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How to Choose a Literary Consultant

  • By Harry Bingham
  • Published 06/28/2011
  • Fiction

Literary consultants are a fairly new phenomenon – they first came onto the scene about fifteen years ago – but they’ve radically altered the landscape for new writers. You certainly don’t need to use one … but at the same time, your manuscript is likely to improve if you do. What do literary consultants do? A good consultant should read your manuscript cover to cover and provide a detailed written report on what’s working, what’s not working and how to fix the stuff that isn’t yet right. We’d think that a decent report should be no less than 3000 words long. Quite possibly, your report will be twice as long as that. Can’t my Mum give feedback? Uh, yes. Thing is, though, you probably want an ongoing relationship with your mother afterwards. A consultant’s job is to be tough. To tell the brutal truth. A good editorial report will spend about 10% of its time or less saying the nice stuff. The rest of it is just going to be about stuff that needs to get better. Additionally, you need your consultant to be a literary professional. That means either a pro author or a professional commissioning editor. Only those people truly understand what a manuscript needs to achieve and how it needs to achieve it. Which would you recommend: an author or a publishing editor?

That depends. If your manuscript is at a very advanced stage – that is, if your writing technique is already very solid – then you will most benefit from a commissioning editor’s eye for the market (ie: what’s selling successfully today). Most manuscripts, however – and by ‘most’, I mean well over 90% – are likely to have some issues of technique. Those technical problems are almost always best addressed by authors, because only authors have the practical daily experience of encountering and overcoming those problems in their own work. So a pretty solid rule would be: to start with use an author as your consultant; late

r on maybe graduate to a commissioning editor. What kind of background does an author need to be a literary consultant? Two things matter, but only one of them matters a lot. The thing that matters a lot is that the author in question has sold big books to big publishers. If an author has achieved success with Random House or Penguin or HarperCollins, then they have excelled in one of the toughest careers that exists anywhere. If they’ve published a slim volume of short stories with HereTodayGoneTomorrow Press, well … you can be the judge. Secondly, it’s a good idea if the author has written in the same kind of field as you. Larger editorial consultanciews should have a good mix of consultants, one of whom is likely to be well suited to your manuscript. If you go to a smaller company, do remember to check that they have staff apporopriate qualified for you and your needs. Will a consultant recommend my work to literary agents? They should do, yes – but only if your work is strong enough. Agents won’t take work just because a consultant recommends it. They’ll take work if they love it and think they can sell it. So 99.5% of what a consultant needs to do is to help you bring your book to the right standard. Once that’s done, then a good consultancy firm will certainly help find an agent. But don’t focus on the literary agent part of things. For now, your focus needs to be on getting the manuscript perfect. Achieve that, and everything else is easy. What kind of costs am I looking at? It varies, but budget a few hundred pounds. And I just need to sit back and relax, right?

Wrong! Editorial feedback is only as strong as the client let’s it be. Some relatively unpolished manuscripts turn to gold because the author has been so damn committed to getting it right. Other quite decent manuscripts never take a real step forwards because the author seems to averse to taking the advice that he/she has paid for. So getting good advice is only half the story. Using it is the other, bigger half.



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