A Guide to Literary Consultants

What is a literary consultant, should you use one and how can you find the right one for you?

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After years of hard work, you’ve finally finished what you hope is the last draft of your book. You’ve polished your cover letter and synopsis, spent hours poring over the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and come up with a list of agents and publishers to send it to. Various friends you trust have looked at bits and pieces of the book and say they like it, but no one’s actually read the whole thing. And it might be months before they do. Is there any harm in sending it out now to test the waters?

Probably not, and you might be lucky enough to get a deal. On the other hand, you may have a bit of editing energy left. And you want to give your book the best possible chance when it hits the desks or inboxes of your top pick of agents and publishers. But you can’t rely on those friends to get back to you with detailed, impartial advice.

Unless you have someone with enough expertise, objectiveness, willingness and time to give you a thorough, professional and honest assessment of your manuscript for free (and if you do, you are a very lucky writer – hide that person away and claim them as your own) it may be worth investing in a literary consultant to help take your book to the next stage – or to find out whether it has a realistic chance of ever being published.

What is a literary consultant?

A literary consultant (also known as an editorial consultant) is a professional (usually with a background as an editor, literary agent, creative-writing teacher or writer) who reads and assesses writers’ unpublished manuscripts for a fee. Their clients are the writers themselves, rather than publishers or agents. There are consultants for nearly every genre and form of writing, including novels, short stories, non-fiction, poetry, children’s and YA books, and screenplays, though each individual consultant will have their own specialisms.

What does a literary consultant do?

They assess the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript, advise on whether it might be successful in the commercial literary market place, and, if so, whether the script is ready for submission or for publication. Many consultants can also give advice about self-publishing. Their detailed assessments usually take the form of a written report and discuss the aspects of the book that are and aren’t working. Feedback covers elements such as structure, plot development, pace, characterisation, voice, style and technique; all this can be invaluable in helping writers revise the text and build self-editing skills. Some consultants also offer annotations within a manuscript or a face-to-face meeting as well as a report. Others provide editing, proofreading and mentoring services too.

Can’t I get this kind of advice for free from agents and publishers?

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Image: David Hilowitz, Flickr (CC by 2.0)

You might be lucky enough to receive brief feedback in a rejection letter, but editors and agents rarely have enough time to give detailed thoughts about the manuscripts they reject. In some cases, and usually only if a writer is established or a manuscript is particularly promising, a publisher may commission an internal or external reader’s report to help them decide whether or not to take on the book. Excerpts of this report may be shown to the author, but even if this does happen, it’s important to remember that a reader’s report is written for the benefit of the publisher, not the author.

Using a literary consultant will enable you to get a detailed, objective, professional opinion on your manuscript. A good report should give you clear action points, making your revisions more focused. Paying for advice can motivate you to complete revisions and finish the project. However, the truth can hurt, and it can also be very crushing to hear honest advice of this kind – far more emotionally demanding, in fact, than receiving rejection slip after rejection slip. But it can be worth it. Indian writer Vani, for instance, who works with literary consultant Claire Wingfield, told me, ‘She gave me solid feedback and asked me to rewrite the entire manuscript. Needless to say, I cried a lot. But when the book finally came out and all the newspapers in India gave positive reviews, I had only her to thank.’

Will using a literary consultant increase my chances of getting my manuscript commissioned?

If you work hard on revisions and take on board the advice of a good literary consultant, it’s safe to say your manuscript will have a better chance of being picked up. But there’s no guarantee. Getting published is tough. As a benchmark, The Literary Consultancy, one of the UK’s leading (and longest running) consultancies, estimates that 3–5% of the work they see goes on to be published. However, they also told me that many writers come back to them saying that their report ‘was instrumental in helping them find their feet as a writer, get a better sense of their own strengths and weaknesses and know how best to “steer” their writing in future attempts’. Self-knowledge, confidence and self-editing skills can be applied to future projects – and one of those might end up being published even if the initial one isn’t.

Will a literary consultant put me in contact with agents and publishers?

Many consultancies have good relationships with agents and commissioning editors, and (with the author’s permission) will pass on the very best manuscripts to contacts where they see a good fit. The Literary Consultancy, for instance, was instrumental in getting their client Piers Alexander (winner of the 2014 TLC Pen Factor Competition) a serial deal with The Pigeonhole (us!) for his novel The Bitter Trade. Consultancies don’t usually charge a fee for this service, but some, such as Cornerstones, another well-respected UK consultancy, will take a pre-agreed cut of an author’s advance should the submission result in a deal.

How much does a literary consultant cost?

Image: GotCredit.com, Flickr, CC by 2.0
Image: GotCredit.com, Flickr, CC by 2.0

A manuscript assessment isn’t cheap, but in terms of the hours of work (and expertise, and potentially career-changing advice) you’re paying for, it’s not bad value. Consultants usually base their fee on the length of the manuscript. A report (usually 8–12 pages long) on a book of 60,000 words will cost between £400 and £600 depending on the consultancy. Discounts may be applied for first-time users, or for a re-read of a manuscript that has already been assessed and revised. Turnaround time is usually one to two months, but an extra fee can often be paid for a report needed urgently. Many consultants include an assessment of the submissions package (synopsis, covering letter and first three chapters) within the fee.

