWA activities fit together, my own natural inclination is to walk away. I’m open to being persuaded otherwise.
I think some simple replies to some simple questions would have been quite sufficient to answer people’s concern’s and their litigious stance has been a misguided approach, leading to more scrutiny than they intended or perhaps deserve.

Debi said...

Welcome here, Peter, and thanks for your support. I saw your post about NaNoMo. Sorry it didn't work out for you - it's not right for everyone. I wish you lots of luck with your writing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks - I actually found trying it a good learning experience but it was proving counterproductive. I do love the help and encouragement that is given freely by more established writers.

Catherine Cooper said...

Hi Debi

I've just posted this on Max Dunbar's site because I saw he'd commented on your Facebook entry about the article in the Times.

to Max...
I see from a comment you made on Facebook you've already read the article in the Times. I'd like to assure you and anyone else who reads the article, 'threatening' is not my style, no matter what it says.

The truth of the matter is, the BWA promised to pay my prize money into my bank account and it didn't happen. The first deadline passed, another was made, and another. All came and went. By this time it was the beginning of September.

The BWA decided to arrange for a 'publicity' event to take place in Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford where I would be presented with a dummy cheque. My response was that I wasn't happy about receiving a 'dummy cheque' for publicity reasons when the 'real' cheque had not been paid into my account. I also asked them for guidance on what to say in a radio interview because one of the questions I'd been sent was... 'What have you done with the prize money?' I have all the email communications with the BWA and I only ever asked polite questions or voiced my concerns.

The handover of the dummy cheque was scheduled for the 14th September. A few days before the event my prize money was finally paid into my account. Two days before the event an email was sent out to 'members' on the BWA mailing list to say my book launch was to take place at the bookshop in Oxford and everyone was welcome, they could even bring a friend. I also received the invitation. This was the first time I'd heard any mention of a 'book launch'.

Someone wrote, in one of the blogs, about the event. He was present and, like others, wanted to buy a book. Unfortunately, the BWA had failed to arrange for any books to be there, other than the five they had on the shelf. I felt very sorry for the people who'd travelled a long way to be at the event. I'm not even sure the press were present. I can only remember BWA staff taking pictures.

On the bright side I can say my BWA 'book launch' was a sell out! I hope the forthcoming book launches the BWA arrange for their 'soon to be published' authors turn out better than mine did.

Debi said...

Oh, Catherine! I could cry for you, I really could. Having met you at the awards in 2010, I know you are not the kind of person to issue threats and can well believe you simply 'asked polite questions or voiced my concerns'. But ... long delays in receiving your prize...? An utterly shambolic launch that they hadn't even told you about...?

I can only imagine how you must have been grinding your teeth down to stubs these last 18 months when BWA were telling the world what they had done for you and how proud they were of you, their greatest success.

If this is the way they treat their 'greatest success' I hold out little hope that they will treat others any better.

I hope it's proving a relief for you that you are finally speaking out about the way you have been treated. I know you would rather avoid this kind of attention and have done all you could to remain restrained under huge provocation. I have never heard anyone speak of you in any but the most glowing terms and wish you lots of luck with your books.

How much would I love to see you on the red carpet at the premiere of the films of your books!

Quillers said...

Catherine, I am absolutely appalled by the way you were treated. You have behaved with such dignity throughout all this that I doubt anyone would believe you were 'threatening'.

Even if they eventually paid you what was owed, the delay and their subsequent treatment of you was unforgiveable.

Laura Wilkinson said...

I'd like to add that I feel for you too, Catherine, and to echo Debi's good wishes for future success. I was at the award ceremony (as a novelist finalist) and on the table next to yours. You were a gracious and, by all accounts, well deserved winner. To be treated like this is appalling; your restraint and dignity is admirable. Personally, I was alarmed by the free distribution of your novel on the night and left in disgust at this point (there were other contributory factors to my disgust, like being left out of the brochure for one, but this post is not about me...)but you have indicated during these ongoing discussions about BWA that you were comfortable with this. I am grateful to all those writers who have spent time and energy to bring these concerns into the public arena, time that they would no doubt have preferred to spend actually writing. There is enough information for aspiring writers to make an informed decision; the questions that still remain can be answered only by BWA. It would be wonderful if they proved themselves honourable.

Claire King said...

Catherine, I just want to re-iterate the comments others have made. Your success is clearly much merited and down to a lot of hard work on your part. You have come across very well indeed in the last few weeks, I think you've picked up a few cheerleaders along the way!
You obviously do a lot of great work in schools based on your own personal initiative which is fantastic. I do hope that you go from strength to strength with your writing and encouraging of others.

David said...

