Thursday, February 17, 2011

Interview with Helen Corner about Cornerstones Literary Consultancy: 17th February 2011

I’ve heard many people ask whether Literary Consultancies are worthwhile so I’m going to write about my experience and then talk to my guest today: Helen Corner, Director of Cornerstones Literary Consultancy.

When I thought my manuscript was in some sort of working-shape I was in a quandary: it looked fine to me (in fact I reckoned I had next month’s best-seller), but I needed to have someone else’s opinion. I live in a place where English-speaking writers’ groups don’t exist, and I knew that if I asked my family or friends to read my story, they’d all praise it to heaven while thinking, ‘what a load of old horse poop’.

So I tried literary consultancies. The man who answered the telephone on the first one I called sounded dead, whacked out or stoned. So I put the phone down and tried another: “Cornerstones, this is Kathryn speaking.” I knew I had the right company.

There are several options that Cornerstones offered and I opted for a full manuscript critique. I wore a hole in the carpet and bit my nails to a pulp while waiting for its return. I first of all received an email with a lengthy and thorough report on the good aspects and the bad ones (ahem) in the manuscript which showed that the editor had read the story word for word. Her encouraging words had me in tears of joy and when the manuscript itself popped through the letter box it was full of detailed editorial comments. Much inspired, I shot back to that manuscript to knock it about, sharpen it up and show it who’s boss.

Cornerstones are also literary scouts and Helen herself offered to re-read my gleaming new manuscript to see if it now was in order to submit to agents. In the meantime, she offered me a free critique from an editor she was training so I sent in the first hundred pages and got another truly professional opinion with some excellent suggestions. Helen, however, felt that the middle of the story was not paced fast enough to attract agents at that time. But she left me with such helpful suggestions that I whacked that manuscript around the room once again until it was fully domesticated with the middle and end re-written - and that’s how “Perfect Score” was born and, later, published.

Helen, it’s such a pleasure to have you as a guest on the blog today and thank you for answering my questions:

 Sue: I know you used to work at Penguin Books and can tell whether a book has potential within five minutes of starting reading it. Why did you leave and start up Cornerstones?

Helen: While at Penguin part of my job was to go through the slush pile and we’d only have about a minute or two to assess each submission (to give you an idea of the multitude of unsolicited submissions, each week we’d receive about 60 or so). 99% were immediate turn downs because they were poorly written but every now and again I’d come across one that had promise.

Anything could catch my eye: the author’s unusual biography (good for publicity hooks); the high concept; the writing… and I would think, this could be exciting. But there would usually be something that the author could have done to strengthen the submission: perhaps the opening could start with a more dramatic ‘show’ scene; they needed to strip down overwriting; or the main character could be more sympathetic… any amount of things that would immediately raise the standard of the story and author’s chances of being noticed. But it was company policy to have an automatic turn down so I wasn’t able to give even brief feedback. So, I set up Cornerstones, as I strongly felt there was a need for in-depth editing and guidance especially for debut novelists.

SueI would always recommend you, but what is it that makes you stand out from other Literary Consultancies?

Helen: We’re a founding LC, set up in 1998, so longevity may count for something! I always wanted Cornerstones to work mainly by word-of-mouth within the trade – literary agencies, publishers and most importantly with writers - as reputation for providing a consistent, constructive service that gets results, is key.

We’re personalized, and we like to look at a writer’s first chapter and synopsis and talk through their aspirations and manage their expectations before taking on a project. We turn a lot of manuscripts away if we don’t feel we can be of help or if the writer’s still at creative writing stage (receiving feedback before the author’s ready can be damaging).

We get really excited by a good story and we care about progressing an author. We’ve launched many and writers may want to look at our website,, Authors: Journeys: for some case studies of the behind-the-deal publishing story. We don’t charge the author when we submit their work or agents who take on our authors, and by this stage Kathryn or I will be working with the author editorially, also at no charge. We do, however, receive a 10% cut of the worldwide advance only of the initial publishing deal, so our submission process is based on a no win/no fee basis.

And we attract the best editors, all with significant writer or industry experience, and who also undergo in-house training.
Sue: There must be millions of would-be authors out there in the same position I was with that “brilliant – at least I think so” manuscript.  What advice would you give before he/she submits the manuscript to you?

Helen: We’re a fee paying service and not all writers can afford us (there are other ways of learning how to self-edit: feedback from online forums, reading ‘how-to’ books...). However, if the author can manage the fee and see it as an investment in their writing (rather than a cost) and a learning curve, that may or may not end up in a publication deal then we’re starting off on the right foot.

