Masterpiece: A Reality Show For Authors (Plus a Short, Sad, History of Similar Shows That Failed)


Literary feuds are entertaining: famous and not-so-famous authors holding grudges, slinging insults, or sabotaging one another with bad reviews (both anonymous and not).

But what about author feuding in real time? Can the spectacle of writers racing one another to finish a story, or competing to make the best elevator pitch, hold an audience riveted? Will viewers mourn as authortestants fall by the wayside, and cheer for the last author standing?

A new Italian reality show, Masterpiece, aims to find out. At stake: a deal with Italian publisher Bompiani, and an eye-popping first print run of 100,000. Here’s how it works.

Prospective contestants submit a manuscript of an unpublished novel – nearly 5,000 flooded the offices of “Masterpiece” when the call went out, according to the NYT. Readers select a dozen contestants for each of six episodes, which judges then winnow down to four hopefuls per show.

Each of the four contestants participates in some sort of event that is designed to inform his or her writing (for example, watching a wedding or spending a day with the blind), then return to the studio for the main event: a tension-fraught writing assignment. Writers sit at keyboards facing judges and tap out prose with their words projected on screens for the audience to see as a clock counts down. Time allotted for this assignment? A pressure-filled 30 minutes.

They then read their written assignments aloud to judges, who deliberate and dismiss two writers. The final competition is a 59-second elevator pitch to literary celebrities. A winner is chosen from each of six episodes, then finalists are gathered together for a final competition to determine who wins a book deal – and a good deal of celebrity.

Sounds like a major yawnfest to me. But then, I’m a writer, with an intimate personal knowledge of how boring writers are when they’re composing. (They’re actually much more interesting when they’re procrastinating–how about a show about that?) I’m thinking fancy sets and big screens and breathless show-host commentary are not going to be enough to generate audience enthusiasm for 30 minutes of writers writing.

Believe it or not, “Masterpiece” is not a new concept. Author reality shows have been tried several times, and every single one has failed. I’ve written about a bunch of them (I admit to a minor obsession!):

Book Millionaire. The brainchild of Lori Prokop, owner of her very own vanity press, this show was to feature “Eight people with dreams of seeing their book ideas become published and being the next author launched to best selling and celebrity status.” It never got beyond the video audition stage.

The Ultimate Author. Created by journalist and author Lauren Spicer, this show promised contestants “go[ing] toe-to-toe in a writing competition that tests their ability to develop attention-grabbing content.” At least one show was taped, but there’s no sign it was ever broadcast.

American Book Factory. Four books were to be co-written by teams of authors “competing for what could turn into a major book deal.” This one never got beyond the announcement stage.

Healeth Publisher. In connection with an Internet TV company, Healeth promised a reality show competition “that will change the publishing game forever.” It never materialized.

Publish My Book! Proposed by Tony Cowell, Simon Cowell’s brother, this American Idol-style author reality show looked to have all the goods, but it fared no better than the rest. Announced for the summer of 2007, it never appeared.

The WRITE Stuff. Run by producer and events organizer Cyrus A. Webb, this show promised to feature 14 authors in “a contest that will challenge not only their creativity but their drive and determination to make it in the business.” Despite multi-city auditions, not a single episode ever aired.

Admittedly, except for Tony Cowell and Publish My Book!, none of these groups was very credible. Still, even though Masterpiece has the money and the logistics and the publisher participation that the dead shows lacked, it shares the same challenge: writers are really only interesting when they’re not writing.

EDITED 11/22 TO ADD: Here’s a review of Masterpiece’s first episode: it’s mixed, but generally positive. I’m still not convinced; even glitzed up for TV, who but another writer is really interested in writers writing? There’s a reason there are so few books (and films) about authors.

EDITED 5/6/14 TO ADD: Masterpiece has concluded and crowned a winner. Apparently the show garnered few viewers and was even suspended for several months mid-contest. Here’s a wrapup: Italy’s TV Reality Show Ignored Psychology of Authors.


  1. Personally I have always thought that doing something like MTV's Road Rules or Real World with authors would be quite interesting. I don't know if anyone remembers those, but basically the shows put a bunch of people together, either in an RV or house (respectively), to accomplish a task which they are then rewarded for. It's been a long time since I've watched them so I don't quite remember all the details about the tasks.

    With the authors I think having them accomplish a "game show" like task, with the reward as a writing prompt that the winner must then turn it into a short story, would be interesting to watch. At the end of the season the authors will have a book of short stories that will then be given a publishing contract, or they are awarded an agent, or any number of things, there's many ways this could possibly end.

