Call it the American Idol–ization of the memoir. Last fall, Good Morning America and Simon & Schuster recruited America’s aspiring solipsists for a contest called “The Story of My Life.” Some 6,000 people submitted everything from UFO-abduction accounts to recipes. A panel of “celebrity authors”—including Mary Karr and James McBride—selected three finalists, who worked with ghostwriters on their entries. Then last Friday, Charles Gibson announced the grand-prize winner: Farah Ahmedi, a teenager from Afghanistan who—having lost a leg and most of her family there—fled with her mother and is now an Illinois high-school student. Viewers voted for her online, and she’ll get a fairly massive 175,000-copy first printing. “This has never been done before,” brags Simon & Schuster editor Ryan Fischer-Harbage. “I’ve never watched American Idol, but I think they can learn something from us. Though I do wish we would have had a 900 number for voting. They must make a fortune.”
Actually, the Idol number is toll-free, and Simon & Schuster will do just fine, money-wise. Because, unlike the winner of, say, America’s Next Top Model, Ahmedi doesn’t get a contract. The rules state that she holds no rights to the book and will not receive any royalties. She gets a flat $10,000 for what Fischer-Harbage predicts will be a book-club favorite and all-around blockbuster. That’s a fifth of what Fear Factor winners get for eating larvae. Still, Ahmedi says she’s happy just to see the book published, and plans to use the $10,000 to buy her mother a house, “so she’ll be comfortable and won’t think about all this terrible stuff that happened to us.” (Though it’s an awfully modest down payment.)
One literary agent, told of the raw deal, was oddly impressed. “This sounds extraordinary as far as the ambitions of Simon & Schuster. They’re buying a powerful media platform” while providing “paltry” compensation.