By David Henry Sterry
NEW YORK CITY: Ten years ago, before the Kindle, Facebook and Twitter, Arielle, my ex-agent and current wife, and I both had books coming out. One was about my childhood hero, Leroy “Satchel” Paige. The other was about her childhood hero, Jane Austen. Our publishers, Random House and Simon & Schuster, seemed disturbingly uninterested in helping us sell our books. So we called up our local bookstores and proposed doing events. They said if we could bring Leroy Satchel Page or Jane Austen down to the bookstore, they’d love to do an event with us, otherwise they were completely uninterested in us or our books.
Then one night we were at a party in San Francisco, and word got out that there was a literary agent in the house. Like moths to the flame writers flew furiously, pitching their books to Arielle. This was the lightbulb moment. Why not create an event that would explain how to take something you’re passion about, develop a book out of it, get it published and deliver it into the hands, heads and hearts of readers all over the world?
Thus was born the “Putting Your Passion Into Print” event. I personally set up a twenty-city West Coast tour. We were flabbergasted by how many Citizen Authors flooded out of the woodwork. Grannies, Goths, surfer dudes, soccer moms, PhDs and homeless ex-vets. They all had two things in common: 1) they wanted to pitch their books to an industry professional who could help them makes their dreams come true, and 2) they wanted to get successfully published.
Thus was born Pitchapalooza — an American Idol for books where writers would get one minute to pitch their books to a panel of book professionals. The panel then critiques their idea while an audience of aspiring writers and those who love them soak the whole thing in. The panel evaluates everything from character to plot, presentation to marketing, title to comp books, befriending booksellers to finding an agent.
Pitchapaloozas prove Einstein’s theory of relativity over and over. Sometimes a minute goes by in a second. Sometimes it takes six months. But wherever we went, there were so many great stories out there, so many passionate writers who just don’t know how to navigate the stormy waters of the publishing ocean.
And now, a decade later . . . we’re proud to report that many Pitchapalooza participants have gone from being talented amateurs to professional authors with published books.
Which brings us to last Thursday night, November 11, at the Barnes & Noble on East 86nd St., in the throbbing center of the publishing mecca, New York, New York. It was the launch for our latest book, The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published, and our biggest Pitchapalooza yet.
We had Larry Kirshbaum, a 40 year veteran of the publishing business, former CEO of Time Warner Book Group, now the head of his own literary agency, LJK Literary Management, and Bob Miller, newly minted Group Publisher of Workman Publishing serving as judges.
And since our book is published by Workman, it was a make or break time. We knew that if we put on a great event, it would go a long way to generating enthusiasm from the top down. And if it sucked, and nobody showed up, it could sink our book, which is just a brand new baby. We sent out hundreds and hundreds of e-mails to writing groups, publishing people, friends, relatives, friends of relatives, and relatives of friends. We invited all of our Facebook “friends” and Twitter tweeters. Luckily, we are blessed with a rarity in the book business: a publisher who actually supports their books. They hooked us up with Gotham Writer’s Workshop, who sent out an e-mail promoting our event to 70,000 writers. And Workman and Barnes & Noble took an ad out in the Village Voice.
So as we showered, shaved, and dressed in our Sunday best, we were tingling with excitement and sick with nerves. Imagine our surprise and delight when we showed up at 6:15 p.m., and there was already a gaggle of nervous writers with dreams in their hearts and stars in their eyes, waiting to pitch. By 7:00 p.m. Citizen Authors of all hue, with hair blond, green and even blue, packed the room, 130 strong, standing room only.
As we took our places at the podium with the other judges, you could smell the fear. It was a stifling hothouse of wide-eyed hungry hope and raw vulnerable terror, electricity crackling and buzzing through the room. It was one of the most charged atmospheres I’ve ever been in, and I worked at Chippendale’s Strip Club in the mid-80s, when it was the hottest show in New York City.
And, so, then it began . . .
An old white guy pitched a book about black wisdom.
A lady lawyer lady pitched a thriller involving, well, a lady lawyer.
A life coach who called herself “The Goddess Next Door” pitched a book for women entrepreneurs.
