The Role of the Literary Consultancy
5 Nov 2009
Literary consultancies used to be few and far between and largely ignored by the literary world, but over the last five years a new bread of professional agencies have emerged bringing a new level of professionalism and expertise. These are mainly run by established writers and use the experience of a list of authors to help their clients make the best of their work. Here Cherry Mosteshar, who runs The Oxford Editors, talks about the role of the literary consultancy.
What inspired you to start The Oxford Editors?
Coming from a family of authors and journalists, I always had support and a wealth of honest and uncompromising critiques of my work. With the arrogance of youth there were times when I thought I knew better, that no one could possibly understand my creative process just because they had published a few books. But I found that when I was stuck I would run to the aunt who published her first book at the age of 16, or the uncle whose book became a bestseller in the Middle East before I was even born. And I always came away with a better understanding of my craft and a much-improved version of my story.
I started my writing career in journalism, and between fighting over by-lines and the next scoop I wrote what I hoped would be the next great novel – which is still sitting in a draw somewhere. Most of my colleagues were also writing that great work, and we spent hours in badly lit bars reading each others work and helping each other grow as writers. Years later, with a good reputation as a journalist and my own book under my belt, I found more and more of my fellow writers coming for advice and encouragement. Some of it they took, but they also taught me a few things. When my book on Iran was published, writers from all over the world wrote asking me to read their manuscripts and give them honest feedback. The typical letter started “My mother and my friends all think this is great, but I want some professional feedback.” I realised then that there was a lot of talent out there, and that their family will always love whatever they write, but who needed some professional feedback. Many of my friends who were now authors themselves told similar stories, and thus The Oxford Editors was born to provide writers with professional back-up and an experienced hand to guide them through an ever harder journey from blank page to publication.
Why have literary consultancies such The Oxford Editors grown more popular?
I think it is a combination of factors. Firstly, more people are considering writing as a career and they have seen the riches that come from producing a Harry Potter or the next Da Vinci Code. At the same time the market has become harder for first-time writers with publishers preferring to attach a celebrity name to a novel rather than nurture a new writer. The death of the Net Book Agreement and widespread discounting of books means that publishers do not have the resources, earned by bestsellers, they used to have to put into taking a risk with new talent. Agents have also found the current economic market means that they can take fewer risks and they have less time and resources to help writers with talent mature and become sellable. New and established writers can’t get the backup they used to get from publishers and agents so they are looking elsewhere.
Over the last five years or so, some writers who already had a reputation and who found that the flow of manuscripts being sent to them from aspiring authors was growing by the day, decided to do something about it by offering a service that gave other writers the sort of advice that they themselves had been given on the way up.
Now a handful of agencies are proving that with a little bit of help and a lot of encouragement you can achieve your goals. We are all seeing the writers that we help improve and an increasing number are getting their books in print.
The Oxford Editors now has a tremendous team of experienced and talented authors, editors, writers and poets, with a great deal of enthusiasm and dedication, who give honest and constructive feedback. We only use people who have proven themselves as writers and have a passion to help others.
What is your most popular service?
We started out by offering manuscript assessments and feedback, and that has remained the backbone of our consultancy.
What exactly is a “manuscript assessment”?
A manuscript assessment is a careful, detailed report on all aspects of your book, play, screenplay or article. We provide professional and honest advice and feedback for writers by writers.
We read the manuscript and provide a detailed report on its strengths and the areas that need improvement. All our editors are authors themselves, so they can pass on years of writing and publishing experience to help you make the best of your work. When we see a manuscript with real potential in this market we use our contacts to try and get the best manuscripts to agents, publishers and producers.
Do your author editors always know best?
I would say that we learn as much from our clients as they learn from us. The first thing we tell anyone who comes to us for help is to remember that it is their work, their creative process. They are the ones who have to decide what the book says and how it says it. We are just there to point out where we, as experienced writers, think improvements could be made. We always provide a chance for the client to talk to their editor and to go over the suggestions. It is a creative process not some “teacher-knows-best” exercise.
Do you accept all types of writing?
Yes. If you can write it, we can help you with it. We cover fiction; non-fiction; academic articles; screenplays; children’s books; journalism and much more.
Do you just use the authors listed on your website?
No, we have a huge network of contacts and we always look for the best person to deal with the manuscript. If we show it to one of our listed authors and they think someone they know would be better suited they will pass it on to them. Our authors are surprisingly generous in their approach to the task of helping other writers.
Do you only accept new writers?
No, a lot of the people we help are already published, and come to us as a second pair of eyes, or they are changing genre and want some feedback.
What other services do you provide?
We have always offered the full-range of editing services and have recently started acting as project managers for publishers. This means we take on all the production side of publishing the book, from the first copy-edit to final proofs. We also have a mentoring service, where we work one-to-one with writers trying to learn their craft. We actually have some school children who want to be writers and they are starting out with a published author as their mentor, teaching them how to develop their natural talent. We have some very talented ghostwriters, and we copy-edit and proof read manuscripts for individuals. We also run writing classes and are planning an online-course next year.
Cherry Mosteshar has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and her book on Iran, Unveiled: Love and Death Among the Ayatollahs was banned throughout the Middle East. She has ghost-written several other books and has worked in London and as a Foreign Correspondent for the Financial Times, The Economist, The Independent and The Guardian. Now based in Oxford, Cherry has been based in Hong Kong and Iran and has written on the Middle East, Islam, UK politics, the arts and South-East Asia. She has also worked as a Sports Editor in London. She started her career as a television producer and has worked in television in Iran, Hong Kong and the UK.