An author shouldn’t worry whether they’re ready to come to us or not; we’ll advise them and aim to work out the best route for them, whether it’s with Cornerstones or not.

Sue: How do you work with these authors and what expectations can you give them?

Helen: An author contacts us and we go through some of their material, as above, to get a feel for their story and style and where they’re at with their writing. If we take on a MS we then assign an editor to read the full MS and write up a report on what is and isn’t working and how they can revise to strengthen it. We also cover marketability of whether it’s potentially submittable to agents/publishers (or not).

If a MS has real promise and it’s ready-to-go we’ll ask the author if we can consider it for submission, post revision. We’ll read the first 50 pages and then call in the whole MS if we’re loving it. By this stage, our decision of whether we show it to agents is subjective. Am I clearing my desk of all other MSS and am I reaching for the phone to sell it in. It’s exciting and we get a significant hit rate in placing our authors. In fact, once I’ve finished this article I’m about to pick up the phone to an author and ask if I may submit her MS to agents. I read her MS on Tuesday, and had lunch with an agent on Wednesday who wants to read it.

While the above is the optimum result for author, agent and us, we make it very clear when an author first comes to us that we’re really selective about what we pass through, and that an author is paying for professional feedback first and foremost and are embarking on a learning curve with their writing and revision. If they view our service in this way then they shouldn’t be disappointed (and if they are then I want to hear about it!).

Sue: Some people may say that your services are expensive (I don’t, by the way – it was worth every penny). How do you justify the costs?

Helen:We’re careful to not take on an author who sounds like they may struggle to pay our fees. However, we have the best editors who deserve to be paid well – we’re not the cheapest out there but we’re also not the most expensive – and we work hard to ensure that authors get good value for money. We sometimes talk to authors who say they have to justify the expense, which is understandable, but they have to ask themselves: do they have to justify paying for art or golf lessons or an expensive holiday? It’s also a hobby with potential return. While writing may not earn an author much money and may not even cover their initial outlay with a publishing deal - and if it does then these are usually the exceptions - you never know. We have seen it happen!
Sue: How do you see the publishing world at this moment? Do you believe e-books, for example, will one day take up a large chunk of it?

Helen: This is a constant question ringing around the publishing arena and everyone seems to have a different opinion. Just the other day, one agent was saying a particular genre was out and the other was saying it was in! I’d heard that e-books were outstripping paperbacks on Amazon in the US and someone else said that it depended on the genre and how you looked at the figures.

Trade publishing’s in a flux about where it’s going. Major book retailers seem to be closing down and the traditional publishing model, while I still think it’s the best route for an author, seems to be toppling and fragmenting in places. With emerging technology there are other avenues for authors to get published with e-books and even self-publishing (if the author has a specialist market or a big following and is media-savvy, not to mention their book being a brilliant read). I think times are hard and lean, particularly for authors, especially with high discounting, but where there’s change there are new opportunities.

 Sue: Of the workshops that you run, which have been in the most demand?

Helen: We run general workshops on how to self-edit and submit to the trade and specialist ones – picture books and women’s fiction. Authors come away from these inspired and buzzing about their writing. We’ve also launched our mini masterclass, summarizing our teaching techniques, which an author can do from home alongside a critique on their work. We hope it’s more affordable and time flexible.

Sue: Do you have any plans for the company in the future or is that a huge secret?

Helen: We’re always open to new opportunities but generally, we aim to keep going the way we are, responding to authors’ needs and keeping our service fresh and professional.

And Helen also asked me to add that :
"...we have a free advisory service- our ethos has always been if we can save an author time and money by answering questions that may only take us a few minutes then that's what it's all about. For instance, an author came to me yesterday whose never used our service and asked what I thought about a publisher he was about to sign up with. It ended up being a vanity publisher and we saved him wasting £1000s of pounds. Now that's what I call a very satisfying work day!"

Helen, I want to thank you for spending time with us today and I’m sure you’ll answer any questions that readers may give in the comments section.

If you have any questions feel free to get in touch: 

tel: 020 8968 0777
Listed by The Society of Authors
Scouts for leading literary agents
'Write a Blockbuster and Get it Published' by Helen Corner and Lee Weatherly, Hodder


  1. Wonderful article about seeking professional help in preparing a book to be ready for publishing.

  2. Thank you Kennedy - I thought it was worth it, and maybe others will too.

  3. Mission and vision statements provide focus to your purpose. These practical tips will guide you through the process of writing a personal mission statement and vision statement. useful site


Don't be anonymous - it's not worthwhile. Anonymous comments go straight into the spam box. Sorry.