Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Love of Reality TV

I’ll admit it, I love reality TV. While I have been known to watch the truly voyeuristic shows like The Housewives of New Jersey (I mean, does it get any better than the final episode?), my real favorites are shows like Top Chef and Project Runway, shows that highlight the creative process. I’m a cook so I’m fascinated by watching a chef take some crazy, random ingredient like grasshoppers and create something that actually looks tasty.

I also find that watching these shows makes me think about my job, how yes, cooking and fashion are subjective, but when we listen to the judges talk we can see a commonality in what they’re saying, and while I don’t watch American Idol I do often wonder how writers would really fare if the public were given a say in whether or not a book should be published.

Agents are often accused of being the evil gatekeepers of publishing. I’ve been told that I’m only looking for the next Twilight and it’s been implied that I wouldn’t know a good book if I saw it. Obviously I beg to differ (especially since I’ve never even read Twilight), but who’s to argue with “Anonymous.” My real thought when watching these shows is what if we really were able to produce an American Idol for books? Not great TV since I assume people would just sit there and read, but what would happen if the next major publishing contract was chosen by mainstream America? Sure, the judges, an agent, an editor, and a bestselling author, would be there to give their opinions, but the true vote would be done over the phones by the American public (or the public of your country of choice).

When criticizing agents for being gatekeepers, I think it’s important to remember that we’re not rejecting books because we think it’s fun or because it won’t make us millions, few books make us millions; each of us is making a decision based on our experience, our knowledge and our own abilities. We all have different experiences, knowledge and abilities, but in the end we’re really basing our decisions on the market. Sure, we’re sometimes wrong. I don’t think there’s an agent out there who can honestly admit she’s never been wrong. And wrong isn’t always bad. We’ve all had huge surprise successes and disappointing failures. We’ve all passed on books that later became successes and we all wished we’d gotten a project that later we were happy to hear we didn’t. The point is that part of our job is to play American Idol and try to predict what the public wants. An interesting thought and, if you look at bestseller lists, just like pop charts, you might get a better idea of who would win the prize.

Of course that doesn’t mean all books need to be the next American Idol. Certainly I’m glad all music isn’t, but I think the possibility of a contest like that does make you think.



Caitie F said...

I think people really need to stop being hard on the people that leave their comments as "Anonymous".

I know I have seen a few stories about agents searching for someone that made it past their first round. The agent saw that the person had complained about being treated badly about an agent (which, I'm sorry, happens. Sometimes writers are rude and sometimes agents are rude too) and the agent rejected them without reading their pages. And this story came from an agent's point of view in a couple cases.

With stories like that...people are scared to voice an opinion, so they post something that is critical "Anonymous" because they don't want to hurt their chances. I bet some use fake names also. There are so many writers who just say "oh you are so right" just to suck up.

I just don't think that someone should be punished for giving an opinion or be afraid to give their opinion.

Colette Martin said...

Interesting perspective... so I guess that means as an agent you have to be a Randy, Simon or Paula!

I actually think of reality differently -- to me it's a story that has only characters determined at the outset. The plot is (almost) entirely unscripted. What makes the story interesting is how the characters choose to behave.

Charlie Rice said...

If American television produced a show like Idol for writers (So you think you can write?), they would pick the most sensational books, not the best written. A well-paced historical thriller (just to pick a genre) would not stand a chance against a novella about cannibal hookers – not in this sick society.

I think all of us aspiring writers that read agent blogs are beginning to understand how the publishing business works. We’re becoming aware! (gasp)The agents aren’t the bad guys. I’m sure there really are a hundred crappy manuscripts to every gem. It’s very much like the music business. The best musicians and songwriters will eventually become successful but they’ll always be a place for the one-hit wonder.

Indecently, would you be open to representing a book about a starving dancer that’s forced to work the corner and eats her johns to get by? What if it was written by a Kardashian? :)

Anonymous said...

