Anyway, while wandering around Crime Fest earlier this year I happened to bump into Harry Bingham who set up WW, and so I took the chance to ask him a number of questions. The results are below, as well as some useful links for further reading or advice. It's quite a long post, but well-worth a read, whether you're an established author, an aspiring writer, or you just like to read.
1 Harry, could you start by telling us what gave you the idea for setting up WW?
Yes, that’s easy! The answer is that a certain retailer once decided not to stock a single copy of one of my new books and my publisher decided it would withdraw all support for that book, no matter that it was in complete breach of contract to do so. That was a financially disastrous outcome for me and made me realise that I couldn’t afford to become too dependent on books or writing as a source of income. I knew that, since becoming a publishd author, I had acquired some skills that would be valuable to others so I thought – this was the original plan – that I’d make a little money on the side offering editorial advice to new writers.
I duly set up a website and started to advertise ... and manuscripts started rolling in. More arrived than I could handle on my own, so I started to rope in other novelists to help. And still more manuscripts arrived. And then people started asking about screenplays and children’s fiction and picture books and memoirs ... and we have ended up with about 80 editors, all told, handling the work that comes in. I had never expected that outcome, but it’s rather as if I sat down on a molehill and woke up on a mountain! (More about our manuscript assessment service.)
2 What came first, the Festival or the editing services?
The editing service was first – and indeed, the Festival almost didn’t happen. For those who don’t know the event, we basically hire all the lecture theatres and York University, plus the 800-seater Central Hall, plus a 400-seater restaurant, plus enough accommodation to sleep everyone who comes. Doing all that requires a huge upfront payment and the big question was – would anyone want to come? Back then, it wasn’t just a question of whether we could get writers there, but whether we could convince agents to make the journey up from London. We took a very deep breath and decided to chance it ... and the first Festival was a smash-hit success and we’ve never looked back since.
3 The Festival’s been going for a number of years, now. Is it always well-attended?
Yes, thank goodness! We get about 400+ people over the course of the weekend. Better still, we get a really high quality of attendees. The very first competition we ever ran was won by a writer called Shelley Harris ... who went on to get an agent she met at the Festival ... and whose book went on to be published by Orion ... and which then became a Richard & Judy Summer Read. It’s stories like that which make agents realise York is a brilliant place to find talent, so they actually ring us up asking if they can come. We get so many agents wanting to come now that we have to turn some away. That just goes to show, first, that agents really do want new writers, it’s not just a closed shop. And second, we do, I don’t know why, attract really good writers. I mean, yes, we can do a lot to help ay writer, but the two key qualities of talent and hard work are ones that writers have to supply themselves.
4 Do you think any sessions are more popular than others?
It’s always interesting to see what appeals. We always have some ‘banker’ sessions that are very well-attended: Julie Cohen on Characterisation, Jeremy Sheldon on Plotting, Debi Alper on anything at all. We also have ‘meet the agent’ panels which are exactly what they sound like – a chance to get face to face with a group of agents and ask them anything at all. We enliven those panels with a thing called Slushpile Live, where agents are presented with actual submissions from members of the audience (an opening page, a covering letter etc) and react on the spot to what they read. Scary for the audience, but a very, very useful exercise!
At the same time, I have to say that we’re very happy to host less popular sessions too. For example, a masterclass on historical fiction or something on how to write good sex scenes might not attract a load of people, but be really crucial for the few who do come. So we try to keep a balance of more generalist sessions and more niche ones. (More about the Festival.)
5 In terms of the editing services that you offer, how do you select editors?
Almost all our editors are published authors – and have published big books with big publishers. Indeed, many of them have won or been short/long listed for some major awards. In essence we want people who have proved that they know what they’re talking about! The one other editorial background we’re happy with is when people come to us who used to be commissioning editors at major publishing houses. They have a different editorial perspective than authors do, but we make good use of both. (More about our editors.)
6 Do you keep a list of successful clients?
Yes, not nearly as complete as we should have though. You can see the list we’ve got here.
7 Do you really believe it’s possible to teach people to write?
Oh yes, there’s no doubt about it. What we can’t do is supply talent or hard work, but we can help any writer get better at what they’re doing and, if the raw material is there, then we can certainly help guide the author all the way to the hands of a literary agent. I remember one guy who wasn’t very good when he started working with us, but he worked really hard – not just with one manuscript, but with three. The second book was quite a bit better than the first and the third was pretty damn impressive. So much so, that after a couple of drafts of that last book we got him an agent, who was thrilled to have him. That does go to show that these things are learnable.
