Reality Publishing

Go into the magazine section of any bookstore and you’ll find professional writers’ “trade” journals, imploring your attention with unassailable advice. The headlines blazon: Top Ten Tips to Writing Success, Be a Good Writer in One Month, How to Sell Your Novel. I don’t know how many such magazines exist, but it’s more than you’d think. In any issue of the typical writers’ journal you’ll find exhaustive listings of contests, awards, grant opportunities, and residency opportunities. You’ll find a feature on a veteran novelist, or a first novelist in the early blush of success (this could be you …). And you’ll find tips.

Contest listings have an obvious value. But tips? Tips are not even information: they’re suggestions, approaches, repackaged common sense. Tips make no guarantees, and they have no conceivable end. And so these magazines are crammed with tips. They love tips. They swamp their readership with tips. The joy, or the misery, of tips is their endless repetition.

How to Arm Your Characters, How to Improve your Storytelling, How to Mine your Novel for Gold, How to Land an Agent, Kafka Toiled in Obscurity & Died Penniless: If Only He Had Had a Website…. The jargon is indistinguishable from the self-help lingo of any genre. Car fanzines on the adjacent racks promise secret knowledge, and privileged instruction (BUY YOUR OWN CAR!). Lifestyle magazines promise psychological building blocks, step by step, toward achieving a healthier, happier, or even possibly impervious psychology. Nearby style magazines have tips on better and better sex. The headlines blur together in a cavalcade of tips—for excellent writing, extraordinary sex, exquisite cars.

Yet sex and car tips differ from writing tips in a crucial respect. Acquiring sexual expertise does not require you to be connected to any particular industry. Retooling your car doesn’t depend on bagging a powerful agent. But fiction is ruled by fancy New York publishing houses—and increasingly influenced by association with major MFA programs. People who live in Statesboro, Georgia rather than New York and people who lack any higher education whatsoever may still want to publish books. You could argue that writers’ magazines provide a substitute education for thousands of dreamers without access to writing classes or MFA programs. What you see on the magazine racks, however, is a glut of hard-sell techniques. What you see says publishing is all about Winner and Losers. Though tips may mention literary values, the excess reinforces the impression: only the shrewd survive. You’re talented. You know it. Losers play fair, however, and lose. Losers listen to the wrong advice. Winners take everything.

The landscape herewith described should be familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintanceship with reality TV and its conventions. On Survivor the castaways make deals behind one another’s backs. Neither athletic ability nor sportsmanship necessarily carries the day. Humiliation is part of every episode, and the humiliated deserve their un-success. While the finest singers on American Idol may briefly stand out from the pack, public votes decide the winner. A host of reality shows hurry to endorse the principle that winning and losing have less to do with excelling at a sport or art than with captivating appeal in the Roman gladiator arena of spectacle.

It may come as no surprise, then, that a publishing industry facing its own financial terrors should eventually have spawned the idea of staying relevant by copycatting this form of entertainment. Like the amateur contests it was modeled on, The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award brought the same stew of spectacle, humiliation, and “reality” into the normally private acts of judgment and reactions of a professional world—in this case, the world of book publishing.

The reality TV universe isn’t chaos; it isn’t godless. But its gods are pagan. The “reality” is that—like life—the shows are unfair. Public votes sometimes matter, sometimes not, but they do or don’t in a structured way as the shows follow a logic handed down from Mt. Olympus. Remember The Apprentice, wherein the contestants battled to win a job from Donald Trump? His godliness salted the psychological wounds of failure. The shows must weave a spell, by which the contestants have been thoroughly blinded—a sense of the depths of rejection as opposed to the heights represented by forces such as The Donald. Who sits on Mt. Olympus for the purposes of a book contest? Stephen King?