Why do you keep disparaging anonymous bloggers? I really don't get that. Most of those "names" aren't even real, I'll bet, and even the real ones are rarely a full name.
If you dislike it so much, why allow it? (I, of course, would quit reading your blog if you stopped allowing anonymous bloggers. I almost never read Janet Reid's for that reason.)
And P.S., I really enjoy cooking and fashion and the Amer Idol type shows (which I've never really thought of as reality shows) but absolutely loathe things like that Kate and what's-his-name, etc.
It would be quite interesting, I agree, to hear public views of books before they're published. We do have to listen to them as reader comments on Amazon afterwards, however, and sometimes I wish we didn't.

Kimber Li said...

Hmmm, when I have time for television, which is extremely rare, the only reality shows I watched are the historical recreations, like 1940's House and Frontier House. I'd rather get lost in another world than in real world competition.

I can see how the competitive shows would be inspiring to agents and editors, however.

Is it my breath? said...

What is the difference btw anonymous and someone named PenelopeWrites with a picture of a cat? (I made that up-sorry if it's someone's real blogger name.) I guess that presumably Penelope has a blog so that you can go there and respond to her if needed. But what about non-bloggers who read blogs and want to comment? Does it really help if I am forced to make a google account, which I don't want, and then pick a picture and a name? I still won't have a blog, so you'll click and...nothing. Do you want the conversation here to only be for bloggers? If so, that should be made clear somewhere. But I would think that anyone hosting a blog would be happy if they expanded their audience beyond blogger, which can be a little incestuous. And by that I just mean the same few people commenting on each other's blogs. Isn't the idea to reach more people? said...

My real thought when watching these shows is what if we really were able to produce an American Idol for books?

Would likely be poetry slams, though, since there is an element of performance.

Oooh wait: Screenwriters Idol. Actors cold perform the dialogue (just like the models on Project Runway) and bits of the action.

Jessica, I see a greenlight for you for this one! Better get that treatment registered... :-) said...

Is it my breath:

Isn't the idea to reach more people?

Keyword: People.

Anonymous is not people.

Do you take a lot of anonymous phone calls where people tell you they don't like your shoes? Or do you receive a lot of anonymous snailmail where someone makes a list of things that are wrong with you?

How about someone wearing a ski mask droppng by your house and telling you you've chosen the wrong lamps for your living room?

Just say thanks and close the door after they leave? Or would you perchance ask the mask-wearer who they are. Even if they make up a name, you have a identity -- a concept of person -- which allows for human discourse.

Anonymous is a hit-and-run and you didn't catch the license plate number.

Kim Lionetti said...

I have to admit that I'm scratching my head at some of the comments today. I didn't read Jessica's post as a tirade against anonymous commenters. If we were so much against anonymous commenters, then certainly we just wouldn't allow them.

I believe that this blog was built to create a dialogue. Just as the anonymous and non-anonymous commenters are given an opportunity to air their frustrations with agents and the publishing industry, Jessica has the right to respond to them. Most of the more angry comments are written by "Anonymous" -- that's not prejudice, that's statistics. I don't really get why the mere mention of that is seen as a condemnation of Anonymous responses as a whole.

I think Jessica and BookEnds encourages an open, frank discussion of the publishing process and writers' concerns from all readers, whether they wish to be identified or not.

Unknown said...

I remember participating in the first couple years of the "Project Greenlight" competition, where writers submitted screenplays online for peer review and rating. The best-reviewed screenplay was made into a movie (and the making of the movie was a TV show, but that's not the relevant bit).

The script that emerged as the "best", I didn't like. The peer reviews I received on my submission were useless.

"Letting America choose" or "giving America what they want" is never a good idea, because there is no monolithic "America" where we all like the same things. Everyone's taste is different. What we enjoy is always subjective.

I'm sure there are mean and capricious agents out there just the same as there are mean and capricious postal workers, customer service reps, HR managers, and electricians, but most of the agents I know are doing the best they can.

not, apparently, my breath said...

Ghost, so you feel better if, at the hit and run, they give you some random name?

