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.