February 9th, 2009 by Alison Kent
Talent only gets you so far

Though I haven’t watched every episode of every season, I’ve been an American Idol fan since year one. The year of Kelly and Justin and Tamyra. I own albums by six of the past finalists — not all of whom won their year. I tend to get involved around Hollywood Week, when the competition has been winnowed down to participants who have a clue – and maybe a chance. I come for the singers, not the snark. If I didn’t write, my creative outlet would be singing and / or piano. I’d need lessons in both, though I can read music and have studied music theory. My piano playing claim to fame is “Baby Elephant Walk” from Hatari. My senior year, I tried out for the part of Liesel in my high school’s production of The Sound of Music, singing “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” I was called back . . . for the part of a nun. (No, this video has nothing to do with anything except I think it’s hysterical and Judi Dench brilliant.)

American Idol reminds me of the publishing process in so many ways. All those hopefuls vying for a handful of spots. Talent that gets overlooked because the singer chose the wrong song, had an off day, wasn’t relevant to the Idol vision. Wannabes who have no clue about the music business, or are stunned to hear they can’t carry a tune in a bucket. But they’ve studied! They’ve won contests! Their friends and moms love them! Uh-huh.

The biggest hurdle for an aspiring singer (or writer) is to make it out of the slush pile. Those huge crowds in the American Idol try-out cities? Slush. Those performers have to get past the initial screeners if they expect to have a chance with the judges, not to mention the rabid popstar fans. Out of the hundreds of thousands auditioning this year, only 142 made it out of the slush pile. One hundred forty two. The odds in publishing aren’t much greater. In the video of my first sale, the editor who bought my manuscript for Harlequin Temptation said her office took on maybe 10 new authors a year (circa 1995).

For most aspiring authors, the screener they have to win over before they can get their work in front of an editor is going to be an agent. There are exceptions, but publishing houses rarely accept unagented manuscripts, meaning authors send out queries hoping to land an advocate to represent their work. And just as American Idol hopefuls have been known to travel to multiple cities in an effort to make the cut, authors will often query multiple agents before they find success.

The aspiring American Idols who receive a golden ticket to Hollywood are in much the same position as authors who have landed an agent. They’re one of the promising few to conquer the first hurdle. Now the real work begins. This year on AI, the Hollywood singers were given advice from both an industry pro and a vocal coach before appearing before the judges. Similarly, a good agent will work with an author to make his/her manuscript the best it can be before submitting it to an editor.

They will discuss marketability in the same way the Idol participants are advised to pick songs that fit with the recording industry’s ideal of what will have the listening public opening their wallets. They will discuss the story; has the author made it his/her own – or is it bad karaoke? In the same way the judges will reject singers who aren’t relevant / contemporary / marketable, editors will reject manuscripts that don’t fit the current needs of their publishing house. This is why paying attention to the industry pros / coaches / agents is vital.

And yet, it happens every year on AI. There are singers who ignore direction, who think they know better than the pros, who don’t pick songs that fit their voice or the current music scene. And every year, those singers flame out in front of the judges. There may be one or two with so much talent the judges will overlook the inflated egos and give them a chance, but for the most part, judges – and editors – don’t want to deal with divas or artists who can’t take direction or squeaky wheels. And why should they? The competition for those finalist spots in AI is as fierce as those for publishing’s slots. It’s a judge’s – and editor’s – market.

The singers who pay attention to the judges’ critiques, who listen to their advice, who work to improve what the pros have told them are problem areas, who know music, who are industry and market savvy, are the singers who will make it through each round until they come face to face with their final test: the viewing — or reading — public.

In the end, talent is never enough. If you watch AI, think of the singers with incredible voices who have never made it to the finals, or who have been voted out of the competition in the early rounds because they had no stage presence, no personality, no “it” factor.

Now, think of authors who may write the most beautiful prose ever to be put on the page, but whose careers crash and burn because they don’t give their audience what they want. Their writing voice may evoke the deepest of emotion, but the market won’t support their subject matter. Maybe the author lacks an understanding of what his/her contract terms mean, or doesn’t want to accept that a manuscript can always be made better with revisions, and a promising career goes down the drain because of a lack of business savvy.

Any author who wants to make a career out of writing, has to accept that publishing is not a talent competition — no matter how many writing contests said author has won. Instead, success as a published pro is a combination of many things, and all of them coming together at the right time: a strong voice, market relevance, professional behavior, industry savvy, and word of mouth buzz — just as it is for the aspiring popstars on American Idol.

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19 comments to “Talent only gets you so far”

  1. Amy Ruttan
     · February 9th, 2009 at 1:06 pm · Link

    It’s true. I’ve never finaled or “won” a contest, and I’d get frustrated at the ones who ALWAYS seemed to win. But I’m published and they’re not. I listened to the critiques, they think that they are just perfect because they final and win every time, except when it comes to the editor.

    Great post Alison. :)

  2. Alison Kent
     · February 9th, 2009 at 1:22 pm · Link

    And the editor is the only judge that counts! Also, many contest wins are the same manuscript repeatedly, which just shows that manuscript, or the portion submitted to the contest, held promise with the author’s peers. Thing is, an editor isn’t going to buy a polished three chapters, and many of these manuscripts are never finished, or fall apart beyond that portion of the book. Ya gotta write the whole thing, and the whole thing must show the same promise as the first three chapters!

  3. Jason Pinter
     · February 9th, 2009 at 2:57 pm · Link

    Good post Alison. Too many authors either aren’t willing to listen to advice from their editor or agent, or think that once they’ve finished a first draft they’re ready to start querying. It’s a little cheesy, but one of my favorite writing quotes is from “Finding Forrester”: The first draft you write with your heart, the second draft you write with your head.

