Brit Writers’ CEO Talks Back

Industry: Book Publishing

Liza Adams interviews Imran Akram, founder and CEO of Brit Writers.

United Kingdom (PRUnderground) February 22nd, 2011

Since its inception in 2009, the Brit Writers’ Awards has had a mixed response. It’s claimed to be the largest creative writing project and awards for unpublished writers and seems to have developed the right formula for discovering new writing talent in places that the traditional publishing industry is struggling to reach. So why is it causing such controversy?
Liza Adams interviews Imran Akram, founder and CEO of Brit Writers to find out why…

Q. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, Imran. Everyone in the publishing industry seems to be talking about you. Why have you agreed to this interview at this particular time?

A. Anyone who knows me will know that it has never been about me, it’s always been about encouraging writers. Creating openings and opportunities for new writers is everything the BWA is about.

Q. We notice the BWA seem to have been reluctant to enter into discussion on various writing forums where speculation seems rife. Why is that?

A. Blogging has its benefits, but I don’t believe that I should be responding to any negative criticism by blogging back. I want to deliver a great service and let the beneficiaries of the service respond on our behalf…and Liza, that is now happening. There are lots of positive messages, too, but people who just jump on any negative bandwagon without good reason – frankly, I don’t want anything to do with. The funny thing is that many of the same people that are blogging negatively are also entering our awards! What more can I say to that….?

Q. With 21,000 entries for the 2010 awards at a £10.95 entry fee, it’s not surprising that c

ritics of the BWA say it’s just a money making scheme. What would you say to them?

A. The fact is that around 90% of entries came free of charge via our partners and sponsors and projects. Or they were from parents, teachers or pupils from our member schools, who do not pay an entry fee. I can just see them sitting there with their calculators! [laughs out loud while mimicking using a calculator]

Q. How did you make sure that the judging of so many entries was fair?

A. We are not a book award. We’re creative writing awards and we’re trying to bring a democratic approach to the judging process. Yes, we had agents, publishers and authors judging. Some were paid; others kindly donated their time and expertise to this campaign. But there were also judges who were not from the publishing industry per se, including academics, lawyers, teachers and just avid readers who brought the perspective of the consumer. Obviously we didn’t expect so many entries in the first year, so we had to bring extra judges on board to help at the last minute in order to get through the entries in time. Our partners were fantastically helpful and it was all hands on deck! Our online judging system enabled each judge to login in via our website and, anonymously, score one entry at a time and submit it back into the system. Each entry was judged three times before the scores were calculated to give the top scoring entries access into the next round. We are the only awards of this kind that has invested in such a robust, fair and innovative system for judging.

Q. But a lot of speculation has been around the fact that most people seemed to have made it through to the third round?

A. Let me make this very clear, the third round was not the long-list, there were two further rounds before the finalists were announced. And obviously, people who didn’t make it past the first or second rounds are hardly going to be promoting that fact, are they? We’re in the business of encouraging writers and we were trying to inform entrants at each stage, unlike all the other competitions, but it’s caused us more harm than good, so this year, we will only be announcing the finalists when all judging is complete. For the record, we did receive considerable feedback from people glad to be kept informed, rather than seemingly forgotten, as writers so often are.

Q. So you have over a million children involved in your schools programmes. How does the Schools Programme benefit schools and is it government funded?

A. I’m glad you brought this up, Liza. Where do I start? Firstly, we are not government funded at all. We are only able to do this because of our huge and committed networks of partners and sponsors who believe in what we do. With regard to the programme itself, all of our creative writing resources, teaching plans and staff support is available to all Special Needs schools completely free of charge. The key benefit from our Creative Writing programme for schools is that it is encouraging parents to get involved in a three way partnership between themselves, the child and the teacher. Making writing cool and encouraging children to develop a love for writing is what I’m most passionate about. Parents and children spending more time sharing stories together has huge social benefits, which no one can deny. The current 1.5 million children involved is on track to become 5 million by the end of the year, thanks to our Schools Territory Partners across the country. We are the only project of this scale and substance without any government funding and we’re making a real difference! So, you can see why I can’t be bothered with the negative bloggers out there. I would much rather spend my time developing initiatives like this.

Q. How can you give free membership to special schools—and, indeed, why would you?

A. We have given free membership to Special needs schools from day one; and people such as Adam Bojelian from the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh, who won the Brit Writers Special Award at our gala awards last July, has inspired so many. We have given many other mainstream schools and community organisations free membership, too, if they can’t afford the annual £100 fee. Our aim, if we can, is to exclude no one.
[Imran pauses briefly]
Plus, the fact that I have a ‘Special’ child of my own makes me all the more aware of how people with Special Needs are often sidelined when it comes to National Initiatives like this.

