Why Getting ‘Traditionally’ Published Is A Bit Like Being on American Idol

Like many writers on WordPress, I’ve recently been navigating the confusing, confounding and strange world of what might be termed ‘traditional’ publishing.  Much of the process seems like a series of increasingly high hurdles and success at one level does not guarantee success at the next.

It occurred to me the other day that this is rather like key stages on American Idol (and other like reality show contestants).  Those programs are ultimately a process to identify both talent and luck, plus the indefinable star quality that makes for success.

For a contestant progressing on that show it must continually feel like a combination of jubilation (to succeed at each stage) and free floating anxiety (about how much further they may go).  Just following it through must take enormous reserves of belief, perseverance and resilience. To my mind, that’s the emotional landscape required for writers too – or at least it feels that way to me!  🙂

Hence the following analogy:


The American Idol Analogy

Auditions:  This is like the querying process (be it via direct queries to agents/publishers or through twitter pitch contests). Your skill at showing your talent and marketing yourself with brevity is tested, and where successful you progress to the next stage – this is via providing a partial or full manuscript as requested by an agent/publisher.

Hollywood week: Here the contestant is reviewed in more detail and must perform under pressure.  For a writer this is when the manuscript is considered, and if successful an initial offer, possibly subject to required revisions, may be made by an agent or possibly a publishing house (more likely a small press if it comes at this stage and without an agent – unless you’ve managed to go direct to one of the major publishing houses and been taken on, in which case skip the next step).

Live rounds (prior to top ten): Contestants perform for the public vote for the first time, in an effort to find those with the skills and potential public demand to progress. Success at this level could be when either an agent sells your work to a key publishing house or group of publishing houses, or a small press works with you direct for an initial print run of your work with some form of general marketing campaign.

Top ten live weeks: This is where the top ten contestants compete to stay each week based on popular vote.  Those that are voted off early generally do not seem to progress their careers on the basis of the show.  This would be like having a small print run that doesn’t sell of your book.  In both cases it doesn’t mean you can’t pursue other career options/books but in some (worst case) cases lack of success here may make it harder to get a future work published.

Those contestants that make it to the top six or seven can leverage enough exposure from that to make it in their respective categories (e.g. types of singer /music etc).  This would be similar to having  more than one print run and/or publishing in more than one country or publishing more than one (at least moderately successful) book in that this helps build a name in your genre.

Those contestants that make it to the top three, or even top two, have an excellent opportunity to leverage the show for longer term careers and will often have significant contracts and marketing as a result of the proven public support from the show.  This would be like having a best seller in your genre and/or other spin offs like movie options etc.  

The analogy does break down on one key point – thankfully for writers you can try again and again with new product and the likelihood of success probably increases the further you made it previously but with the show you can’t enter a second time if you made it as far as the top ten. So publishing may allow a writer a longer term build trajectory by and large.

Still, I hope the analogy resonates with some fellow writers and I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts (including if you think I’ve got something fundamentally wrong with this – it is based purely on personal experience and observations but I am admittedly new to all this and hence no expert in this field!).  

In closing I’d say one gets the sense from those type of shows – the music ones at least – that there is a lot of camaraderie between the contestants, and I believe that also exists in the writer community.

So, on that final note, may I wish all my fellow writers the very best of luck in this process if you choose to pursue it and may you all achieve your dreams.  🙂


Helen V.




About Helen

I'm drawn to blogging as a way to share ideas and consider what makes us who we are. Whether it's in our working life or our creativity, expression is a means to connect.
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13 Responses to Why Getting ‘Traditionally’ Published Is A Bit Like Being on American Idol

  1. rjfanucchi says:

    I gave up pursuing traditional publishers a while ago. As soon as I started targeting small press I’ve had some success. The big houses are just so competitive these days.

  2. philipparees says:

    I think one thing could be added- the crippling self-doubt that failure at any stage induces! Yes a writer can try with a new ‘product’ or altered ‘performance’ better tailored to what they learned from failure ie writing something more ‘marketable’ or ‘commercial’ but unlike a stage performance ( in which all will depend on an authentic this-is-me) the writer probably moves further from this-is-me to okay- here is what will sell- and I have surrendered.

    • Good point! That balance of artistic vision and external view, particularly re marketing is so hard to navigate! I must say I now have an increased admiration for the contestants on those shows, that drawn out time period of wondering, worrying and hoping is significant, even when you do progress and have good support or feedback. 🙂

  3. atothewr says:

    Great post. It really does fit the process.

  4. landl30 says:

    Thoughtful piece. Nicely described…. Well done. Thanks.
    Len Freeman

  5. I think you have it right. Good job. Oh by the way you are in my light.:-)

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