The Inaugural Manuscript Assessor Conference

Over red wine at The Moat sometime in August, I was talking shop with some freelance editor friends of mine. The end of our conversation went roughly like this:

'Do you offer manuscript assessment?'

'Yes,' I said. 'Do you?'

'No.'

'Why not?'

'I'm not sure.'

'Are you going to that Writers Victoria conference thing?'

'I'm not sure.'

After parting ways I crossed the street and unlocked my bicycle, wondering what this service I offer really means. Suddenly I realised that I, too, wasn't sure.

If my editor friends aren't offering it, then who is? What are they charging? What are they promising? What do authors expect of it? What role does Manuscript Assessment play on the road to publication? What support should be in place for assessors? What is best practice? Are there different methods and models? Who is making the rules?

As I rode home I felt pretty cold - because it was August - but I also felt pretty alone. I got home. I threw my helmet in the corner. I opened my laptop. I registered.

On 2 September I locked up once again outside the Wheeler Centre for Australia's first-ever manuscript assessor conference - a two-day affair, complete with catering, coffee and adhesive name badges. As I suspect was true of most other participants - one of whom had travelled all the way from Darwin - I was unsure what to expect. All I knew was that I wanted all the answers, and I wanted the conference to give them to me.

There weren't any, really. This is because manuscript assessment remains one of the only unregulated areas of the Australian literary sector, with only around two hundred professionals practising nationally. Luckily Writers Victoria, as always, had our backs, having assembled a line-up of professionals in the know.

The first morning kicked off with keynote address between bestselling author Jennifer Scoullar and her assessor Clare Allan-Kamil, followed by a session with Melbourne writer Clare Strahan, experienced assessor Antoinette Holm and the founder of the Manuscript Appraisal Agency, Brian Cook. They provided an overview of the evolution of manuscript assessment in Australia. In the afternoon the group was divided into two: one session was designed for new and emerging assessors, the other for more established practitioners.

The newbies worked downstairs with Clare Allan-Kamil, who invited them to imagine themselves in the position of the author. What might that feel like? How vulnerable are they? What can we offer them and what are our responsibilities to the writer and the work? In the second session, Clare Strahan ran through a practical exercise with a manuscript that had been submitted to her for assessment. We read the extract and offered, firstly, our uncensored concerns and comments about it and, secondly, with Clare's guidance, discussed how we would communicate them in a constructive way to the author.

Upstairs in the not-so-emerging session, the group found it surprisingly difficult to pin down what would constitute best practice, or even what it is that clients are expecting when they hire an assessor - a bridge to the publishing world? A promise of publication? Mentoring? There was also some struggle to devise ways to differentiate the legit assessors from the scammers. What makes us different, and how can we establish the necessary esteem and credibility within our professional community? This is when it became extra clear to me that this really is a developing field.

There was wine served at 5pm. I drank some and mingled. People were talking - a vital conversation had begun.

The next morning, the keynote was a publishing industry panel consisting of Michelle Madden (Penguin Australia), Mandy Brett (Text Publishing) and Louise Swinn (Sleepers Publishing). While it was a privilege to listen to such prominent industry figures speak of their view on the role of manuscript assessment, they all seemed somewhat eluded by its specific place within the publishing industry.

The final session addressed the issue of 'a living wage'. Assessments cost anywhere from $60 to $800, or more. Why this variance? Because there is no set standard. Why is there no set standard? Because we don't seem to know what assessment is worth. By the end of this session it was clear that some sort of formal body needs to be put in place to help give some shape and structure to the practice of manuscript assessment.

There was no wine on day two. I rode home. It was cold again, but this time I carried with me a sense of community.

The biggest achievement of the conference, in my opinion, was that it started a discussion. An important one. Once the practitioners learn to talk about it, they can then teach others to do so. This is the only way to bring manuscript assessment into the current consciousness, and to it give it a place within the literary sector.

Alison Strumberger