Pap Idol

January 12, 2007

From the Guardian: “Touchstone, an imprint of the publishers Simon & Schuster, yesterday launched First Chapters, a competition designed to find writing talent through the internet. It is inviting unpublished authors to submit the first three chapters of a manuscript to the scrutiny of the voting public. The winner’s book will be published and distributed by Touchstone and the author will enjoy a $5,000 (£2,575) cash prize.”

As publishers seek ever new ways to attract an audience, such gimmicks as this seem increasingly common – the UK’s Richard & Judy show’s How to get Published was a talent show for rejected authors, while their publisher partner Macmillan’s New Writing programme picked up where R&J left off, releasing a slew of underperforming titles with little editorial interference, publicity or marketing spend.

In this case, the competition is being organised through, a social networking site described variously as ‘myspace for adults’ and ‘myspace for the middle-aged’, but undoubtedly one closer to the book-buying demographic than the original itself. The problem with such competitions is that they are, by and large, picking over that which has already been turned down by agents and publishers all over town, feeding upon the mistaken notion that everyone can write a book while duping the authors they claim to be supporting with low royalties and little support. Unlike Pop Idol and its various incarnations, where even the reediest boy or girl from the street can be made to sound like Cher with a bit of studio trickery, bad writing is harder to disguise, which explains the somewhat underwhelming reviews given to the R&J-winning The Olive Readers, despite beating off some 46,000 other titles to win publication.

Publishers, forced by the market to release ever greater numbers of books in the hope that some of them – even a few of them – will actually make money, need gimmicks like these to fill shelf space and round up a hefty number of readers who aren’t merely consumers but wannabe producers – you can bet that most of The Olive Readers 12,000 or so buyers were contest entrants themselves (which begs the question, what about the other 34,000? 12,000 is not a lot of sales for a book tied to R&J, currently the biggest driver of book sales in the UK). These open competitions do not help the industry, which preserves what little cachet it has by giving the impression it knows what good literature is without having to ask; they don’t help readers, who just get one more, frequently poor, title to consider among the hundreds published every week; and they certainly don’t help authors, who are given a false sense of validation by being the best of a mixed bunch, and are then hung out to dry by publishers who don’t want to spend money to support a book already looked down upon by reviewers, critics and a good chunk of the reading public as just one step up from self-published.

There are ways to make this work better though, and as the current publishing industry crumbles beneath the user-generated, digitally-printed, directly-distributed onslaught, new ways will be found to assess, promote, and recognise great literature without the imprimatur of a great publisher, perhaps involving some of the technologies I discussed last time, perhaps not. But either way, Pop Idol is not – we hope and believe – the future of literature.

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