In the Amazon Breakthrough contest, there were three resident deities. The first was Amazon.com: more than a bookseller, Amazon is a network; a great interactive forum promoting readers’ critiques, favorite book lists, and blogs. Amazon.com’s already weighty influence over unpublished authors’ dreams tripled in 2004 when the company acquired Booksurge, which publishes vanity books. For hundreds of dollars (or thousands, depending upon the Booksurge package) desperate authors can see their books bound and galleyed and (in the loosest sense of the word) promoted on an Amazon page.

If that isn’t heady enough for you, add in two New York-based deities to complete the trinity: Penguin, the venerable publisher that pioneered the production of cheap, pocket-sized paperbacks, and the National Book Critics Circle, whose own set of annual awards are widely respected. Penguin offered a $25,000 publishing contract to the winner of the contest; NBCC reviewers were called upon to evaluate the semifinalists’ manuscripts.[1]

Having always promoted itself as a company that empowers readers, the Amazon contest appealed to (manipulated?) a very internet-savvy reading community. A short history: in late 2007 Amazon issued a call for online manuscripts, and from October 1 to November 5 accepted the first five thousand manuscripts they received. Volunteers from Amazon’s interactive community of “Top Reviewers” (self-styled lit-lovers who have written thousands of customer reviews) weeded those five thousand entries down to 836.

Then the so-called professionals got involved. NBCC critics received truckloads of the full manuscripts and browsed them. The critics penned anonymous capsule reviews, following a format provided by Publishers Weekly. Amazon created a special webpage featuring a five-thousand-word excerpt from each novel, available for download and customer review. The “contestants” were stacked in alphabetical order by their titles, without cover illustrations—like test products without wrappers or packaging. Eventually Amazon added the Publishers Weekly reviews, thus creating a webpage where anyone who wanted could view mostly negative and occasionally scathing reviews of nearly a thousand unpublished books.

Meanwhile the real drama (and pathos) unfolded on the contest’s vigorous discussion boards. The contestants commiserated and conspired. They traded professional secrets and personal stories (including many, many testimonials reflecting upon their childhood beginnings as would-be novelists). There were periodic rants (particularly after the posting of the reviews, which the authors referred to as “Publishers Weekly reviews”). There were spells in which the writers simply waited for news. “Amazon must love making us suffer,” one participant wrote.

Meanwhile, Penguin books editors sifted the manuscripts that had garnered the best reviews. The endgame began on March 3, when the public voting began. The grand prize winner among the ten finalists would be selected by votes—yes, public votes, a la American Idol. From 5,000 manuscripts to ten. From ten to one “breakthrough” into the real world of publishing. The other nine finalists would receive compensatory awards: vacation packages for four, home entertainment centers for the other five.

Now seems the right time for full disclosure: I am a member of the National Book Critics Circle. I penned several of the much contested Publishers Weekly reviews, for a $40 per manuscript honorarium. Am I a “professional” reviewer? I am a poet and a human being—and I review books, too. But for the purposes of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (the discussion boards insisted) I was the bloodless professional, the executioner. Over a period of six weeks, some twenty manuscripts arrived at my apartment. The deliveries thumped at the doorstep like children on Halloween, wanting treats. I dispatched them with 250-word critiques—tricks.

I tried to justify the contest and my participation in it. After all, I thought, the public voting at the end might encourage reading in a fun way. Though the contest may not encourage high literary culture, how can anyone be so snobbish as to argue that people shouldn’t be the arbiters of their own tastes? However hokey the spectacle, the competition could unearth a notable manuscript, or so I argued to myself. But none of it quite worked; I still felt queasy about participating. It was probably out of guilt that I began to check the message boards.

Before long, I was hooked, checking the board every few days, keeping tracks of distinct characters and general turns in the flavor of the dialogue. Initially the posts were characterized by ebullience and community. I was taken aback by how often the contestants gushed with gratitude and used the first-person plural, joining all their praises in a chorus of thanks. “We want to thank Amazon for doing this.” “This is our chance—our shot.”