Q. Your Publishing Programme seems to have created a lot of debate in certain writing circles – why was this Programme created?

A. Because there was a need for a different approach. A holistic approach that was based on collaboration, one that included working closely with the author and a variety of experts from partner organisations to create a plan with a goal of getting published within a certain period – rather than messing the author about for years. I really felt that writers were being exploited out there. They were, and still are, being charged extortionate amounts for editing and critiquing without any outcome or being moved to the next stage towards publishing. So all they were doing was editing and re-editing the manuscript without even having an understanding of who the audience was or what the book or the author was really trying to achieve.

Q. But…surely to get published is what the author is trying to achieve?

A. Yes, but they’re not being published, despite following what they believe are the rules; parting with money they can’t always afford, because they believe that by employing ‘professionals’ in the industry to edit their work they are making it publishable. Look… some authors want to be great writers, some authors want to write and get published; trust me – it takes two different approaches. It’s these types of organisations that have built their entire business model around providing isolated services for writers without the author’s desired outcome in mind that have a problem with us and are feeling threatened by our approach. I’m so grateful to all of our supporters and partners, agents, publishers and pr specialists who have stood by us through these challenges and are absolutely committed to the success of the programme. My door is always open to working with anyone who genuinely wants to support writers of all ages and backgrounds.

Q. As you are not from a literary background yourself, the same critics have questioned your credentials as the leader of this programme – what is your response to this?

A. Is Richard Branson a pilot? Has Sir Alan Sugar got a degree in computers? Is Simon Cowell known for his singing? Is Karren Brady a footballer? Look, I’m not a writer, agent or publisher, I’m a strategist. But let me tell you, I work with some of the best in the industry.

Q. Have questions been raised by the participants of the Publishing Programme. If so, would you say these questions have been addressed satisfactorily?

A. There are two groups, the first is on a 12 month programme and the second is on a 24 month programme. Don’t take my word for it, speak to them, and look up their blogs— they are out there, because they have something to say. Follow their journeys. I am honoured to be working with the most fantastic group of people I have ever met and enjoying every minute.

Q. Can we clarify once and for all Imran, did Catherine actually win a £10,000 prize and a publishing contract at the 2010 awards, or is this a myth?

A. Yes and she’s doing phenomenally well. We’re incredibly proud of her and she’s the perfect example of what the BWA is all about!

Q. I hear there were some hiccups at last year’s awards event – what happened, and will these hiccups be addressed at future events?

A. Of course there were minor hiccups. There often are at live events – but it gave the event a human feel to it. Of course we’re working hard to ensure that this year’s event will be even bigger and better and slicker than last year’s.

Q. Writing Magazine/Writers News were involved in the awards last year. Why have they pulled out of the Brit Writers’ Awards recently?

A. Because they didn’t share our vision. Their subscribers are still entering our awards and we’re still giving them free entry. After all, it’s not the fault of the WN subscriber. I have to say though; it’s surprising to see the editor of Writing Magazine joining the other negative bloggers, not very professional. But…it’s all good! We’ve entered into an agreement with a major magazine publisher who is proud to take the BWA message globally. Watch this space!

Q. What would you like to say to the people who are making negative comments about you and the Brit Writers Awards?

A. I say if anyone has any doubts please come and talk to us and be part of this campaign.

Q. What are your plans for the future of the BWA? In particular, how do you plan to go forward with the Publishing Programme, given it is as successful as you claim it will be and you might therefore be inundated with applications to join?

A. Obviously, we’re really busy right now with this years’ submissions deadlines. The UK deadline is less than a week away on 25 February, the international submissions deadline is 25 March and the schools entries deadline is the end of May. We are focussing heavily on schools and community programmes this year as well as universities and supporting writing groups. In fact, just this week we launched the first BWA University writing group for cross-disciplinary staff at Aston University. Regarding the Publishing Programme, we are putting all of our efforts and resources into these first two groups and we will not be taking on anymore until the first group is published. Then… join the queue! As our participants are sharing their experience with their own writing associates, it could be a long one.

Imran then reached for his phone, which had been insistently buzzing in his jacket pocket – looked at it, and said; “Sorry Liza, it’s one of my first fifteen, so I’m gonna have to take this…”

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