Thursday, April 19, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- News of the Weird: Publish My Book!

Agent and author Tony Cowell (brother of Simon) is launching a new American Idol-style TV program in Britain this summer, a reality show for writers called Publish My Book! According to Reality TV Magazine, the show "will see aspiring writers pitch their ideas to a panel of publishing experts in a bid to win a publishing deal." The Bookseller, as quoted by blogger Caroline Smailes, reports that the experts will be Cowell, literary agent Ali Gunn, and a bestselling author who has yet to be designated. The publishing deal is a contract with Random House's Arrow imprint.

There's no word on exactly how the competition will work, but a previous competition for new writers, for which Cowell was a judge, may provide a clue. Lit Idol, held in 2004 and 2005 in connection with the London Book Fair, invited writers to submit a short synopsis and up to 10,000 words from their novels. The five finalists' excerpts were displayed on a website and opened to public vote; the five then read their work aloud before a panel of judges, who made the final decision. The winner got a contract with an agent from Curtis Brown UK (both winners subsequently found book deals).

"Publish My Book!" will consist of six 30-minute episodes. Asked by Reality TV Magazine how he'll keep it interesting (good question--writers pitching their ideas and reading their work aloud would not seem to make for riveting TV, except for other writers), Cowell replied: "The format for the program is based on exposing how the publishing industry works, how hard it is for aspiring writers to break through--interviews with top authors, and culminating in competition to find a new author in 'Apprentice' style treatment."

Maybe they'll all have to share a small apartment.

If you're experiencing a sense of deja vu at this point, it may be because you're remembering my 2006 blog entry about an earlier reality TV show for writers, Book Millionaire. The show--the brainchild of Lori Prokop, vanity publisher and purveyor of a variety of get-rich-quick tapes, seminars, and books--was supposed to feature contestants teaming up, Apprentice-style, to perform various author-like tasks. The goal, according to Prokop: "The mysterious veil of publishing will be lifted...Viewers will experience first-hand how best-selling authors are created." The prize: a publication contract (publisher unspecified--but let's not forget that Prokop is herself a vanity publisher).

No scheme is too silly to attract victims. About fifty hopeful authors responded to Prokop's casting call, sending in elaborate audition tapes that were posted on the Book Millionaire website for public viewing. So what happened? Well, what do you think? Nothing. Time went by, and the show never appeared. No explanations or updates were ever provided. As of this writing, the Book Millionaire website appears to be defunct.

I'm sure that Cowell's show won't suffer such an ignominious fate. But honestly, do we really need a TV show about how hard it is to get published? Like we don't already know it's tough. Like there isn't already enough silly mythology about how it's impossible for new authors to break in, how agents and publishers aren't interested in first-timers, blah blah blah. Do we really need a show that purports to "expose how the publishing industry works," yet seems to be encouraging would-be authors to focus on the unrealistic goal of bestsellerdom? (Not only will one of the judges be a bestselling author, but no less than a third of the show will feature bestselling authors talking about how they got started.) Not to mention, sticking a bunch of writers in a room to pitch their books to judges is not how the publishing industry works. For most of us, anyway.

I've got an idea. For a show that really exposes the publishing industry, let's have a contest for midlist writers! Let's show them attempting to convince editors to buy their next books even though the numbers for their current books are down. Let's show them trying to get their agents to return their calls after twelve publishers have passed on their new proposals. Let's show them competing to craft unique pen names because no one is willing to publish them under their real names. The prize: a publishing contract with an advance that's two-thirds of their last one, and an editor who leaves for a new job halfway through the revision process.

Cynical? Not me.

13 comments:

Dave Kuzminski said...

Maybe they could create one that launches individuals into becoming "literary agents?" Who knows, they might even get a winner in Matawan, NJ. Lord knows the industry could use one there. ;)

adrienne said...

To be honest, it sounds like a fun idea. The brits are pretty good at these sorts of shows "Operatunity" "Musicality" And "The Play's the Thing". Each of these "reality" shows were american idol in concept, but in execution were fascinating, and sensitive and really drew you into the process and all the hard work that went with it (and not all about quick jump cuts and flashy graphics). "The Play's the Thing" was a contest for playwrights, and I thought it was very well done.

Now I know this is a different outfit producing this show, and the above shows didn't involve the general public voting, something that always irks me, but I think I will reserve judgement till I see it!

Besides, anything that glorifies books the way that the media usually glorify movies and music, I dunno, I don't mind it so much.

Anonymous said...

I agree with adrienne that The Play's The Thing made for entertaining television. However the fact that they were able to have a selection process that included actors performing scenes and showed the difference between how playwrites, actors, producers and directors read a play helped offset all of the scenes of contestants sitting at laptops or talking about how they were approaching their script. Plus there was the added 'drama' of seeing how the sets were designed, rehearsals and how the play was amended as a result of that process - all of which helped keep it interesting and none of which you can have when you're focusing on novels.

In addition, whilst the winner did get their script produced on the West End stage, it received mixed reviews and closed early (I think it was after 6 weeks, but am open to correction - it certainly didn't survive till the end of its projected run).

I think this sounds like an awful idea for a television programme and whilst I'd ordinarily be cheering for anything that encourages people to read, for this show to work it would have to be about the zany authorial personalities and their associated mania and breakdowns, which is just another way of dumbing down television.

- Britbeat

bjh said...

Frankly, it sounds boring. As a one-hour special, I might watch, but the repetition would be snooze-worthy. And, to be blunt, many writers aren't as, er, effective in public venues as actors, particularly if they're new. I'd be better off writing. Unless they dress up as chickens.

P.N. Elrod said...

Oh, great, now I'll have a whole different set of myths about the publishing process to bust at panels on writing.

I better get a bigger mallet.

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

I think that this will play well in Britain, where the general population is far more literate and book-loving than in America. But it would probably never fly here.

And yes, this will exacerbate all the myths that exist about getting published, on both sides of the pond.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Well, this is small potatoes compared to British TV, but my summer reading contest will actually be featuring mid-list authors.

Hey, you gotta start somewhere. Besides, reading beats staring at the tube any day.

Southern Writer said...

S.W. Vaughn wrote a blog post on this subject on April 3, and guess who popped in to comment? Yep. Tony Cowell.

http://housephoenix.blogspot.com/2007/04/getting-published-american-idol-style.html#comments

Victoria Strauss said...

Adding a link to the URL above.

Victoria Strauss said...

Additional comment: according to Mr. Cowell, the show will be called Bestsellers, rather than Publish My Book!--which only goes to further my point about an excessive focus on what for most authors is an unrealistic goal, and for most publishers is an unhealthy obsession.

Southern Writer said...

*Waves to Victoria* Thanks for fixing the link. I saw it wasn't complete, but didn't want to mess with your blog trying to fix it.

alleahna said...

For some reason, this reminds me of a cartoon I have of a man in a record shopping, looking at bins of LPs (it's that old). The sign above the bins reads "Recorded Novelists - Listen to your favorite novels as heard by their authors. Long silences; occasional typing; answering the phone; coffee breaks; family interruptions; more." There is a selection of Bellow, Updike, Asimov, Wolfe, etc.

Robert said...

Just to update you, the UK television network has yet to commission this show.