I dont' take a lot of anonymous phone calls where people insult my shoes. But if I posted my shoes on the internet and invited comments, I guess I wouldn't care if someone didn't like them and said so. And I don't think I'd feel better or worse if they were anonymous or had a fake, non-name name.

Would I be more of a person to you if I typed in a name where it says name, or do I need the avatar and non-name name, too?

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting. As with movies, it's not always (usually) the ones the critics like that end up being the mega-hits. I've always wondered if it's the same with books.

In general I think there's a big difference between the tastes of the elites and the tastes of the typical American.

Rosemary said...

Jessica, I've often wondered about a show called Top Scribe or American Novelist.

Think of the crazy challenges: Quick-Writes that force you to improvise a story on the spot, or having to write on parchment with a quill pen, or ghost writing for the celebrity guest--oh, the possibilities.

Sign me up!

DeadlyAccurate said...

Isn't that what Authonomy is? How is that working out? Are a lot of books published through it?

Marilynn Byerly said...

The magazine RT BOOKCLUB ran the romance novel equivalent of AMERICAN IDOL for a number of years. The final one was this year. The winner was usually published by Dorchester.

Several authors have started midlist careers that way.

Mira said...

Well, two topics today. Reality T.V. and anonymous posters. I'm going to do separate posts. :)

In terms of anonymous, I think Kim has a really good point, and so do the anonymous posters. What I've noticed is there are two different types of anonymous posters.

There are the really mean and attacking ones. And there are the ones want to avoid backlash. They tend to be sincere and honets.

In terms of the mean ones, if I had a blog, and read those comments, it would feel awful, so I totally understand why Jessica is expressing her feelings.

But I also think that Bookends wants to foster an honest discussion, so they allow anonymity. Which is to their credit. But I also understand why Jessica might need to occasionally vent about it!

Marsha Sigman said...

A contest would be fun to watch but no way would I want to be publicly rejected! I cringe when I watch those reality shows and see the ones that are voted off.

BTW: I use my full, real name and a picture of myself. I don't have a problem taking credit for anything I say. What is the point of being a writer if you aren't willing to be responsible for your words?

Anonymous said...

Not all anonymous posters are out to pick a fight. I'm anonymous simply because I'm a private person. I don't twitter. I'm not on facebook. I don't have a blogger name. However, I do like to post an occasional question and the anonymous option makes that easy for me. I read this blog because it is one of the most informative blogs for writers trying to learn more about writing and the writing industry. I come here to learn...not to read negative, bickering comments.

I for one agree with Kim. I didn't take any offence to Jessica's post. Let's get back on track and stick to what she was really commenting about.

Annu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Geewiz387 said...

My book was rejected by Kim Lionetti but instead of complaining about it I went back to MY work to see why instead of blaming the agent. If you have two or three or even more agents and/or publishers rejecting your work then YOU NEED TO LOOK AT YOUR WORK. They can't all be wrong.

Sorry had to get that off my chest.

As far as a contest like American Idol for writers. NOT A GOOD IDEA. I wouldn't want two or tree judges telling the whole world that my work sucks.

I do, however, feel that Candi Wall has the right idea bringing agents and writers together in her Agent Shop at MuseTracks (I am sure I spelled that wrong)at least we know the agents are legit and people have a chance to comment on the queries that were accepted but don't have the ability to choose who should win.

Shows like American Idol cannot be completely fair because of the ability for people to call in and vote for thier favorites and those are the ones chosen. Some of those people should never have made it through and some great ones will never get a chance because they don't have a whole community just waiting to vote for them.

As far as signing anonymously well I don't fear offending anyone. If they didn't like my book before I posted something they won't like it after so it really doesn't matter to me. If my book is rejected I find out why, fix it, and move on. I value good an bad criticism it makes me a better person and a better writer.

Gloria Bryant (Pen: Jovanna Francesco)

Anonymous said...

Wasn't that the idea behind Gather's First Chapters contest. Let the public read through all the first chapters and the highest rated ones went on to the next round. I think they ended up publishing more than just one book from that contest. Although they did have judges--they didn't totally let the public decide.