I would like to join everybody in thanking Catherine Cooper for being so frank and forthcoming with her experiences. The fact that she tried for so long, and with such professionalism, to ‘play the game’ having cast her lot with BWA only serves to reinforce the weight of her revelations.

The shoddiness with which she was treated has already been well covered. So too have the implications for Brit Writers’ credibility, when the size of the gap between what they say, and what actually happened, is brought to light.

For my part, I would like to hope that Catherine’s example will serve to encourage other people to be forthcoming with their experiences for the benefit of the writing community as a whole.

It is my understanding that Brit Writers have made most of the people that they deal with sign ‘Non Disclosure’ agreements.

I would hope that anyone who feels bound by such an agreement to keep a reluctant silence about things that they feel to be wrong, can find within this community the help that they need to speak out.

I am not a lawyer, but I understand that while an NDA prevents you from sharing proprietary information about a company’s products, services and intellectual property, it would not necessarily prevent you (for example) from revealing that they had asked you to feign heart attacks during their rivals’ press conferences.

My scant understanding of the publishing industry is peripheral at best, but I can’t help but wonder how lustrously a diamond of Catherine’s calibre might have been set, were it to have been polished by a more adept jeweller.


Tony said...

This whole sorry saga reminds me of a similar story from the past. I may not have recalled all the details exactly as they occured but it seems a Mr H. Dumpty set himself up in a high profile and innovative fashion and, no doubt attracted many admirers and followers. His sleek and attractive exterior image, however, proved fragile. When things started to slip a little he found he was unable to avoid a complete fall and the subsequent break up of all he had established. The sad outcome of his well-meaning endeavours and his fall from fortune - through, what at first might have been thought of as a minor slip, but it went uncorrected and led to others, more precipitous - was that neither the legal powers in the land, nor those seeking to ride to his rescue were able to put back together his broken enterprise.

A sad and salutory lesson to us all.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Debi for collating all this, it makes an interesting yet disturbing read. There's some maddening experiences in there yet it gives hope in that so many names in the industry are perpared to stand up and be counted on behalf of new and emerging writers. Cath

Debi said...

I'd like to thank everyone who has commented here or contacted me through other means. It's not an easy situation to be in and it's certainly not a happy one. Believe me, I can think of lots of other things I'd prefer to be in national papers for than this unpleasant and negative business.

Cath - that's the whole point right there. Unethical people and organisations will always exist but, as long as there are people determined to ensure the truth is told, people will have access to a full picture as long as they know how to use a search engine.

Quillers said...

I am putting together an article about paying for extra services in writing comps (not just the BWA) and I would love to hear of peoples' experience, both positive and negative. And if you've been involved in the other side, supplying critiques and extra services, I'd like to hear from you too about the pros and cons of that. Details on how to contact me are on my Writing Calendar blog here

Please note that my interest, as per the scope of my column, is only for writing comps which offer critiques etc, not other author services unrelated to writing comps.

And thank you to Debi for kindly allowing me to post this link here (I asked her first so as not to step on any toes).

Catherine Cooper said...

Thank you to everyone who commented here and especially to Debi.

Last year, before I entered the BWA competition, I was able to use a search engine and find out about the judges as they were listed on the BWA website. This year the entrants were not able to do that because the people judging their entries were never listed.

Last year I was able to find out about Infinite Ideas and used the Society of Authors to verify who they were because their statement, again on the BWA website, stated they were to be the publishers of the winning book.

I am at a loss to understand why the sharing of information is no longer available, the asking of questions unacceptable, or why the BWA have decided to take a new direction.

Debi said...

I do urge people to follow Sally's link and post re your personal experiences of services linked to competitions.

As Catherine says, before parting with any money, whether it be for a competition, critique, or anything else offered to writers, the rule (and this one really is a rule) is to do your research first. Look for online feedback and discussions. Weigh up the info you find and whether you feel you can trust the source.

If the organisers' site doesn't make it clear what they are offering, who the service is provided by, what the credentials of those people are etc, ask yourself why they are not giving this info. Without full disclosure, how can you judge the integrity and usefulness of the service being offered?

Quillers said...

I can't stress how important it is to do your homework too, Debi. It's a mantra I've been chanting for a while now. Of course one does have to give newer comps the benefit of the doubt, but hopefully if we all share information after the fact (which we can only do if we're not gagged!) then maybe we can sift the bad ones out.

Sally Zigmond said...

I have followed this story on many websites and blogs and I, too, would like to express my admiration for Catherine Cooper's dignity and patience. She deserves better than the shoddy treatment BWA has meted out to her.

Let's hope that before entering their competitions, other writers will research thoroughly and make extensive enquiries beforehand. Catherine clearly did but BWA were new then and there wasn't all the information there is now.