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), 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.
Perhaps 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.
UPDATE 10/3/07: Cowell’s show–re-named Bestseller!–appears to have been pushed back to 2008. I’ll check in again next year to report on whether it aired. If you’re a UK reader, and spot it in your TV lineup, please let me know!
UPDATE 9/8/08: I’m in the USA and don’t have access to British TV, but surely a show like this would generate some news coverage as or after it aired. I can’t find a peep. Looks to me like Bestseller! never happened.