They expressed familial kinship: “I don’t believe I have much chance at the final rounds. Still, I’ll never forget all the friends and support I’ve made here.” But as in any reality contest, it’s the lascivious goal that drives an ostensible bonding experience. From the very first rounds contestants were planning to plug their novel on their Facebook pages. They questioned other contestants’ positive customer reviews (later, they would question the professional capsule reviews). They strategized ahead to the round of public votes, venting suspicions that other, less honorable contestants would garner a majority of votes by appealing to relatives and local writing groups, while simultaneously positioning themselves as friendly and supportive (so that if they made the final ten, the 4,990 eliminated contestants would vote for them?).

They were playing to win. I searched the message boards week after week for a facetious reference to the second- and third-place prizes, hoping someone saw humor in the notion that their above-average writing ability could win them a Caribbean cruise or a color TV. Week after week, the search proved fruitless.

Allow me, in the spirit of literary confessionals (published or otherwise) to make another personal disclosure: A decade ago I spent a summer interning for an agency known as A Rising Sun Literary Group. Defunct since the late ’90s, the agency charged a $350 fee for evaluating unpublished manuscripts, promising that “a staff of professional writers” would provide critiques. The “professional writers” were college juniors and seniors like myself. At the time I suspected A Rising Sun Literary Group was a scam, but I discovered only recently that it was merely one part of a larger scam, orchestrated by a notorious con artist named Dorothy Deering.

A former science fiction writer turned professional spinner of manipulative fantasies, Deering managed a number of so-called literary agencies in the ’90s. Her agencies—plural, because A Rising Sun operated under a variety of names—charged exorbitant fees and wooed clients with the false belief that their manuscripts were on the verge of being sold to major houses or Hollywood. Of course the stories were all lies. The various Deering Agencies never sold a book. The FBI finally put Dorothy Deering out of business for shady practices and mail fraud. A former FBI agent wrote a book about her: 10 Percent of Nothing: The Case of a Literary Agent from Hell was published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2004.

But until the company’s exposure, the daily mailings stacked high. Rising Sun advertised itself as a “sensitive” company; the pose attracted authors of  “sensitive” paper-thin confessionals.

One Rising Sun author impressed me in a memorable way by literally forgetting she was writing a fiction. The manuscript was generic romance story. Character X is in love with Character Y. X is a shy virgin. Y is a bad boy with a reputation. Characters X and Y fall in love. They break up and Character X falls into a state of depression. Character X stays in a state of depression. Her depression worsens. She stops eating. She is diagnosed as anorexic. She swallows an overdose. The doctors save her, but she is convinced she wants to die. For a few pages of her death throes, the author of this third-person novel slips up and turns to a confessional first-person mode. Three pages later the third-person narration returns unannounced. For those three pages, the writer had been too overwhelmed and helpless to distinguish between the facts of her own life story and a work of fiction.

I pondered that sad and bizarre incident as I waded through the many confessional Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award entries. There were no hidden masterpieces in my batch of manuscripts. In no less than five of the twenty novels I slogged through, the lead character was a college English major who dead-ended upon graduation and supported him- or herself by working in lowly service jobs. Imagining these economically strapped college grads turned car hops, dishwashers, and bartenders, and trying within the limitations of their resources or of their talent to create a literary culture for themselves, sapped the fun out of publicly panning their books in 250-word squibs.

The posting of the official reviews unleashed a storm of activity on the message boards. By and large, the contestants were pissed off. A minority of contestants adopted a philosophical attitude; but the majority (aside from the favorably reviewed gloaters) vented and inundated the boards with hysteria, conspiracy theories, and such, claiming that the NBCC reviewers had mangled the plots of their novels, claiming that the customer reviews were actually very reliable, claiming they had personally consulted “book doctors” who had in turn assured them the reviews were ludicrous.

