No doubt publishing isn’t the only industry where the same ideas crop up over and over again–touted each time as original and groundbreaking, with no regard to previous iterations.
Manuscript display sites (aka electronic slushpiles). Author-agent and author-publisher matching services. They spring to life with hope and hype, persist for a while with limited adoption and no notable record of success, and eventually sink into oblivion…until the next time.
Another of those perennially arising, perennially failing notions: author reality shows.
What? you say. Who on earth would think that a reality show about writers writing, or pitching, or self-promoting, or marketing, or whatever other tedious things writers do when they’re not rich and famous or crammed together into a house where tempers and rivalries can be fomented by producers, would attract television viewers?
Well, quite a few people, judging by how often the author reality show idea has cropped up. Because I love the lunatic fringe of publishing, I’ve kept track of these attempts over the years (see the bottom of this post for a rundown). Some have been more credible than others (to put it mildly), but all have been failures–even the single show that actually aired (an Italian show called Masterpiece.)
Now the author reality show idea has come round again: America’s Next Great Author (ANGA)
Touted (you guessed it) as “groundbreaking”, it’s the brainchild of Arielle Eckstut and David Sterry, founders of The Book Doctors, which provides writing and editing services and runs the Pitchapalooza pitchfest; and Newbery and Caldecott-winning author Kwame Alexander.
Okay, so they will be crammed into a house together where tempers and rivalries can be fomented by producers. And 30 days? Shades of NaNoWriMo, which even for those who manage to complete their novels likely produces only a first draft (just Google NaNoWriMo + revise to see all the advice about this). Plus I can’t help wondering…what if the only novel that makes it to the finish is the worst one?
PW has an article with fairly detailed coverage of the show, which at present exists only as a website and a casting call–though the creators are hoping that the pilot, which they say they’re ready to shoot, will induce TV execs to pick it up. (Notably, there do not appear to be any sponsors–at least, as of this writing.) If you’re thinking that $2,500–with no book or representation contract–seems like a pretty crap prize for a reality show (especially since many pilot contestants will have to travel), that may change: Eckstut, quoted in PW, indicates that “substantial” prize money and publishing opportunities could follow if the show gets picked up.
There’s also a video featuring Eckstut and Sterry, in which they talk about book pitches and make their own pitch for the show.
I signed up for the casting call, and received this response:
A movement? Really? Publishing needs new voices, but is a reality show going to make a difference? Doubtful, especially given all the non-writing factors that will figure into the selection of finalists (this is TV, after all, and writers are often scruffy folk). Also, the sales pitch in the second paragraph strikes me as a bit tone deaf (buy my books no not really haha but yes do buy them). Words matter, indeed.
I guess you can tell I’m skeptical. So is WaPo’s Ron Charles. So are many members of the writing community, who have greeted ANGA with some fairly cynical commentary–scoffing at the paltriness of the prize, poking fun at the idea that writers are interesting enough for the Hollywood treatment. Quoted in PW, Mr. Alexander sought to put a good face on that issue:
“I get it,” Alexander said. “It’s writers writing books. That seems boring, right? But, as an author of 37 books, who has traveled on five continents promoting those books, who has written in coffee shops, parks, writing retreats, subways, lunch breaks, who has sold books at farmers’ markets, who has had his books banned, who has lost friendships over bookish drama, you got to see it to believe that it’s drama. The irony is, the stories are drama, so why wouldn’t the writers be?”
Of course, these are mostly examples of post-writing drama, drawn from the career of a multiple best-selling author–something 99% of writers, even pretty successful ones, will never be.
To be fair, ANGA has much more credible backing, in terms of founders, mentors, and judges, than most of the failed reality shows I describe below. And I’m sure it won’t lack for potential contestants: I can only imagine the floods of hopeful authors who will respond to the casting call.
Will those factors be enough buck the record of failure that has dogged previous efforts? Or will America’s Next Great Author follow other author reality shows into oblivion? I’ll be updating this post, so stay tuned.
Applications must be made on Submittable, and include 10 pages of a book and a 75-second audition video (be sure to carefully read and assess your comfort level with the License section of the audition terms). Applications are due by September 15; one hundred semi-finalists will be chosen from that pool, and must be present for the pilot taping on October 30 in Newark, NJ. During the taping, 20 writertestants will be chosen to live-pitch their submission, and one winner will be selected.