E. Devine said...

The idea isn't really that farfetched. Long Tale Press is essentially doing just this:

Aisha said...

Amazon does try to do a contest like American Idol for writers called the "Amazon Break Through Novel Award" where you submit, the entries are whittled to about 2,000 and then people vote and write reviews and then three people are flown to seattle for a representation and one person gets a cash prize and writing contract.

Rebecca Knight said...

I would totally watch that show! :) Maybe the authors could read aloud in order to make it more tv-friendly ;). Then they get buzzed when a judge would stop reading.

As far as the "Anonymous" stuff goes, I think Jessica is just saying that she doesn't appreciate it when people use that tool as a means to be unprofessional :). This is a business, and agents as well as other writers, don't really want to work with people who represent themselves poorly in public. If you have to be anonymous to pick a fight, maybe you shouldn't be picking a fight in the first place.

As for all of the other anonymous commenters, I appreciate you guys! :) Everyone should have the chance to comment in a way they feel comfortable. There are ways to disagree that are still respectful, and I think a lot of commenters here, anonymous or otherwise, do a great job of that. Kudos!

Janet said...

Great post, Jessica - I've always watched Reality TV from a 'wannabe' perspective. Had a supper conversation just the other night about the 'under the microscope' viewpoint that takes place in most industries (music, literary, artistic) and how reality tv is just bringing it to the publics' attention.

Canada, eh, has a reality tv novel writing show. Here's the link Book Television's 3 Day Novel Writing Contest. (I hope that works).


Laura @ Caninedesign said...

Agents are gatekeepers in the same way that job interviewers are. Both block you from the career you want to have. But for some reason, agents get the crap end of the stick. You never hear someone leave an interview and blast the person because it went badly. You never hear, "he was only looking for the next Steve Jobs." Because it sounds petty, and everyone knows that you didn't get the job because something was not quite perfect.

Voidwalker said...

I had a hard time understanding the rold of agents before I really started delving into the publishing industry via bloggers and web information. Now, I have a deep respect for what they do and hope to find one and know that when I do, I will be better off for it!

P.S. Any particular reason you've avoided reading Twilight?

Mira said...

Laura - actually, I respectfully disagree - I've heard lots of people blasting employers for not hiring them. Up to and including law suits. I hire people, and I've had several calls from people I didn't hire that were very hostile and threatening. Sometimes very sad, too. Those are hard. I just think disappointment is hard to deal with.

So, changing focus alittle, I would love to see a reality show for writers. I'd love to be ON a reality show for writers. :)

One issue here is the industry image of itself.

I believe publishers used to be thought of as 'tastemakers.' Publishers were supposed to make sure that only the best books were published. (Of course, given the times, they also made sure that only books written by white men of a certain background were published, but that's a different topic. :)

Well, whether you agree with the concept of taste-making or not, it's moot nowadays. Books used to be the only source of entertainment. Not any more. Now, if people don't want to read a book, they'll just go watch a DVD.

We have a free market economy, and the only role that makes sense for a publisher is that of a competitor that produces a desired product. Otherwise, the industry won't make money, and won't stay viable.

Sometimes I see people giving agents a hard time for picking for the market. I also hear the concept of 'gatekeeper.' Neither stance is appropriate to a free market economy, I believe.

Books should make money. People will insist on making their own tastes. But I firmly believe that if something is truly great, it will find it's own way to the top.

Okay, now that I've written all this, I certainly hope it's related to the topic. I think it is......I hope it is. :)

MAGolla said...

I've been known to say that if you want to sit in an agent or editor's chair, then judge a few writing contests, back-to-back. There is gold amongst the dreck, but sometimes you get tired of looking at the dreck. And other times all you can do is wish the writer the best, because you know you couldn't represent the book to the best of your abilities.

Kristin Nelson (PUB RANTS)has never been shy about writing on her blog about projects that she let get away.

Janet Reid is forever lamanting about how Barbara Poole has stolen (in a teasing manner--I know they are buds) a potential client and made a sweet deal for her.

