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.