Last week I attended a Pitchapalooza event at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington. I had no idea what to expect. According to the website, the event would feature The Book Doctors, married couple Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, who are both authors and consultants (and, I would add, educators). The event was, ostensibly, to help writers wade into the morass of the publishing industry, to offer critiques of their book pitches and, for the evening’s best pitch, to introduce that person to a publisher or literary agent appropriate for their work. But there was an entrepreneurial twist: the key was that in order to be eligible to make a pitch you had to purchase a copy of Eckstut and Sterry’s book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. See what they did there?
I was skeptical at first. The event’s title was a bit hackneyed, and I thought the underlying business principle might be too manipulative. Shows what I know. Turns out every copy sold came with not only a chance to pitch, but also with a twenty minute consultation with the Book Doctors. And the evening was truly delightful. I did not attend with any plans to pitch, and thank goodness — I would have been, along with two or three others who did pitch, woefully unprepared. I only found out about it that morning and, besides, I would have had no idea where to start — which is why I decided to attend in the first place. Of the sixty or so folks who bought the book and entered their names for a chance to pitch, the panelists — which included the two book doctors plus a veteran literary agent and a sales rep from Penguin — selected twenty names at random for a chance to make a sixty second pitch (time limit strictly observed). Of the twenty, a small handful were, as I said, just like me: unprepared for the task. Also unlike me, that did not stop them. Another few were interesting but unpolished, and I applaud their bravery. And then there were those who were spot on — prepared, practiced, sometimes funny and, most of all, they made me interested in knowing more about the book they were pitching, whether or not it was anything I would ever actually choose to read (ex: an anthology of cartography in antiquity). It was a pleasure to listen to them pitch. They believed in their projects, they packaged them appropriately, and they made such creative use of sixty seconds that, at the end of it, the audience was clapping, the panelists’ faces were alight and they were all grabbing for the microphone to offer enthusiastic critiques.
That’s really where the evening was special: the critiques were incredibly thoughtful, detailed and, most shocking of all (though I feel a bit jaded for being surprised), kind. They explained at the beginning of the evening that they weren’t there to break people down. They were there to listen and to offer feedback that would hopefully serve to improve the quality of the pitches. It seems so simple, and yet it was remarkably refreshing. And funny. Eckstut and Sterry really knew how to capitalize on the positive attributes of the pitches they heard and then offer constructive feedback about how to make them better. They asked pointed questions in ways that highlighted how a pitch is a different kind of writing from the book itself, how agents and publishers listen for things that writers may not have thought about, or necessarily thought was important. They gave tips.
I was a fly on the wall, wondering: what does a book pitch sound like? And then, what does a good book pitch sound like? In my head over the last year and a half I’ve tried to describe the book I am working on. A few of those unprepared folks made me realize: ahh, that’s what I must sound like when I talk about my project. So, how should I describe it? A central flaw has been that I’ve described it only to friends, to people who know me, to people who would let me ramble and then were, like Eckstut and Sterry, nice. But at a certain point, that’s no longer helpful. The real challenge becomes describing it to a consultant or agent or publisher — to a stranger. Even if I were to self-publish, successful marketing would still require a good pitch to potential buyers either online or in bookstores.
So one of my next challenges is to create a sixty second pitch of my own. I’ve spent a little time over the past week working on it, and having done so I have even more respect for the folks who spoke last week. It is not easy. More importantly, though, the event has renewed my own excitement about the project. I was in a slump; I hadn’t worked on it in months. But listening to Eckstut’s and Sterry’s advice, I feel refreshed. Maybe when I get something worked up, I’ll pitch it here? We’ll see.
In the meantime, check for Book Doctor events in your area.