How Publishing is Like American Idol (and why I love Simon)
Think about it. On American Idol, you have four basic stages of competition:
1. The audition process, where they go around from city to city and hear thousands of auditions.
2. Hollywood Week, where the field is narrowed from usually around 150 to anywhere from 24 to 36 contestants.
3. The Top 24/36, where four contestants are kicked off each week.
4. The Top Twelve, where one contestant is kicked off each week until we finally have Our Next American Idol.
Every audition process is like this, and in publishing a writer must first audition before they can find any measure of interest or success. Actors and singers go to dozens, hundreds, thousands of auditions in their lifetime, depending on how devoted they are to their craft. Writers send out query letters, which brings us to our first stage.
Stage One – Auditions
On American Idol, hopeful singers fill stadiums to have the chance to perform for Simon, Kara, and Randy. What most casual viewers don’t realize is that those auditions are spread out over several weeks, and those prospective singers audition for producers first. They queue up and have around ten seconds to wow those judges, else they’re dismissed.
In publishing, most agents have assistants who filter through the massive amount of queries they receive to find the good stuff.
On American Idol, once you get past the rounds with the producers, you finally get to go up and see the big guys, the faces we all recognize from our TVs. Randy will undoubtedly say ‘dawg’ one too many times and use the made-up word ‘pitchy’, and the advice he gives is spectacularly vague. The guest judge will be helpful, snotty, or too busy basking in their own fame to notice the cameras aren’t always on them. If you’re a cute guy with long hair and a drawl, Kara will flirt and possibly unbutton her shirt. And Simon will tell you whether you really have a chance or not.
Agents can pretty much be summed up in those four categories as well.
Randy: “Not for me.”
Guest Judge: No reply, because they’re too busy being their awesome selves (or your query just wasn’t right for them). Also the ones who reply to your query two years after you sent it.
Kara: The ones who pounce on you and later mention their fee (avoid!).
Simon: The ones who take the time to tell you why they didn’t like your query. Alternatively, the ones who request further materials. Ever notice that if the vote’s split 2-2, Simon’s the deciding voice? There’s a reason for that.
During this process, most of the wannabes get weeded out. Why? Because they either can’t sing, didn’t pick the right song (more on this later), or just don’t have “it”, whatever “it” is.
After lots of tears, multiple offenders, crazies, and lots of bleeping and blurring, the ones who have a chance are passed into the next round, which leads us to…
Stage Two – Hollywood Week
Who doesn’t love Hollywood Week? The people who go through it, that’s who. Lots of tension. Tons of waiting. More song and dance than you can swallow. At each stage, more and more people are cut, until the number dwindles closer to the elusive 24.
In publishing, this is called having partials or fulls requested. Super-exciting, right? Someone saw something in your writing that made them want to read more. They might like you! They might love you! You could be rocketing to the top in no time, with a New York Times bestseller and eighty foreign countries selling your books —
Oh. Wait. Rejected.
Lots of tears, lots of bleeping, and lots of blurring. Sometimes the occasional crazy gets through, but for the most part, these are the ones who have been singing for a while. Some of them have raw talent; others have developed their talent over the years. Some of them are ready; others are asked to come back next year after practising. Sometimes we agree with the judges; sometimes we don’t.
When it all boils down to the Walk of Fame and Shame as the Top 24 are chosen, sometimes the judges’ decisions seem so arbitrary as to be nothing more than an excuse to say no. Sometimes an agent’s list is so full that even though you might have written a good book, it just isn’t great enough for her to make room.
But what if, when you sit down in front of those judges, they say they’re going to see more of you? What if they say they love you? What if they say yes, they want to represent you, and would you please sign on the dotted line?
Stage Three – The Top 24
The thing no one tells you when you’re in the querying stage is that just because you sign with an agent doesn’t mean you’re going to sell that book. Or the next one. Or the next one. I read a statistic once that said only one out of five manuscripts an agent shops around is actually sold. True? I don’t know. It seems off to me, but I’m not on that side of the fence.
