At the time of the initial writing of this article, none of the Scribes had ever purchased a manuscript assessment nor worked with a literary consultant. Our knowledge was limited to the interactions we had in search of qualified professional reviews and advice, as well as extensive Internet searches. Although we have gathered some experience in the meantime, our vantage point will remain the same.
Since it is our assumption that most people considering a manuscript assessment are starting from scratch, we have chosen to draw upon Cyber Lawyer and Website Examiner's extensive experience with evaluating websites and looking for possible areas of concern. Where "yellow flags" or "red flags" are raised, you are advised to proceed with caution. On the other hand, we do not pass judgment on any particular literary consultancy as we do not know them.
Under the right circumstances, a writer may benefit tremendously from a manuscript assessment by a reputable literary consultant. If you are a writer committed to improving your writing skills towards getting your work published, this article will help you in several different ways:
- By explaining what manuscript assessments are all about;
- By introducing you to a variety of the literary consultants available on the market;
- By helping you figure out whether a manuscript assessment may be the right thing for you at this point of your career;
- By listing some of the most important questions you would want answered prior to making any financial commitment.
What is a manuscript assessment?
This type of services are prevalent in the UK and especially in Australia, less so in the US. Claire Wingfield, a UK literary consultant, offered some fairly clear answers to our question:
“You'll know yourself that there can be a debate about the practices of literary consultants / those offering manuscript assessments. That's why I'm always clear at the outset about what I can and can't promise to do for someone. Happily, the majority of my clients come to me because they want to purchase the service I offer (essentially a personalized master-class in writing, specific to their work-in-progress) rather than are looking for a magic short-cut to publication (which I've never seen a fellow literary consultant advertise: you can advise me if I'm wrong about this).”
This suggested definition of manuscript assessments as being “essentially a personalized master-class in writing, specific to their work-in-progress” captures the essence: An MS assessment will not fix your manuscript, will not instantly make you a better writer, and almost certainly will not give you the keys to the kingdom where publishers and literary agents reside. It is merely a kind of detailed road map – you will have to travel that road by yourself, however long it may be. One round of revisions spanning several weeks to a few months may suffice to bring your manuscript up to what the consultant considers a “publishable” standard. In other instances, continuous revisions may take many months, even years, and even that will not guarantee you ultimate success.
True, literary consultants know better than to market their services as a “magic short-cut to publication,” which would be unethical given the harsh realities of the literary marketplace. However, they do cater deliberately to writers that are keen to get published and prepared to incur some expense to achieve their goals:
Patricia Anderson, a Canadian literary consultant whose company offers both editing services and manuscript assessments, uses the internet address www.helpingyougetpublished.com. Her website contains a lot of valuable information, in fact we found it to be one of the most helpful websites on the subject. The chosen name for her business, supported by statements on her website, are irrefutable proof that she markets her services as something that will bring writers significantly closer to their goal of getting published.
John Harman, a British manuscript consultant, author, and mentor now living in Australia, writes on his website: "Manuscript assessment is not for egocentrics who don't believe they can improve. It is for serious writers who are determined to seek publication...An independent manuscript assessment from John Harman will...give you an edge: it gets your manuscript closer to the top of the pile and to the point of being noticed." Evidently, he markets manuscript assessment as a potentially helpful tool towards becoming a published author.
Claire Wingfield, the UK literary consultant who also scouts for a literary agency, offers manuscript assessments to individuals and editorial services catering primarily to companies and organizations. Her website contains one page, "How to get Published," which contains valuable information and advice about manuscript submissions and follow-up. She offers some advice regarding dealing with rejections, including the following: "Have you had the project professionally assessed? A literary consultant such as myself will be able to give you a professional appraisal of your work, giving you an idea of how marketable it is, and where the manuscript can be improved.” So clearly, she markets her manuscript assessment services as being potentially helpful to an author's goal of getting published.
The Oxford Editors, a British literary consultancy, offers manuscript assessments, editorial services, ghostwriting, and conditional access to an extensive international network of publishers and literary agents. On the page of their website devoted to manuscript assessments, they write: "If we think your book is suitable for today’s literary market, we will recommend you to a literary agent. We can’t give any guarantees, but most writers find agents on the strength of a recommendation from another writer. We want to help you succeed and if we feel we can place your book we will show it to the right people." Evidently, the firm uses its connectedness in the publishing world as a "carrot" for selling manuscript assessments.
Are manuscripts assessments for you?
If you have worked hard on improving your writing skills for years and are willing to devote the extra time, energy, and money needed to further improve, then the answer is probably "yes." A reputable literary consultant can give you a kind of detailed feedback that put them head and shoulders above most other sources of "critique" such as friends and family members.
If manuscript assessments are viewed primarily as a solution to getting published, their value and significance are debated. The idea that such services may provide a bridge to publishers that would otherwise not accept a manuscript directly from an author, and to literary agents that ordinarily would not consider new authors, is dubious at best.
In all circumstances, the value of a manuscript assessment to the author personally will depend on its quality, which in turn may depend on the qualifications of the reviewer to conduct an independent appraisal of that particular type of manuscript. The reviewer’s ability to advise on marketability of the manuscript may not live up to your expectations, given the ever-changing needs of publishers and general lack of transparency of the marketplace.
Potential conflicts of interest
As shown above, MS assessments are oftentimes offered by literary consultants who provide various other publishing-related services such as editing and help with researching and/or contacting literary agents and publishers. In our opinion, such consultants will easily find themselves in a conflict of interest when advising authors about the realities of the literary marketplace. Notably, they could have an obvious financial interest in getting authors to invest time and money in a manuscript assessment, perhaps followed by a revision and editing process in consultation with the literary consultant.
A potential conflict of interest such as the one described here would seem to be even stronger when, as is oftentimes the case, the literary consultant uses its ties with literary agents and/or publishers as a further incentive for the author to invest in getting the manuscript up to a high standard.
We have observed, furthermore, that literary consultants routinely inform authors that agents and editors at publishing houses no longer have the time to edit manuscripts, which should therefore be of a very high standard prior to submission lest they be rejected. Thus, the literary consultant may seek to market their own assessment and editing services as being in virtually any aspiring author’s own best interest. This rationale may well contain elements of truth, but it does not represent the whole truth as far as we are concerned: Many authors have found publication without involving a literary consultant or professional editor.
Carefully consider whether you need a manuscript assessment or not. Take into account your own editing skills and whether your manuscript has previously been exposed to critique by an objective, capable person. In some cases, you will probably benefit more from the assistance of a content editor who can pinpoint serious flaws or shortcomings in your manuscript as well as provide detailed instructions or assistance on how to fix such issues. In some cases, your manuscript may even be strong enough to submit to agents and publishers as is.
If you believe that your project, and especially your writing skills would indeed benefit from a manuscript assessment, you should carefully evaluate the qualifications of various literary consultants. It is advisable to shop around and compare different factors such as:
- turnaround times;
- what exactly is included in the assessment?
- Is re-review available upon request, and at what cost?
- does the reviewer offer post-review consultations free of charge?
- do they have the experience and expertise to take on your particular manuscript?
You should be cautious if a consultant indicates that a manuscript assessment will improve your chances to get a foot in the door with certain agents and/or publishers, or if they promise to make available to you other services once an assessment has been made and the manuscript has reached a certain standard. In this case, it is only fair that you question the reviewer’s ability to conduct an independent manuscript assessment and provide other promised services without the revision process becoming too protracted or costly.
This said, we have no reason to doubt that most literary consultants are reputable, honest, and dedicated to their profession. Their fees tend to be reasonable, and they work hard to help you become a better writer.