Pitchapalooza's Book Doctors Talk About What Makes a Good Pitch and How to Get Published

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Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry want to hear from you, authors.
​Meet the Book Doctors -- Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry -- authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. They will soon hit the Bay Area, and they want you to pitch your book at their acclaimed event, Pitchapalooza, which has been featured in  The New York Times, in a minidocumentary for Newsday, and on NBC.

Pitchapalooza has been called the American Idol for books -- only without the Simon. Writers have one minute to pitch their ideas to a panel of publishing experts. The winner gets introduced to an agent or publisher. Plus, anyone who buys a book gets a free consultation. 

Gimmick, right? In the past month, three Pitchapalooza participants have signed book deals with great publishers, and one has just received a six-figure, three-book deal.

I spoke with the Book Doctors about what makes a great pitch and how the publishing industry is changing.

What makes a successful pitch?
The ultimate goal of any great pitch is to make the listener/reader excited, fascinated, enthralled, their interest fully piqued, as they exclaim, "Wow, I can't wait to read that book!" A lot of it goes back to the old adage: Show, don't tell. Don't tell me your book is funny; make me laugh. Don't tell me it's sad; make me cry. Don't tell me it's thrilling; thrill me.

If it's a narrative, be it memoir or fiction, I need to know who I'm rooting for, what our hero's assets and liabilities are. I ask myself: Do I want to spend 20 hours of my life with the hero of this story? Is there a villain I'm going to love to hate? How is your love story -- or vampire story, or memoir -- different than everything else that's out there? If it's a how-to book, I need to know how it's going to make my life better, some concrete examples of what you can tell me to improve my life. And I'll need to know why I should listen to you. What makes you an expert?

A great pitch dances a fine line between the micro and macro, the minutiae and the big picture; it teases without giving too much away, and it comes to a satisfying climax. We all like a satisfying climax. And the beauty of it is, it all happens in less than a minute.

What do you consider the most outlandish pitch you've gotten?
This isn't so much a story about an outlandish pitch, but an outlandish story surrounding a pitch: We heard a great pitch from an ex-con writing about prison. So good that he won the Pitchapalooza. His girlfriend was at the event with him. She was lovely. And while the guy gave a great pitch, he was beyond tough and we wondered what was up with the relationship; we found out six months later that he had murdered his girlfriend and was back in jail. This time for life.

What about the most outlandish one that worked?
Here's the elevator pitch: The Elements of Style for Fruit Trees. The actual title to this book is The Little Fruit Tree Book, and it's a short guide to what you need to know to plant fruit trees in your yard written by a veteran arborist. This sold to the first publisher it was sent to, lickety-split.

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Has the nature of pitches changed in the amount of time you've been doing Pitchapalooza?
We've seen trends come and go -- vampires and werewolves have morphed into zombies and mermaids, for example -- but the anatomy of the pitch has remained pretty constant.

What does an author need today that he/she didn't need five to 10 years ago?
A platform. That is, a way that you and you alone can reach your audience. Of course, the easiest way to do this nowadays is through social media. But other old-school methods work as well, like being a columnist for your local paper, a successful speaker, an "expert" who is called on in the media. FYI, anyone who submits a book these days can be pretty sure that an agent/publisher will be looking at his/her Twitter following, Facebook friends, blog traffic.

Do you get many self-published authors looking for advice? How does the quality of work hold up?
With the advent of print-on-demand and e-books, self-publishing is becoming more and more common. There are lots of fantastic self-published books out there. But there is also a lot of dreck. What separates the two? Those who take the role of publisher seriously. This means that they've hired a professional editor, graphic designer, publicist, SEO expert -- all the people you'd find at a publisher -- to make sure their book is up to professional standards. Only a very small percent of self-publishers do this. We like to call them authorpreneurs.

What are some of the most remote places you've been to? Are the crowds smaller than in big cities?
You'd think the big cities like New York would have the best and most crowded Pitchapaloozas. But you'd be wrong. The quality of writing in Chico, for example, is as strong as San Francisco. In fact, we had more than 200 people come out in Chico, including cowboy poets as well as goth teenagers. And a lot of smaller cities like Kansas City or big suburbs like Naperville near Chicago don't have as many resources for writers, so people flock. Both of these events had more than 350 people.

What does this success say about the climate of publishing, and how do you see it affecting the industry?
The doors have been busted down, and the moats have been filled in. Anyone can get published now. That's the good news. The bad news is that it's really hard to get heard. Pitchapalooza provides people with a chance to be heard.

See the winning pitch from the September 2010 Pitchapalooza by author Chris Cole below.

The Book Doctors appear at the Rockit Room on Sunday, July 24, in a Pitchapalooza organized by Green Apple Books. They also appear tonight (Friday, July 23) at 8:30 p.m. at the Mystery Writers Conference at Book Passage in Corte Madera as part of the Mystery Writers Conference. They also plan appearances in Berkeley and Santa Cruz, as well as a workshop at Stanford University. Check the Book Doctors calendar page for details.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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