This is where the Top 24 comes in. You’ve gotten the amazing news — you’re going to be on TV represented by a real, live literary agent! You’ve beaten the odds! Fame and fortune is within your reach!
And then the real work begins. The edits, the revisions, the rewriting — if you thought querying was tough, try getting your manuscript into tip-top shape. Yeah, it was good when you submitted it if you’re at this point, but good doesn’t cut it. You need to be great.
Then the submission process starts, and the real show begins.
The Top 24 (and 20, 16…) sing each week and try to dazzle the audience, who votes for whether or not they’ll stay. Over the next three rounds, each week they survive, their odds of making the Top 12 get better.
When agents send materials out on the submission process, a minimum of three things needs to happen to stay in the game.
Round 1: The first reader/editor’s assistant must love it.
Round 2: The editor herself must love it.
Round 3: The rest of the editing team, including the editor’s boss, must love it and think they can make a profit on you. They need to believe that you’re a good business deal.
So, well, are you? Do you have a chance of making it into the Top 12?
What happens if you really do survive all three weeks? You make it into…
Stage Four – The Top 12
Okay, dude. Not only are you on national TV, but you’re part of the Top 12 of this season of American Idol. Your name will be splashed across websites and newspapers. People will dig deep into your background to figure out who you are. You might even become a trending Twitter topic. The possibilities are endless.
Bottom line is, you’re going to be published. Let’s say it again — you’re going to be published. How cool is that?
Everyone says they’re just grateful to be there — on stage, in the publishing world, etc. They’re grateful for the opportunity. And you know what? They are. We are. If you’re not grateful, this isn’t the right place for you. It takes a village to bring a book to fruition, and that village will bust their asses for you if you have the real thing. Their time and money are on the line as well, and they have a vested interest in seeing your book succeed. Every single member of your publishing team, including your agent, have each had a hand in crafting your manuscript into the polished book that will eventually sit on the shelves. You’d better be grateful, because without them, you’d still be at the bottom of the slush pile.
You don’t make it into the Top 12 by accident. If you’ve made it this far, you know what you’re doing, and as grateful as you might be, you’re in it to win it. You want to see your name in lights. You want thousands of people screaming your name and buying your record. You don’t want to be a one-hit-wonder or flash in the pan. No one wants to be the first to go home.
Getting a publishing contract is just the beginning. The Top 12 have twelve weeks of singing and dancing and marketing themselves and their music to gain votes and impress the audience. They aim to be The Next American Idol, not the guy who didn’t even make it on tour.
Each week, things get tougher, but the reward is greater. The more you do to spread the word and the better your story is, the higher you’ll climb. Sometimes people listen to the judges and reviewers. A good critique might help you gain a few votes and sell a few stories, but most people know how to think for themselves and judge what they like. In order to become a bestseller and become that American Idol, you need to write something people want to read.
We all want to be the next Harry Potter or Twilight or Hunger Games. But for every Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, there’s a Taylor Hicks and Ruben Studdard. Even if we win, we don’t want our careers to end with that first book. You need to keep working, and you need to get better and grow as a writer. If you want success, you have no other choice. The audience is fickle and in it for themselves, and you need to keep them constantly in mind.
As for why I love Simon? He’s the only judge who will say what the audience is thinking. He doesn’t coddle the contestants. He isn’t your father, your uncle, your boyfriend, your friend — he’s someone who gives a damn what kind of material the show produces, and he’s not afraid to cut out the fat. Everyone needs a Simon in their life.
Oh, and don’t forget the golden rule of American Idol: choose the right song. I don’t care how well you sing. If didn’t like the song, I’m not going to vote for you or download it off of iTunes. I don’t care how well you write either. If your plot isn’t full of conflict and tension, I’m not shelling out $15-20 of my hard-earned cash to buy your book.
You can’t control who votes for you and who doesn’t. You can’t control what the judges say. You can’t control how far you get or how much success you have after. But you can control how you approach that first audition and every audition after. Never forget the importance of that query letter, because it might be the only chance you have at grabbing the judges’ attention.
And remember — if you don’t audition in the first place, the judges can’t say no. Problem is, they can’t say yes, either.