How do I find the right literary consultant for me?

A quick Google search will throw up numerous literary consultancies of varying sizes and reputations. Take time to research. How long has a consultancy been running for? What kind of professional backgrounds do its editors have? What genres of writing have they worked on? (Beware in particular of consultants who offer advice on all genres, or on genres they have no experience of.) Are the fees in line with other consultancies? What is the exact package being offered? Do they have a good reputation? Read testimonials on their website and ask whether you might be put in touch with one or more of the writers they’ve worked with. Ask to see a sample report if possible. Email or phone your shortlisted consultants or consultancies to get a better feel for them.

Large, reputable consultancies will have a big pool of experienced editors, which will increase the likelihood of the right match for your work. These consultancies are likely to have set standards and guidelines for their reports, and will check the reports carefully before they are sent on to writers. However, although you can state your preferences for a consultant (there are usually biographies available online) you may not be able to directly choose one, and contact usually goes via the administrative staff of the consultancy.

This may not be a bad thing in terms of getting an objective opinion. The Literary Consultancy told me they place a lot of value on the objectivity of a report, which they feel can be compromised if the writer and editor are put in direct contact. But a conversation with a professional can also be incredibly productive for bouncing ideas back and forth and taking the manuscript in a new direction, so you may want to find a consultancy where you can have direct contact with the person reading your manuscript. Cornerstones, for instance, offers a 1.5 hour post-report ‘brainstorm session’ as part of its consultancy package.

If you do want more personal contact, or if you are looking for someone you can have an on-going professional relationship with, you may find it easier to approach an independent literary consultant and sound out whether you’ll get on. As well as Vani, I spoke to several other writers who had used Claire Wingfield. They had found her through word of mouth, met her at a writers’ seminar, or had come across her website, been in touch and had a good feeling about working with her. ‘I think it is important to find an editor who is on your wavelength,’ Fran Macilvey told me. Finding someone you get on with and who you respect will certainly soften the blow if you are receiving feedback that is initially difficult to hear. But do your homework carefully if you choose to work with an individual consultant – make sure they have the right experience and credentials to support you properly.

In general, once the manuscript has been assigned to a reader, you will not be able to change your mind or receive a refund. So have a careful read of the terms and conditions before committing. And while you’re waiting for the report, start growing a thick skin and prepare yourself for more editing. That last draft is rarely the final one…

Good luck.

Have you used a literary consultant before? Share your experiences and advice in the comments.

5 thoughts on “A Guide to Literary Consultants”

  1. Cornerstones’ mentorship packages are brilliant. They are flexible and combine reading/feedback with discussions. My novel now has more clarity and I was able to solve some tricky aspects that had been bothering me.

  2. My experience with Cornerstones was not a happy one. They are among the most famous of the literary doctors/consultancies in the country–so by talking about them I am I suppose make a general statement of the whole industry– and they don’t deliver as advertised. They use their scouting services as a “hook” or a “bait” to get you to sign up for their editing services. In the bargain you can pay as much as a thousand pounds.

    My writing was considered “advanced”, so they steered me to an experienced editor. All I got for my work of literary fiction was copy editing rather than the structural editing they promised. That was my first peeve. Even so the editor was kind enough to confirm I was ready for Cornerstones’ scouting services to lit. agents.

    That’s when I began to feel they were getting cold feet. My emails were being ignored, the deadline for evaluation came and went. Finally, I received a squeamish reply from the one of their founders stating that Cornerstones really was stronger in representing commercial rather than literary fiction, so they had to pass.

    However, she congratulated me for reaching “Cornerstones submission stage”. When I asked her if I could quote her on that she was firm and said No.

    So what did my thousand quid really get me? Just copy editing services?

  3. Fully agree with the above comment, posted by Sidney Hart. Cornerstones was the worst possible use of my money. They might be good for writers of commercial fiction but neither they (nor their editors) seem equipped to advise, critique or do anything useful for works of literary fiction.

    I also found their petty approach to costs to be shocking. They ask for large sums of money to be wired over before the work begins and then add on a hundred small expenses, including cost of postage, photocopying, etc. No amount is too small to be billed. And the people who work there are mean-spirited enough to withhold the final product unless every little penny is settled.

  4. I’ve been looking at the Writers Workshop and Cornerstones and I couldn’t help but get the feeling that (after they blew wind up the proverbial) that it was all about the money (‘Duh’ I hear you sigh). I think, in a way, authors, being in our bubbles, are in dire need of a bit of ego stroking and when someone does it’s easy to be cajoled into signing up for an assessment.
    I found that one of the Writers Workshop authors kept issuing in his emails about paying up to start their course. Cornerstones – seemed quite pricey for what you get and in the end I’m not sure how valuable any of that feedback is. I And I didn’t really like their 10% fee on a book deal (if they get you one) when you’re already getting hit by agent fees as well.
    I think it depends on who you get. I had a writer friend who did the Writers Workshop self-editing course and highly recommended it. I think it was a reasonable 350 pounds or so. Anyway, good to hear about other people’s experiences.

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