It happens. You, and virtually every agent out there, want a book you can stand behind with the contacts that you have. If you happen to hit with a gazillion dollar seller then more power to you, you deserve it.


You know, I think about that all the time--a reality contest for authors. And then I realize that the only people crazy enough to find that interesting would be other writerly types.

Unless ... What if we mix writing with physical challenges--like a Word Nerd/Author Wannabe contest meets Real World/Road Rules challenge? That could work, right?


Kristen said...


I think so! Agent Kristin Nelson even blogged on Authonomy today (among other things) and how it should be an effective way for editors to identify better writers.

DeadlyAccurate said...

Books used to be the only source of entertainment.

Music, theater, dancing, games (board games, dice, card games, social games like charades), have all been around for centuries. Plenty of people in past centuries who could read still didn't enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

Being anonymous is a way to be nasty or honest. I write for a living and would never post in a forum like this under my real name, because there's nothing in it for me. I would be wasting my brand to use it here. I also wouldn't be as honest. What benefit would there be to me to take on an agent in a public forum?

dolorah said...

One of the reasons for not availing myself of the "self publishing" options, is I want to be sure someone other than my friends and family think my novel is good.

Thats like reality TV, right? People in the business tell you if your dream is b-she or not and the public gets to vote on the judges opinion.

One of Nathan Bransfords "You Tell Me" posts ( asks the question: how do you know if you have talent as a writer? Basically, if someone you respect told you to stop writing, you have no talent, would you?

The problem, as reported by many Agent blogs (this one included), is that writing is so subjective. As is all "talent" in my view. The reason you put yourself through that humiliation is to have someone "in the business" make a diffenitive proclamation about your marketability. And then, it is your option whether or not you take the advice.

But even if you don't agree with the "experts" of the day, you can still learn something from the response.

I paid a substantial sum for a recommended editor to review my novel a few years back - long before I knew Agents didn't charge to read/edit your novel - and I really didn't like the feedback he provided. Yet; I learned something from his critique, and I was able to overcome my anger at his opinion enough to weed out the constructive criticism from the personal opinion. I believe my novel was better for his POV because he knew about the craft of writing, even if some of his opinions were hurtful to my ego.

I'm guessing people on thses reality shows also garner some benifit from the feedback - constructive or not - they recieve on their particular talents.

I don't believe Agents are evil gatekeepers of publication; rather, I think they just have insider opinions on what they can reasonably sell, based not only on the writers ability and content, but their own marketing strategies.

Doesn't make the "rejection" any easier to swallow, but doesn't mean the end of the Dream either.


ali cross said...

I was LOL at this post because I've wondered the same thing. Man, that would make for some seriously entertaining TV, eh? Umm, not!

Kate Douglas said...

FWIW, my name really IS Kate Douglas and that's a picture of me that my husband took a few months ago for my avatar. Now that I've got THAT off my chest...Marilynn Byerly is right. Romantic Times magazine ran what was essentially a popularity contest for romance writers who had to get votes on their story excerpts each month to remain in the competition, and the winner got a contract. And, for a few of those winners, that first contract has expanded into more books, so it did work, though not in a tv format, obviously.

Not sure how that would work, as I've never watched a reality show, and I think I might be the only person in America who hasn't!

dolorah said...

Oh, I hadn't read the other comments before posting my own; but I really didn't think this was about "annonymous" comments. I thought it was about "expert opinion vs public opinion."

I will comment on the annonymous issue though.

Uhm, have to agree with Ghostfolk here; not that I think people who post "annonymous" have evil intent, but if they at least signed their posts with an initial or made up a consistent name, it would be easier to respond to them as "people" instead of Anon at 5:32.

Because I certainly see the need sometimes in not posting who you really are. If Jessica, Janet, or Nathan posted as themselves on an unpublished writer's blog, no matter how good the content, that would be biased endorcement and could foster resentment. Likewise any other industry professional. So yes; being a professional in the field, or an publicized critic, wouldn't want their name associated with a specific blog/site that is contrary to their public image. Really, no big deal.

