Curtis Brown UK: Revenue or Reason?

The news this morning that Curtis Brown – one of the top literary agents for authors – has decided to launch Curtis Brown Creative, a writing workshop, offering authors writing novels tutoring services and the possibility of representation by Curtis Brown left me scratching my head. Let’s take a look at what Curtis Brown say:

“WHAT

Curtis Brown Creative is the first and only creative writing school to be run by a leading literary agency. We launch in 2011 with a 3-month novel-writing course, drawing on our expertise to help 15 new writers shape vibrant debut novels for today’s competitive marketplace


WHEN

Our novel-writing course will run from 5th May – 21st July 2011 at Curtis Brown’s central London offices, with weekly writing workshops on Thursday evenings and 5 extra evening sessions featuring external speakers and individual mentoring.


WHO

Curtis Brown Group Limited is one of the UK’s leading literary and talent agencies. The Course Director and lead tutor for our 3-month novel-writing course is Anna Davis, a Curtis Brown book agent and 5-times novelist. Her co-tutor will be Jake Arnott, acclaimed and bestselling novelist.”

I read this news when the Bookseller in the UK understandably reported it this morning. Curtis Brown is now a global agency with offices in England and the USA. This is an entirely UK based initiative. Why would a literary agency launch a very significant initiative like this in the UK only? Curtis Brown says that it is the first of its kind. Maybe, rightly, they are testing the waters, and if successful, they will move this to their other offices overseas – considering the writing courses take place in their UK offices, and are not farmed out to hotels or writers’ community groups. I see no links to the people mentioned about what their teaching credentials are – outside of being writers.

“We welcome applications from writers working on or just starting writing a novel, 15 applicants will be offered places on our course on the basis of quality of material submitted to us.”

This is the critical piece for me in the application guidelines. This is not a case of ‘you pays your money – you gets your chance’. No, this is a process of selection to ascertain the best fifteen candidates. Fifteen candidates, if we can call them that, who will fork out £1600. But Curtis Brown by selecting them has already admitted that they see great promise in them as authors. So what’s the deal going on here?
Here is my personal beef and why I have grown steadily more and more uncomfortable with this throughout today. This course is meant to run for pretty much an annual quarter period of a year. If Curtis Brown deems it successful – they may extend it to the full year. Fifteen times £1600 is £24,000, and over a full year – £96,000. I don’t know about you, but that still seems small beans to me for an agency the size of Curtis Brown. Here is my take – and I may be wrong on this – but I’d prefer to go with my instinct. I think this initiative came externally – perhaps as a partnership with Arvon or another writers’ workshop. The workshop supplies the tutors, administration and week to week business, and the agency supplies the authors.
This whole thing brings to mind HarperCollins and their Authonomy project, where authors battle it out with each other over the period of a month to get the chance to get their manuscript on to an editor’s desk. Ultimately, Authonomy authors lose nothing more than a few friends when the battle dust settles, but here, with this, authors are out to the tune of £1600, and while authors may genuinely benefit from tutoring – it comes cheaper elsewhere, and more importantly, there is still no guarantee of that lucrative publishing deal.
I can’t help feeling that this is just another way large publishers are thinking of to deal with the slush pile and generate revenue from it, while ensuring that the message sent out to authors is – if your novel (book) isn’t sure-fire, needs some editing, isn’t going to light up the bestseller lists, then, don’t bother us, because we are agents and publishers. And like the past twenty years, we are all in this with our brethren, committed to getting books to the market with all of us doing as little as possible to the submitted book. And you wonder why agents and publishers are described as gatekeepers? Here is my philosophy. If you want to sleep in the nicest bed in the castle in the kingdom – earn your fucking keep!! Publishing is a business, and in business, there are calculated risks taken, not for an exclusive 5% of the commissioned work, but across the board – 100%.
Intrinsically, I have no problem with Curtis Brown setting up their writing workshops, but I have a very big problem with an agency taking money off authors when they might or might not invest in them further down the road – solely at their discretion. This is a case of money coming out of the author’s pocket and straight into Curtis Brown’s coffers.
Consider it this way – seeing as we are talking about the UK market. This would be like Manchester United or Arsenal football clubs turning to the parents of a promising 14 year old football player and saying – we think your child has great potential – even making the first team by the time he is 18 or 19. We are so sure; we’d like YOU to write a cheque TO US for £1600, so he can enrol in our academy – if you don’t mind.
Thanks, Curtis, but I think I’ll sit on the money for now, pay for my own workshop during the summer in Arvon, or just head off to Cyprus and write that ‘great novel’.
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