On the participant agreement, pay special attention to item 4, which requires you to submit to a background check if requested (see also item item 6 of the audition terms); items 7-10, which deal with ANGA’s right to use and exploit your submission and likeness in connection with taping and broadcasting the competition; items 12-14, which affirm that you aren’t entitled to compensation for said use and exploitation; items 11 and 17, which release ANGA from liablity (including for copyright infringement); and item 20, which requires you to agree not to “issue, authorize or participate in any news story, magazine article or other publicity or information of any kind relating to the Program”. Potentially this could include social media or blog posts.
To be clear, all this legalese is meant to cover the eventualities of taping and broadcasting, rather than granting ANGA the unfettered right to rip off your rights or secretly profit from your participation or some other nefarious aim. But it is sweeping, and you need to understand it–and be sure you’re comfortable with it.
The Sad History of Author Reality Shows That Failed
2006: Book Millionaire. Conceived by Lori Prokop, vanity press owner and purveyor of various get-rich-quick schemes, 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.” The prize: a publishing contract with an unnamed publisher (probably Prokop’s own pay-to-play venture).
Dozens of hopeful writertestants sent in video auditions, and a slate of winners was chosen. But Prokop’s grand plan of being picked up by a major network never came to fruition, and her fallback, broadcasting the show for free online (remember, this was still internet 1.0), didn’t work out either. The show’s website lingered on, but the show never materialized.
2007: Publish My Book! Proposed by Tony Cowell, Simon Cowell’s brother, this supposedly American Idol-style author reality show (later titled Bestseller!) looked to have all the goods, including a deal with ITV London. Judges included agent Ali Gunn, and the prize was a contract with an imprint of Random House. Announced for the summer of 2007, it was pushed back to 2008. I’ve never been able to confirm that it aired–or even that it was ever made.
2007: 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.
2007: American Book Factory. Four books were to be co-written by teams of authors “competing for what could turn into a major book deal,” with a payment of $10,000 for each author. Authors were to “leave work, home, family” behind for two months, during which they would “reside at the American Book Factory studios in order to work together.” As far as I know, this one–the least credible of the bunch–never got beyond the announcement stage.
2007: Healeth Publisher. 2007 was a banner year for author reality shows–or at least, for reality show proposals. In connection with a (now-defunct) Internet TV company, Healeth (also now-defunct) promised a multi-city search for writertestants to compete in a reality show competition “that will change the publishing game forever.” Winners were promised a book contract (probably with Healeth, a publisher of which “marginal” was the best that could be said) and an “advancement” of $5,000. Surprise! The show never materialized.
2009: The WRITE Stuff. Conceived by producer and events organizer Cyrus A. Webb (who, according to news reports, did not have a terrific record for delivering on promises), 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.”
This one went pretty far, with named judges and multi-city auditions yielding a slate of candidates, but like the others it never reached the finish line. Originally announced to run on The WRITE Stuff’s YouTube channel and an array of local TV stations, the episodes that eventually aired were not the promised contest, but rather interview shows that featured Webb talking to well-known writers. As far as I know, the contest itself never took place.
2009: Fourth Fiction. This one kind of stretches the definition of a reality show, since it was text-based. But it’s one of the only “shows” that actually happened. Housed on a blog, with blog followers voting writertestants off as the rounds proceeded, it went all the way to the end, with a declared winner (congratulated by Stephen Fry, no less).
2013: Masterpiece. This Italian production pitted 70 authors (selected by readers’ votes on manuscripts submitted ahead of time) against each other, in a blend of real-world action (writers participated in events intended to inform their writing) and breathless, edge-of-your-seat (well, not really) writing assignments in front of a studio audience. Judges, who included well-known literary figures, then chose whom to eliminate, ultimately whittling writertestants down to a final five, from whom a winner was chosen. At stake: a publishing contract with a major Italian publisher and an eye-popping 100,000 copy print run.
Masterpiece is the only author reality show I know of that was actually completed and broadcast on TV. Though it attempted to inject drama via real-world assignments, time pressure (for the in-studio writing), and improvised elevator pitches (in an actual elevator), it didn’t catch on: viewership was small–low ratings apparently even forced a suspension at one point–and there was never a Season 2.