Pitchapalooza lets aspring authors try out their ideas on publishing pros

Founders call the event 'American Idol' for authors - except without Simon

January 25, 2013

By Rebecca Kruth

At first glance, the scene inside Anderson’s Bookshop, a cozy store in downtown Naperville, looked like any other author appearance.

The author David Henry Sterry sat before a small crowd at a table stacked high with copies of his novella, Confessions of a Sex Maniac.

With a title like that, you might say he knows a thing or two about about pitching a book idea. Which, as it turned out, is why he was there.

"Thank you all, welcome to Pitchapalooza," Sterry said. "We love Naperville! Woohoo!"

Sterry is also the author of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, which he wrote with his wife, literary agent Arielle Eckstut. The husband-wife team calls themselves "The Book Doctors."

Five years ago they started Pitchapalooza, which is a little like American Idol for aspiring authors. Instead of hearing singer tryouts, a panel of four judges listens to 20 randomly selected writers pitch their book ideas. In Naperville, the judges included Loyola Press Executive Editor Joe Durepos and children's author Andrea Beaty.

"You will get one minute. You will literally be cut off mid-syllable at one minute," Sterry warned the crowd.

These guys are nicer than Simon Cowell, but they’re still tough. After hosting Pitchapalooza in bookstores all over the country, Eckstut said they’re not easily impressed.

"We hear lots of men in their 40s and 50s pitching books for adults about super heroes who have lost all their powers," Eckstut laughed.

There weren’t any fallen superheroes in Naperville, but there was this pitch from medieval history buff Jessica Knauss: "The Seven Noble Knights of Lara is a medieval epic with strong women, valiant knights, and a bloody cucumber."

And there was this one from a curly-haired editor named Nora Long, who wrote her entire pitch while she was waiting to see if her name would be called.

"Lillith’s story begins the day her boyfriend puts a gun in his mouth," Long said.

That one got the judges' attention.

"Now what I loved about that pitch, and this is for everybody, it started off with a bang, literally," Sterry said.

Everyone who was here had a different reason for wanting to publish a book. Some want to write picture books for their grandchildren. Others are bored with their day jobs and need an escape.

Julie Trapp, a consultant who brought her two young children along, said writing is just something she has to do.

"I just feel like it’s that little voice in your head that says 'This is a calling, there’s some reason for this,'" Trapp said. "For some reason, a story needs to get out.  It’s bigger than me, it’s not about me."

The story Julie needed to tell was about her personal triumph over scoliosis. And she plans to use the judges’ advice to actually get it out there.

"They’re spot on with what needs to be done, so I agreed with all their comments," Trapp said.

Then there was Michael Gurley. This guy was serious. Not only did he bring mock-ups of a potential book cover, but he already has a pen name in mind. Dressed in a gray argyle sweater, Gurley stepped up to the microphone:

"In roaring 20s Chicago, hockey superstar Brett Bennett is drafted to the big leagues, to the city’s first-ever team. Secret passion catches fire when he meets dashing goalie Jean-Paul Moreau," Gurley said.

The judges heard a lot of pitches that day, but none went over quite as well as Gurley’s.

"We’ve heard 10,000 pitches. I have never heard a gay hockey roaring 20s Chicago story," Sterry marveled. "It’s fantastic."

Gurley’s winning book idea is called Boy Afraid.

"Lots of pucks and sticks, ladies and gentlemen. Oh yeah!" said Sterry.

For his prize, Gurley gets to meet a literary agent or publisher – a real coup for an aspiring author. 

But in a world where anyone can publish a book, the pitch is just the first hurdle. The real question may be how do you get people to, well, read your book? Sterry said it helps to understand what’s already out there.

"You saw today so many people didn’t even know where their book was going to fit in a bookstore. You need to know that, you need to figure that out," Sterry said. "Because if you don’t know, how’s an agent going to know? How’s an editor going to know? How’s a reader going to know?"

But Michael Gurley has even bigger ambitions than that. When asked where, ideally, he would like to see his book go, Gurley had this to say: "I want J.K. Rowling to read it and think, ‘Wow, I could have wrote that.'"

Correction:  This article has been updated to reflect corrected material. The story mistakenly stated that Michael Gurley was the writer's pen name rather than his given name. 

To hear Michael Gurley's complete winning pitch, click here.

To hear pitching tips from David Henry Sterry, click here.