One-Minute Pitches from Aspiring Authors
Publishing Professionals Hear Book Ideas at Pitchapalooza
"One time, I only held a job for three hours. I hired as a lighting technician at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the early 1970s," recalled author Steve Turtell. "I nearly killed someone when I lost my grip on a ladder that I was holding up—it just started falling and I froze! Luckily, a lighting cable stopped it from falling all the way over. After that, the guy who hired me asked me to leave."
Mr. Turtell was in the sunken auditorium at the office of Workman Publishing, an independent publishing house in the West Village on Thursday evening, ready to pitch his book "50/50: 50 Jobs in 50 Years, a Working Tour of My Life." (He has also worked as a nude artists' model; a research assistant at PBS; a janitor at Gimbel Brothers; a fashion coordinator at Joyce Leslie; a butcher; a baker; and the director of public programs at the New-York Historical Society.)
He was among a few dozen aspiring authors at the Workman Publishing office for Pitchapalooza, an event that gives people with book ideas exactly one minute to pitch those ideas to a panel of judges who work in the publishing industry. The judges give constructive criticism after each presentation, introducing a hint of "American Idol" into an event that otherwise feels like a fun cross between speed dating and a 12-step meeting.
"The most common pitches we get are from people who have discovered their father's or grandfather's letters from World War II, and they discover that the man they see in those letters isn't the same person they thought that they knew, perhaps because of post-traumatic stress disorder," said Arielle Eckstut, a literary agent who runs Pitchapalooza with her husband, best-selling author David Henry Sterry. (Together they also are the authors of "The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It...Successfully.")
"We travel around the country doing Pitchapalooza," Ms. Eckstut continued. "We notice that in certain places, the place itself takes on enormous importance. In New Orleans and Alaska, for example, the location becomes a character in itself in almost all of the pitches."
That wasn't the case in Manhattan. Pitches included several children's books, a self-help book, a food-and-travel book, memoirs and two religious interpretation books, but New York City didn't figure prominently into many pitches. After a romance novel set over three days in Queens was pitched, Elisabeth Scharlatt, one of the judges (and the publisher of Algonquin Books, an imprint of Workman), noted earnestly, "It's very unusual to have a book set in Queens! We're ready for that."
Kate McKean, a literary agent and one of the judges on the panel, doled out some pitching advice a few minutes before the competition started. "Get to the point as quickly as possible, meaning the climax of the story and what's at stake for the characters," she explained. "And then, just don't be nervous. No one's going to tell you that you're a bad writer to your face."
Mr. Sterry had advice for aspiring authors as well: "It helps to be able to name comparable books that aren't the most famous books in the world—if you tell me you're the next Ernest Hemingway with a hint of Eudora Welty, I will laugh in your face!" (Mr. Sterry turned out to be the kindest and most enthusiastic judge. He did suggest to Mr. Turtell, the "50/50" author, that he remove a David Sedaris comparison from his pitch.) Mr. Sterry continued, "And don't say that your book is funny or sad or exciting because it makes me think the opposite—anybody can say that they're funny, but not many people can make me laugh."
At the end of Pitchapalooza, after about 20 pitches (several of which made Mr. Sterry laugh), the judges retired to a backroom and selected the three best. The prize for winning was an introduction to a literary agent for each winner. One of Thursday night's three winners, along with "50/50" and the romance novel set in Queens, was a memoir by Father Paul Mayer.
"God has given me a very unique life," said the 82-year old priest, who escaped Nazi Germany; lived as a Benedictine monk for 18 years; married a nun in Latin America; marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and began his pitch with a description of climbing a 15-foot fence during Occupy Wall Street in 2011. "I'm finished with the book, and now I'm looking for a publisher and an agent. I'm just waiting for my book to be adopted!"