Then and only then did the message boards raise the topic of exploitation, usually in ways that addressed contestants’ bruised feelings rather than the big picture. The starstruck babble receded long enough for the would-be novelists to reconsider whether the contest might be inherently cruel or unjust: “Egos have been shattered and hearts have been broken here, and I don’t think that’s what Amazon intended,” On February 9, 2008, a contestant began a discussion thread titled “Did They Actually Read Yours?” in which the levels of suspicion and hostility escalated. A mantra caught on: “I call it speculative-extrapolation. They saw some actual words, had a pre-formed opinion and went with that. … I had to read the thing 5 times before I realized how little of it was actually factual.” “I felt similarly about my P[ublishers] W[eekly] review (which was truly dreadful). It seems as though the reviewer read the synopsis and skimmed the beginning of the book and then jumped to a great deal of mistaken conclusions.” “I agree that odds are most of the entries are probably unpublishable at this point and that many deserve tough criticism. But … I have taken issue with my PW reviewer to the extent he or she simply misrepresented my work.”

A great novel—particularly an experimental novel—would have a hard time succeeding in any reality book contest, much less the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. To climb the contest ladder by impressing first the Amazon Top Reviewers, and then the overworked NBCC reviewers (who had to devour ten to twenty books in six weeks), it was probably best to have written a quick, readable novel that was accessible in a state of distraction. To this extent, the concerns expressed on the message boards—that the standards were ambiguous, the contest was hurried, and the reviewers hadn’t read the submissions carefully enough—were legitimate. Even if the bulk of the manuscripts didn’t warrant lengthy consideration.

Eventually, the postings exhibited (healthy) doses of cynical wit. “I’m ready to sell out. Yes, I’ll do commercials in Japan, whatever it takes. Already I have all but donned a pink skirt and boob tube in my efforts to get passing traffic to my novel. If they want me to write, I can do that as well.” And outright hostility: “I have to say this thing with reviews and the visibility of the entries is a farce.” The catty sniping—and the emotional high-wire acts—indirectly posed reasonable questions: were there instructions to the reviewers, what kind of books was Penguin interested in, and why was Penguin interested in doing this?   

The ten finalists were allowed to make a “plea” for themselves. Their manuscript excerpts were posted alongside photos and autobiographical statements—beauty-pageant-style effusions of their passions and dreams, stories about their pets, et cetera, worthy of a runway walk finale. The three top vote-getters were flown to New York where the winner was announced. Congratulations go to Bill Loehfelm, author of Fresh Kills—a mystery thriller I have never read and probably never will.

The 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award will be followed by a 2009 contest and so on, possibly forevermore. The American Idol-style format of the contest will come to seem inevitable, as opposed to optional.

The contest was intended for writers at the bottom of the literary food chain and cynically directed at the section of the public most susceptible to the culture of hype. Remember the pagan ethos of the reality show world: Reality contests reproduce “reality” by intentionally making the contests less than fair. The final round in which the public demonstrates its critical acumen (which the contest has done nothing to sharpen) by voting amounts to a sarcastic egalitarian sham. American Idol is watched by millions of viewers. The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award will never attract millions of readers, nor justify the fun and games by popularizing literacy, nor resolve the issue of a savvy contestant racking up dubious votes.

Near the very end, a discussion-board thread queried the bumped authors: “Why Are You Still Here?” The answers were unusually reconciled. They planned to purchase the winning book. They were here to support the community. They were still participating out of loyalty and curiosity. They knew they could write a better novel. They appreciated the contest for providing insight into the publishing industry, however arbitrary the judging process appeared to be. They were still here for this noble reason, or that personal motive, or the opportunity to fight another day. Or this unforgettable response: “Cause I like it here. I belong in a way I’ve never belonged in my real life.”

I won’t be visiting the ABNA website this year because I can’t think of the contest without reflecting upon the aforesaid comment. Whoever wrote this intuitively understood that reality shows depend upon feelings of worthlessness. A public that felt empowered would demand more from its contests; a disenfranchised public will easily slip into the role of the buffoon, even arrogantly demanding their privilege to play the buffoon. Reality show success is all about childish self-promotion. To mature, or to begin to speak maturely, will usually get you voted off.

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