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May 3 / Simon

Rebecca Swift

By Simon Tait, The Times, 29-4-2017

Part of a literary family who became a bridge between writers and publishers, and was known as ‘The Author’s Goidmother’
Doris Lessing was an early hero of Rebecca Swift’s. When she was 15 she was told by her mother to hide a copy of Susan Howatch’s Penmarric before a visit by Lessing. She forgot and feared a serious telling off, but when the Nobel laureate arrived they bonded immediately when Lessing spotted the book and with a wink confessed to being a Howatch fan too.
Embedded in a family studded with literary, theatrical, academic and legal luminaries, Swift, who has died after a short illness aged 53, decided not to pursue any of those careers herself but to be a mentor to writers, so successfully that she earned the soubriquet “The Author’s Godmother”.
The director and co-founder of the Literary Consultancy, devised to make connections between authors, literary agents and publishers, was the daughter of the novelist Margaret Drabble, her father is the actor Clive Swift, her stepfather the biographer Michael Holroyd, her aunts the writer A S Byatt and the historian Helen Langdon, and her cousin the actor Julia Swift. Her siblings also eschewed authorial careers: Joe Swift is the television horticulture presenter, and Adam Swift is professor of political theory at the University of Warwick. Her long-term partner is the social work academic Helen Cosis-Brown. They all survive her.
“I thought she had the potential to do anything — an Olympian, a poet laureate…,” Holroyd said of her. “She also won a scholarship to study English Literature at Oxford, but quite early on she made the decision not to become a writer herself, because she didn’t want to live in the shadow of her mother”. But her mother was an admirer and for her 2001 novel The Peppered Moth, a semi-autobiographical story about three generations of women in a family, Drabble chose for an epigram her daughter’s 1993 gritty but touching poem On Remembering Getting Into Bed With Grandparents which recalls her own prosaic relationship with her grandmother.
Despite avoiding the limelight her family attracted she was a regularly published poet, and in 2001 wrote the libretto for Jenni Roditi’s Arts Council funded opera Spirit Child. In 2011 her biography of Emily Dickinson (Poetic Lives: Dickinson) was published by Hesperus.
She was “shell-shocked”, she said, by her psychoanalytic studies MA research which showed that only 0.01% of writers could expect to be published. Now, with self-publishing and assistance from the likes of the Literary Consultancy (TLC) the figure is more like 5%. The 20,000 word dissertation, entitled Is there Anybody Reading Me?, explored the relationship between writers and publishers’ readers and was published belatedly last year as part of TLC’s birthday celebrations.
After university she joined the publisher Virago as an editorial assistant and one of her jobs was to manage the “slush pile”, the mass of unsolicited manuscripts that flowed in to publishers every day. “I was a bit shocked and a bit moved and a bit fascinated by the numbers of people that were submitting manuscripts that were, to put it bluntly, inappropriate on different grounds – completely wrong for the publishing house or the writing was really not good enough,” she told the magazine Arts Industry last year. “I was appalled at the gulf between how publishing works and writers”. By the mid-90s, however, publishers were giving little regard to their slush piles, relying more on intermediary literary agents to find promising writers.
Swift was aware that thousands of talented hopefuls were slipping into the shadows with their potential never realised, and in 1996 with her friend Hannah Griffiths she set up TLC as the world’s first editorial consultancy offering professional, in-depth advice to anyone writing in English. Virago co-founder Carmen Callil prophesied that TLC “will build a bridge between publisher, agent and writer – and be of use to all three”.
Since its foundation TLC has had to keep pace with a rapidly changing industry which left publishers feeling vulnerable and less likely to take chances on new authors. Online self-publishing gave writers a channel by-passing both agents and publishers, and traditional publishing struggled to come to terms with Amazon’s stranglehold in price setting and distribution. “So for some writers getting through the eye of the needle into the traditional publishing world is much harder than it was,” Swift said. “Every year several clients of ours get book deals, though whether they can stay in print and have careers is another matter”.
TLC now handles 600 manuscripts a year, putting them out to 90 experienced readers dotted around the country who give detailed feedback. Only one supplicant has ever been turned down, a writer who believed that there was a Jewish plot to destroy the world.

Self-publishing is often the advice. Tina Seskis’ first book, One Step Too Far, was considered by agents not to meet the “chick lit standards” of having a conventional happy ending. On Swift’s advice she created her own online mini-publishing house and in six months she had sold 100,000 books. She has now written two novels and is published by Penguin. Other authors TLC has supported to publication are Jenny Downham, Penny Pepper and Kerry Young (who is also now a reader for TLC). Another was the restaurateur and cookery writer Pru Leith whose novel, Leaving Patrick, was read by Swift and eventually published in 2013 by Hachete UK. It was the first of six novels so far. “I wouldn’t dream of sending a completed novel to my publisher without having TLC look at it first,” Leith said.

Swift will be succeeded as director of TLC by Aki Schliz who said: “Becky was a visionary, an innovator and a staunch and tireless defender of writers and of literary values. She was also a talented poet and librettist, a mentor, a friend, colleague, beloved daughter, partner, sister, aunt and godmother, and a true literary hero”.

Rebecca Swift, poet and literary consultant, was born on January 10, 1964. She died of cancer on April 18, 2017, aged 53.