For a graduate journalism class I focused on a book pitching event at Politics and Prose, the same store whose owners I profiled in this piece. You can see the website I created with Dreamweaver for “Online Journalism,” which includes an audio slideshow on the event here.
Pitchapalooza: Event for aspiring writers reaches a fever pitch at Politics and Prose
By Anna Weaver Lopiccolo
John Belushi meets Betty White. “Running with Scissors” mixed with Henrietta Lacks. A pug narrative with a nod to Edgar Allan Poe.
The eclectic and creative one-minute book pitches flowed from aspiring writers during a high energy “Pitchapalooza” event held at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Northwest Washington on April 11.
About 175 people packed into Politics and Prose’s back section for the Wednesday night event, sitting in a U-shape of chairs around a central “pitching” microphone and overflowed into the bookshelf aisles.
People had come to pitch their books and support friends and family hoping to be among the 20 randomly drawn people to share their book ideas with a four-person panel lead by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, who call themselves “The Book Doctors” and travel across the country hosting Pitchapalooza events. Also on the panel were Gail Ross, a Washington literary agent, and Joe Johnson, a Penguin Books sales representative.
Those who wanted to pitch had to first buy the couple’s book, “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published,” and about 90 copies sold that night.
Eckstut and Sterry like to call Pitchapalooza the “American Idol for books.” The idea for the event came out of Sterry’s background as an actor and screenwriter in Hollywood, a place where, as Eckstut told the April 11 crowd, “the pitch is paramount.”
With 20 pitches on their plate, the judges were strict on their one minute per person time limit, politely cutting people off when 60 seconds was up.
“We like to say that a pitch is like a poem, where every word counts,” Eckstut said, adding that most people are lucky to even get a minute to pitch.
Among the pitches were a sci-fi novel set in Uzbekistan, a collection of travel poems, a book on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cartography, and memoirs on the afflictions of narcolepsy, cancer, and multiple marriages.
Unlike certain “American Idol” judges, the Pitchapalooza panelists delivered their critiques to the would-be authors in a positive and kind manner, with lots of laughs and words of encouragement.
Plus they had plenty of tips. They told a Jay McInerney wannabe to be less theoretical in describing his plot. To a woman with an idea for a book on pancakes and sharing, they recommended never citing in a pitch the fact that one’s kids loved the book since most kids will love parents’ stories.
They pointed out to another that the word “essay” is taboo because essay collections don’t sell. And they told all aspiring authors to figure out in what section of a bookstore your title would go.
“We once had a friend who wrote a book about cannibalism that got shelved in the cookbook section,” Sterry joked.
He described pitching a book in terms of the movies, telling pitchers to think of the movie poster or trailer that would describe their books.
“You have to figure out what’s unique,” Ross said about the memoir pitched by an elderly woman, telling her to focus on how the woman grew up in a hotel. “Unfortunately we live in this town of overachievers and very, very successful people so you have to come up with what’s unique about your life.”
Eckstut told the pitcher of a Barbara Kingsolver-esque novel on immigrants that she wanted to her to be more specific and personal in her pitch.
“Some of the pitches that we’ve heard tonight, you can hear what the book is going to be like through their voice,” Eckstut said.
The winner out of all the pitches was Jared Gillins, who will get an introduction to agent or publisher appropriate to his book from Eckstut and Sterry. He proposed a nonfiction book about his great-uncle who he described as a “rogue doctor” and a “dangerously sincere sociopath who wanted to make a difference in the world and unfortunately did.”
After the event, Gillins said he’d already written up a 15-page New Yorker-style piece on the subject and “I thought if I had a chance to speak I’d have a good shot at winning the prize.”
One writer who had no expectation of winning but wanted practice pitching her book idea was Laurie White. The BlogHer.com writer delivered her proposal for a comedic book on single women in the U.S. called “Spinster of Honor.”
White said she liked that Pitchapalooza was “results-oriented” and that she got specific suggestions from the panelists on picking a genre for her book and honing in on her audience.
“There are so many super-talented, unpublished people,” she said. “The ability to actually meet people or even have a little face time is unusual and really nice.”
Pitchapalooza is among several writer-centric initiatives Politics and Prose’s new co-owners, Lissa Muscatine and Bradley Graham, have started since taking over the well-known independent bookstore in June 2011. Those include writer events like Pitchapalooza and a book-on-demand machine nicknamed Opus, which printed over 1,100 copies of books in March alone.
“They are part of our expanded effort to try and help aspiring writers and promote self-publishing,” Graham said. The store also makes sure to dedicate a shelf to self-published books.