An Italian immigrant septuagenarian pitched a book about how he learned English when he came to America as a youth, the first words he learned were: “zank you,” “asshole” and “son of a bitch.”
A Norwegian oncologist pitched a book about how fragile life is.
Two different people pitched novels about the first female president.
A Puerto Rican man pitched a thriller with a mambo beat.
A half-Swedish, half-African immigrant pitched a memoir about being homeless and ending up in the sex business: “Coming to America meets American Gigolo.”
A tall, stately young woman pitched a book about helping women get athletic scholarships to college.
A woman who spent time in jail pitched a prison memoir.
A security guard pitched a memoir about becoming his own lawyer and winning a lawsuit against NYU.
A woman driven by the desire to help sick children pitched a kid’s book about “Pointy the Umbrella.”
A man in a hat pitched a book of poetry about how awesome women are.
But the winner, Verne Hoyt, gave a pitch which sent shivers through the judges and the crowd. It was the true story about his family’s darkest secret: his grandfather participated in a lynching in the Deep South. A mob of well-respected Southerners cut off a black man’s extremities one by one. His granddad came home with the victim’s ears. Decades later, Verne connected with the family of the man who was lynched. He wound up in a room with the victim’s widow. In an act of beautiful reconciliation, she asked Verne to be one of the pallbearers at one of her children’s funerals. It was a stunning story, simply and exquisitely told.
The event was America at its best. A simmering melting pot of grit, humor, pathos, wild imagination, mad passion, and stories about triumphing in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Sadly, only 23 people got to pitch, so over 100 writers were victims of pitchus interruptus.
So, the second the event was over, they rushed the stage, clamoring to be heard, ravenous to tell their stories. It was the closest we’ll ever get to being a Beatle: getting swallowed up by a crowd obsessed with grabbing a piece of us. It was terrifying, overwhelming and incredibly cool all the same time.
I honestly believe there were a dozen pitches which, if properly executed, would make powerful, important, and deeply entertaining books. A number of writers were approached by agents and publishers who were in the audience. And it was a true education to see what ignited the crowd and what made it glaze over. For us, it could not have gone better. The head of Barnes & Noble event planning was there, and he was incredibly gracious. He told us he thought this was a reality show waiting to happen. (Which is just what we’ve been saying for years.)
Every once in a while you get a vision, an inspiration, an idea that seems so powerful and valuable and right that it won’t leave you alone. Inevitably everyone tells you why it won’t work. But sometimes, the vision is so powerful that you push on through, determined to prove the playa haters wrong. You work, you buff, polished, and refine. Then somehow, suddenly, it all comes together, and your vision becomes a beautiful reality. Exactly like you saw it in your head. Wouldn’t it be great if life was always like that?
So with that in mind, here are six tips from the Book Doctors on how to perfect your pitch:
- A pitch is like a poem. Every word counts.
- It’s always better to present specific images than make general, generic statements.
- Don’t tell us it’s funny, make us laugh. Don’t tell us it’s scary, scare us. Don’t tell us it’s lyrical, wow us with your poetry. It’s like those people who wear T-shirts that say SEXY. Please, let us be the judge of that.
- Don’t oversell. Claiming to have written the next Eat Pray Love or Harry Potter only makes a writer look like a deluded amateur.
- Never say that your book is like no book ever written. That book will never be published. Publishers want books that are familiar but unique.
- Develop an elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a Hollywoodese short hand way of describing your book, where X meets Y. For example, Jaws in Outer Space=Alien. Ann Rice meets Gossip Girl=The Twilight Series. The elevator pitch for our book is the What To Expect When Your Expecting of publishing. Yes, we borrow from a title in an entirely different section of the bookstore, but you know exactly what you’re going to get from this elevator pitch.
DISCUSS: After One, 10 or 100 “No’s”: When Do You Give Up on a Book Pitch?
David Henry Sterry is one half of the duo known as The Book Doctors, along with his wife Arielle Eckstut. They are authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, a one-stop shopping guide with everything you need to know about getting successfully published. You can find their touring schedule, and lots of other valuable tips about writing, on their website: www.thebookdoctors.com, and on their Facebook page: www.facebook/thebookdoctors.com. They are committed to helping every writer in America get successfully published. They hope to see you at a book store near you.