Monday, January 21, 2013

American Idol and the Publishing Business



How many American Idol contestants can you name?  I’ve been watching AI from the get-go, so I’ll go first.


  1. Kelly Clarkson
  2. Carrie Underwood
  3. Clay Aiken
  4. David Cook
  5. Jennifer Hudson
  6. Phillip Phillips
  7. Colton Dixon
  8. Jordin Sparks


Well…that’s it.  American Idol has been on…what?  Twelve seasons?  And I can remember only eight contestants.  I know I liked a lot more than eight.  Yet, I can’t think of their names.  I remember the female country singer in last season’s AI—I really liked her, but darn if I can remember her name.  She had it all—talent, charisma, beauty, and a rockin’ country voice—but I can’t remember her name.  (I know I could look it up on the internet, but that just proves my point—I shouldn’t have to.)  This must be so disheartening for all those talented singers who make it to the AI top ten, and then after the tour is over, they vanish back into obscurity.  Oh, sure, some of them go on to become household names—Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson and…well, that’s about it.  But even some of the most talented winners of AI—David Cook, for one, kind of disappear after their initial, if moderate, success.  Why, I wonder?


I have my suspicions, and this is where American Idol and the publishing business have something in common.  The winner of American Idol gets a record contract and big-name producers like Jimmy Iovine get them in the studios, and with their star-making know-how, try to turn them into the next Britney Spears or Justin Bieber, even if it bleeds every bit of originality out of them.  Because they don’t care about originality.  They only care about the big bucks.  They want these young artists to fit into a box, following a proven formula that will churn out mega-billion dollar sales.  Unfortunately, it rarely works.  Why?  Because these kids, talented as they may be, when trying to emulate a Britney or a Justin, turn out to be nothing but a pale imitation.  And in a blink of an eyelash, they’ve faded into obscurity.  Once the record sales dwindle, I suspect the initial interest from Hollywood disappears as if it had never been there in the first place.  These poor kids end up going back to producing their own records and doing gigs in small-town bars close to home.  And this is another similarity to the publishing business.


As you know, I’m sure, I’ve been out of the New York publishing circles for many years now, so this may or may not still be true.  But I’m going to tell you how it used to be, and how the publishing industry is exactly like American Idol.  Let’s just assume it hasn’t changed much since my experience, okay?  Publishers are always looking for their “next big star.”  That unknown author who is going to write a book that generates huge buzz in the publishing house, which is a real indicator that the book is going to be HUGE—selling millions of copies and landing on the NY

Times Best-Seller List.  That’s why you hear about a first-time author’s book going into a bidding war and ending up getting six and seven-figure offers.  It happens more frequently than you would think.  It didn’t happen to me, alas, but I did get a pretty good advance for my first novel, BORDER CROSSINGS, that came out in hardcover, retailing for $25.99.  I remember thinking at the time: Who on earth is going to pay $25.99 for a book by an author they’ve never heard of?  Turns out I had reason to be concerned.  Not many people did pay $25.99 for the book.  And although I went on to sell my publisher another three books, the death knell for my career was already sounding.  Sales were low, excitement was diminishing, my editor left for a job with a different publisher—and eventually, no one at my publishing house had ever heard of me.


Something similar happened to a friend of mine.  She was already published in category romance, but when she wrote a big women’s fiction novel, her savvy agent got several publishers interested, and although it didn’t sell at auction, one publisher offered her a six-figure deal.  She was headed for the big-time.  The publisher promised they’d get behind her, and promote the book with ads, book tours and a huge New York City launch party—the dream of every author.  Days before the book hit the stores, the publisher flew her to New York, wined and dined her, and had her doing appearances even before the book was officially for sale. Sadly, her appearances were poorly attended, and the night before her official launch party, she received a phone call from her editor telling her the house was “disappointed” that the pre-orders for the book were lower than they expected.  Her book tour was canceled, and she flew back home, feeling like a whipped puppy dog.  I saw her book in a Barnes & Noble one time shortly after its release, and I don’t know if it ever came out in paperback or not.  This author—the rising star that the publisher had proclaimed her to be—suffered a devastating case of writer’s block and ended up leaving the business altogether. 


Sound familiar?  I wonder how many AI contestants totally give up on their dream after their brief brush with fame?  It all comes down to two different animals—artists and corporate business.  Artists just want to create their art, and corporate business wants to back artists who make them money.  And if they don’t, it’s goodbye and on to the next. (Because there is always a hungry “next.”) Sometimes, everything comes together and an artist gets to make their art—the art they want to make, and the money flows in. Those are the lucky ones.  The rest of us?  We turn to self-publishing and self-recording, and sharing our art wherever and with whomever we can.  And who knows?  Maybe in the long run, we’re the ones who are happier. (Although I’m betting Nora Roberts is pretty darn happy.)


So…if you loved some of those artists on AI who didn’t make it big, search them out and buy their self-produced CDs.  And while you’re at it, support your local indie authors.  J  For us, every little sale counts.   

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