  2. Masterpiece has spawned off "Masterpizza" as I explained on my blog. It certainly isn't doing well but there are good reasons for that, at least two:

    1. the model followed selects a new winner with each episode; it would have been more fun to follow if whoever was the winner turned up in the next episode and had to defend his/her title;

    2. the elevator pitch which is rather amusing to watch (59 seconds to pitch the book to a real life literary celebrity while riding a real elevator; unfortunately, the "celebrities" chosen are not really well-known by anyone (and certainly not by me) and as a result the chance to draw a larger audience is passed up.

    A pity. Because the idea started out well and had quite a large audience the first time (alas, it's dwindling since…)

    But I'll keep watching it and eventually report on it when it finishes in February 2014.

  3. Incredible! 2010 my first NaNoWriMo ever entered involved 50 K words of a historical novel written as a contest-within-a-contest setup; the next year's insanity featured a shrinks' association that sponsored a book contest between their clients, that would ultimately lead to a murder, and both self-enveloping writer's torture sessions I now see (as suspected) are not even original, being as how nothing is, not even Shakespeare's plots–but to actually realize some poor souls would suffer this indignity to be watched–I give them credit for trying anyway. I hate writing anything under pressure and plan to take a year for my next project before the dive into NaNoWriMo 2014. Actually I love the thing. It's fun.

  4. Well, Claude, with all due respect, writers ARE boring when they're actually writing. Not that many of us can produce truly interesting stuff in only 30 minutes with everybody in the room watching.

    And if most of what they produce at the end of that time is dull, what's the point? How disappointing that would be.

    I think for more sparks Victoria's idea of putting the writers together would work better. We're pretty competitive on a personal level. Have you ever read critique comments between writers? Dig into that — much more potential for stuff to blow up!

  5. I have written that article for Publishing Perspectives (and blogged about it too) because as it turns out, I seem to have been the only one who actually watched it!

    And it was (on the whole) great fun to watch, particularly the second and third part of the show – the start, showing snippets of their audition process to select contestants was pretty boring. All told, there will be 70 contestants going through the show and of course, only one winner…What is especially new about this show – after all, the others you mention were all non-starters and never got off the ground – this one is based on an entirely new and experimental idea: plunge the writers in a real life experience and tell them to write about it later – as a piece of literature, not journalistic reporting. A fine borderline that could be easily crossed, I agree, but fair enough, these are all writers and not reporters, they ought to be able to manipulate the language and come up with something!

    Last Sunday, none of them did, they all failed miserably the test and the jury were, in fact, surprised. The elevator pitch test worked far better, but I still have hopes for their idea of plunging writers in a particular reality (presumably far from their comfort zone): it makes for good visual TV and it's a good test of writing under pressure.

    Okay, I hear you, writers need peace and quiet and to be alone to write. Sure enough, but if it's a sine qua non requirement for some writers – I bet it isn't for all of them, and in fact, 5000 aspiring writers applied to this show!! – , then it's easy enough: all they have to do is simply NOT to sign up for a reality show!

  6. This made me laugh. I'm infatuated with "Project Runway", and every now and then I've thought about how such a setup would NEVER work with writers. Watching someone else write sounds like the most boring thing in the world. And reading their unfinished first drafts is both mean and scary. I'm with @Bob Milne (and he said it best): "The blank page staring back at you is bad enough, but 30 minutes of OTHER PEOPLE staring at that blank page must violate some UN torture convention."

  7. That's a terrible idea too, IMO (posting first chapters and letting readers choose). Great first chapters don't guarantee great ending chapters, or even great middle chapters. Hopefully Marcher Lord retained veto power.

  8. It's hard to believe that so many people could have the same bad idea. While it is possible to have a fun contest, TV and its demand for motion cannot be part of the contest. Marcher Lord Press had a contest two? three? years ago where they posted first chapters and let readers chose what the next book they would publish would be.

  9. It's hard for me to imagine that any amount of dramatic music and jump-cut editing will lend much excitement to the process of writing and then reading the writing aloud.

    It'd be far more interesting to put all the writers into a house together and watch them interact! Or get them to critique each other (practice for the anonymous bad reviews they'll leave on each other's Amazon pages) and choose which one of them goes home. And what about a tag line for the hosts to banish each week's failed contestants? "Back to the slush pile!"

  10. Unless it's aired live (and I didn't read the article, so I don't know) you won't likely be watching a whole lot of people trying to write. The producers will end up 'casting' the most interesting looking people who can play the game, then they'll edit the hell out of it and add dramatic music. It will look great, but I can't see it being much more than a good looking piece.

  11. As a writer, this just boggles my mind. The blank page staring back at you is bad enough, but 30 minutes of OTHER PEOPLE staring at that blank page must violate some UN torture convention.

    As a viewer, I can't imagine watching people write for 30 minutes – unless, of course, the camera can zoom in close enough for me to start critiquing their grammar. LOL

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