A major literary agency will open its own creative writing school
Published: February 25, 2011
|London-based literary agency Curtis Brown likely has seen its revenues decline as bookselling has suffered during the present recession. Founded in 1899, Curtis Brown is among the oldest literary agencies in the world, and its list of clients is impressive, including acclaimed novelist Margaret Atwood, bestselling historian Antonia Fraser and award-winning novelist David Mitchell.|
The agency recently announced a controversial new innovation that will not only increase its revenues but may also make it easier for its agents to attract talented new clients with salable manuscripts. On May 5, Curtis Brown will become the first major literary agency to open a creative-writing school for aspiring novelists.
The school, Curtis Brown Creative, headquartered in the agency’s London offices, will be directed by Curtis Brown agent and novelist Anna Davis. Writing teachers will include bestselling novelist Jake Arnott. Curtis Brown will select 15 students who are currently working on a novel from a pool of candidates who must send in a synopsis of their novel with a 3,000-word excerpt. The agency will charge each student about $2,500 for the three-month course.
According to Curtis Brown, students will participate in workshops and individual sessions, and they “will gain creative tips, professional know-how and unbelievable contacts” with publishing insiders. Each student will also receive a detailed critique of her work written by a Curtis Brown agent. Perhaps most important, the agency says it will offer representation to the best writers in the course.
Curtis Brown’s new writing school has created not only great interest among fiction writers seeking publication, but also a significant amount of controversy. Critics contend that potential conflicts of interest abound and that the agency is taking advantage of writers by charging to develop manuscripts that an agency typically develops without charge for clients.
As one poster wrote on the website of the U.K. magazine The Bookseller, “[a]gents should not be taking money from prospective clients up front. It goes against every principle of agenting.” An-other poster criticized Curtis Brown for making “profits from the pocket of writers desperate to access agents.”
Indeed, would-be writers are often told never to pay up-front fees to agents, whether it’s a reading fee or other service fees, because agents should be making their money solely by selling books to publishers. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, for example, notes on its website that “[a]n agent should not charge an up-front fee. An agent’s income should derive from commissions, not fees. Fee-charging violates the basic premise of the author-agent relationship: a shared financial interest in the sale of the author’s manuscript. ... An agent who makes money prior to a sale substantially diminishes his incentive to pursue legitimate publication.”
Curtis Brown agent Jonny Geller, who represents John le Carré, Tracy Chevalier and Carl Hiaasen, passionately defended his agency’s new initiative on The Bookseller site: “[W]e have decided to take a more direct role in seeking out great new writers. We want to guide novelists at the earliest stages to help provide the talent of tomorrow.” Cash-strapped publishers, Geller says, are no longer investing in the editorial development of manuscripts and also won’t purchase manuscripts “that are not 100 percent perfect ... [s]o, why not get involved earlier in the process?”
There’s no doubt that the writers in Curtis Brown’s new creative-writing course will have amazing access to agents and published novelists, but the question remains, will that access help them sell their manuscripts? And at what cost? We’ll have to wait and see, but if Curtis Brown’s creative-writing school is any indication, agencies are doing all they can to increase their revenues during these difficult times in the publishing world.
• What do you think of Curtis Brown starting a creative-writing course for novelists?