We all get paid by someone, and sometimes our professional and personal opinions are in conflict.

But, if any of the said agents posted to their own clients as themselves, well, that's ok because they already endorse the bloggers writing through representing them. Acceptable publicity all around.

No, I'm not against Annon commentors; I just wish it would be easier to tie a series of comments together to form a coherent conversation.

If you see my "Donna Hole said" profile on several comments, you can respond to each opinon as stated. If I see seven different annonymous posts, I don't know one commentor from another, so must assume all Annonymous is the same person. If you post under annon, but have the same signature at the end of each post, I still don't know your true identity, but I can at least direct my reponses to you personally.

I mean, if you went to a bar, or any other social meeting place, and introduced yourself as Annonymous, would you want several other Annonymous people who looked exactly like you to hijack your conversation? To say things you never would? Especially if you wanted to convince that person, who introduced themselves as so and so, and you really wanted to make a connection with them, that your opinion is exactly the same as everyone else introducing themselves as Annonymous?

I agree that anyone can create a google blogger account that says nothing about them personally. Yet, the fact that I have a name to fit a voice/opinion is enough for me.

Think about it: would you go on a date with someone who sat in a dark room with 10 other people and promised that he/she wasn't the one that just outrageously offended you using voice disguising equipment?

We tell our children not to believe that "Mr Bo Jangels" is not a 40 year old pedophile; yet annonymous bloggers who won't even leave so much as an initial to distinguish them from every other Annon want us to believe all their intents are benevolent.

No, I'm not against annonymous posts, but if you want me not to lump your comments with all the others that I find offensive, or disagree with, then you need to distinguish yourself in some way.


Anonymous said...

Not only do I post Anon so I can be frank and open, but also as a writer/editor I don't want to revise or edit myself to death. When you've got your by-line over your ms./post, you want it to be the best it can be. Often I'm in a hurry and too busy/lazy to proof my posts. That's the truth! said...

Ghost, so you feel better if, at the hit and run, they give you some random name?

Yes! I can be pretty stupid.

Heck, I'd even go for Anonymous followed by a number.

See, you're making up random names for each post, and I feel like I can respond. It's not just stupid of me, it's real stupid of me -- in that, your posts feel like "real" discourse and part ofan open discussion rather than grafitti. said...

Not, apparently, my breath

Would I be more of a person to you if I typed in a name where it says name, or do I need the avatar and non-name name, too?

LOL. Thanks for being fun and clever! Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Directed at all who keep voicing objections to anon posters: I feel like I'm back in junior high. If Jessica had said she LIKED anon posters, you'd all be sucking up to her in that way. Grow up, get a life, write something.

releasing her breath, glad ghost is a good sport said...


Happy Holidays, whichever you celebrate.


Anonymous said...

Hint: Some people may not have noticed that on top of anonymous posts on this forum is the word ANONYMOUS. If anonymous posters bother you, you simply don't have to read after you see the word ANONYMOUS. Glad to help out.

Kristan said...

As Aisha said, Amazon does have a very American Idol-esque contest now:

There are very mixed reviews from within the writing community (writers, agents, editors, etc.) about ABNA, but as someone who watched the first year and then participated the second year (which was last year), I can say that I think it's a decent opportunity, and as fair as any Idol-esque contest can be. (It's also young and evolving -- they added a YA category this year.) There IS good writing to be found in there. There is also bad writing. Such is life.

So I do suggest any aspiring writers check it out -- a number of entrants get published afterwards, even if they don't win or even make finalist, because they get valuable feedback from other entrants and/or the reviewers -- BUT there is definitely also some negativity and backlash, as with any contest.

Unknown said...

Giggling at the correlation between this post and the and Dorchetser Publishing's America's Next Best Celler contest.

Wishing you and yours a safe and happy holiday season.

kanishk said...

I just don't think that someone should be punished for giving an opinion or be afraid to give their opinion.

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