8 Do you think traditional publishing is on its way out?
Ha! A very big and interesting question. No, I don’t believe it’s on the way out. I think print publishing is here to stay. That said there are some big risks and changes on the way. One of the biggest risks is that the big book chains simply collapse. Waterstones is unprofitable as is Barnes and Noble. If those chains do go, then print publishing looks very different. Plus, what if some big authors start to defect from publishing? These days, that’s a perfectly possible move. It hasn’t happened yet, but if it started to happen, publishers would come under profound pressure to shake things up. I think it’s almost certain that publishing will become a leaner, more streamlined industry in years ahead. (You can read more about my predictions here).
9 I think you only recently began writing crime. It’s a very crowded market, especially for police procedurals. Do you have any advice to give to anyone else just starting out down the crime route?
It is crowded, yes – but then again, the genre shifts books in a way that almost nothing else does. It’s not a bad place to be.
In terms of advice to newbies, I guess I’d have to say that the crucial thing is to find a way to distinguish your manuscript from everything else out there. Let’s say you write a book that’s every bit as good as Peter James’ latest. That does NOT mean that an agent is going to jump on your manuscript. Far from it: Peter James’ readers will read Peter James and other authors of that generation who dominate that particular niche. Your novel will feel like old hat. You simply have to find a new approach, a new idea, a new character, a new theme – something that makes an agent think, Wow! I haven’t seen this before.
And indeed, I took my own advice. Although, theoretically, I write police procedurals (because my protagonist is a police officer), really they’re anything but. She’s utterly non-standard and is perfectly happy to walk very well outside the lines of police procedure when she wants to. She is also in recovery from a strange, but genuine condition called Cotards’ Syndrome, in which sufferers believe themselves to be dead. Now obviously that’s one heck of a premise, the sort of thing which would make any agent go, “Wow, that’s different!” Obviously the execution of the concept has to be good as well, but you do need to start with something strikingly compelling. (more about the Fiona Griffiths series.)
10 When you write, are you a planner or a pantser?
Never heard that word ‘pantser’ before. But I’m somewhere in between. I’ll start off with some ideas, try to work them into something that has spark, and I’ll certainly want to know the shape of my story in its very broadest terms. (In a crime novel: what the crime was, why it looks like one thing to the police, how my protagonist figures out that something bigger and darker is really at play.) But that’s all. I don’t plan every chapter or anything like that. Don’t even come close. For me it’s important to have plenty of creative room as I write. (If you want more on getting and shaping your ideas for a story, try this. For more on plotting, try this and this.)
11 Val McDermid has just said that she doesn’t think she’d be published today? How true do you think that is?
Yes, it’s true – with one proviso that I’ll get to in a minute.
A few things have changed since Val’s day. First, there’s just more competition: more British writers wanting to get published, more American fiction, more fiction in translation. Second, the number of available slots has dwindled. Most big publishers wll have cut their lists by 40% or so over the last few years. They’re obviously not ditching existing bestsellers, which means that the places available to debut authors has shrunk by much more than that 40%. Third, publishers have much less patience than they used to. Ian Rankin only became big with his eighth novel. These days, he wouldn’t have had his contract renewed after book #2 or book #3. Fourth, writing like Val’s just wouldn’t seem fresh today. It wouldn’t seem to offer anything new and agents would – quite rightly – move on to other things.
If all that seems gobsmacking, then remember the proviso: Val is a good writer and she’d simply reshape her work for the market as it is now. She’d find the angle that allowed her to blow an agent and a publisher away ... and she’d get her career off to a flying start, just as she did before.
12 Would you like to add anything else?
Only two things. First, the thing I’m normally asked most about is how writers can find literary agents. There’s no easy answer – because the main thing is that you need to write an AMAZING book – but you’ll find most of my essential advice on that topic here. And if you want an easily searchable, sortable list of literary agents, with loads of data (including photos) on each one, then check out our new site Agent Hunter, which we built specifically in order to make the search process a lot simpler.
Secondly – good luck! I always think that writing that first novel is a desperately hard and scary business. Anyone who completes that ask has my respect. And anyone (I’m looking at you Pauline!) who wins a competition and gets representation from a top literary agency – well, that’s just fab and well done you!