  4. Dee Tenorio
     · February 9th, 2009 at 3:03 pm · Link

    This is probably the best correlation for the submission process into non-industry terms that I think I’ve ever seen. People really don’t understand the process or that so many things can keep a talent from reaching their dream. Nothing can give a guarantee with so many variables to consider, not even hard work and perseverance–both of which are absolutely required for success.


  5. Alison Kent
     · February 9th, 2009 at 3:12 pm · Link

    Jason – The “Finding Forrester” quote is so true. This is another of those things I would’ve liked to have known WAY back in the dawn of time. I was wed to too much of my prose, too many of my projects, never understanding what marketability meant.

  6. Alison Kent
     · February 9th, 2009 at 3:13 pm · Link

    Dee – It can be daunting, if not out right depressing! Even as many books as I’ve written, I still have the same struggles as many authors who have never sold. It’s a tough tough biz, but I do love it!

  7. nightsmusic
     · February 9th, 2009 at 3:16 pm · Link

    I have a question about this portion of your post:

    ***Now, think of authors who may write the most beautiful prose ever to be put on the page, but whose careers crash and burn because they don’t give their audience what they want. Their writing voice may evoke the deepest of emotion, but the market won’t support their subject matter.***

    I understand about the market not supporting their subject matter. What’s hot today (vampires, shapeshifters, what-have-you) might not be tomorrow, but, how do you give your audience ‘what they want’ if it’s not a genre you ordinarily write in? If you write romance and your audience wants horror, what do you do?

    This is a great post and a perfect comparison!

    Thanks :-)

  8. R.J. Mangahas
     · February 9th, 2009 at 3:24 pm · Link

    Great post Alison. On the other side of that coin though, there are those books that are best sellers but aren’t necessarily well written. What they do have is a high concept and marketability. Using your music, look at Milli Vanilli They weren’t great singers (hell, they didn’t even actually sing). But they were preened to have sex appeal and that’s why they won the Grammy. Of course that eventually came crashing down, but that, as they say, is another story.

  9. Alison Kent
     · February 9th, 2009 at 3:33 pm · Link

    What they do have is a high concept and marketability.

    Exactly. Think about Stephanie Meyers, and even how Stephen King recently said she couldn’t write, yet she hit a niche and gave the audience what they wanted, and has made a huge name for herself. Talent can take on many forms (a la Milli Vanilli). There’s the prose, then there’s the talent (though it could be blind luck) to fill a need no one else has. In a lot of those cases, the author is responsible for the growth of a subgenre, as was Rowling, yes?

  10. Alison Kent
     · February 9th, 2009 at 3:37 pm · Link

    Think about the authors who have switched genres for this very reason. There are some top selling historical romance authors (Kleypas, Dodd, Brockway) who have tackled the contemporary market, and in Dodd’s case, she has added paranormal as well. It’s a matter of retaining authorial voice, yet shifting subjects if you can. Some authors can’t. They have a niche and that’s it, and they have to keep writing what they’re able to and pray for the next market swing to be in their direction. Others have the flexibility to switch with market demands. Allison Brennan will be mixing paranormal into her thrillers in a new series she’s writing. It’s not a job for sissies. 😉

  11. R.J. Mangahas
     · February 9th, 2009 at 4:09 pm · Link

    Funny you should mention the King/Meyers thing. I just blogged about it today. :)

  12. Laurie K
     · February 9th, 2009 at 5:02 pm · Link

    This was a great post and it makes perfect sense to me. You hear about the slush pile, but I don’t think aspiring authors actually get a grasp of how many of us there are out there.

  13. Alison Kent
     · February 9th, 2009 at 7:07 pm · Link

    The competition is fierce, at all levels.

  14. Lynn
     · February 9th, 2009 at 9:05 pm · Link

    “It’s not a job for sissies.”

    Most of the authors I knew who went pro the same year I did are not selling anymore or have left the biz. The few who have survived are the writers who are willing to adapt, accept, think outside the box and, if/when necessary, reinvent themselves.

    Whenever I get tired of the endurance game of publishing, I remember this one author I knew who got dumped by his publisher and then dropped by his agent less than a week later. He not only survived that double-whammy, he immediately tried out some new ideas with his work and continued writing and submitting. He also kept an upbeat attitude about the whole thing, looking at it more as an opportunity to improve his situation and his work. Within a year he had two new publishers and a new (and better) agent. Couldn’t have done that if he’d locked himself in a dark room and wept over What Might Have Been.

  15. Alison Kent
     · February 9th, 2009 at 10:16 pm · Link

    If necessity is the mother of invention, then this market and the desire to remain a pro is the mother of re-invention. 😉

  16. Darlene Ryan
     · February 10th, 2009 at 7:37 am · Link

    I’m acting as a first round judge for a writing contest and it’s depressing to see how many entries didn’t follow the contest rules, including one printed sideways. I’m thinking I’ll send all the rejected entrants a link to this post.

  17. Alison Kent
     · February 10th, 2009 at 10:16 am · Link

    Fortunately, editors don’t score, but still. Authors submitting have to pay attention to the details of the market, what the editor is buying, etc. Really, it’s not that hard! Think of it as a job!

  18. Victoria
     · February 10th, 2009 at 11:35 am · Link

    Great post. I’m just starting to write. It’s very scary if I let myself think about it too much. but you’ve given me so much advice that makes it a little less scary. When I go to start submitting, I will keep everything you’ve said today in mind. Thanks!

  19. Alison Kent
     · February 10th, 2009 at 1:10 pm · Link

    The web is an invaluable source for information on the publishing process. I wonder how I ever sold without it!


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