Pitchapalooza in Chico, the Paris of Central California

Got a good book idea? Do what I did: Bring it to the Pitchapalooza By Neal Wiegman

Pitch your book idea:
A second Pitchapalooza sponsored by Lyon Books will take place at the 1078 Gallery on Tuesday, Jan. 18, at 7 p.m. For writers who can’t make it then, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry (pictured) will be available to listen to pitches on Northstate ublic Radio’s call-in show “I-5 LIVE!” Monday, Jan. 17, at 8 p.m.

Three years ago I got the idea that I might have a book in me. It had been germinating for some time, but I hadn’t felt confident that I could do it. So when an opportunity came to pitch my idea—at what was called a Pitchapalooza—in front of a group that included a panel of judges who offered the possibility of being introduced to an agent, I decided to go for it.

That’s how, in November 2006, I found myself at Lyon Books, in downtown Chico, joining more than 30 wannabe authors standing before the microphone that afternoon. (A second Pitchapalooza is scheduled for Jan. 18; see the info box.)

That morning, in preparation for my one-minute pitch, I had written the first paragraph of what became a self-published historical novel, Walking the Way: A Medieval Quest.

When my turn came and I got up to face the crowd, I realized I was more nervous than I’d ever been in my life, although I’m used to speaking in front of groups. I think it was because of the time limitation. Fortunately, as I began, I was able to deal with my nervousness and steady my shaky voice by focusing on that first paragraph.

The panel of judges consisted of Susan Wooldridge, the Chico author of two best-selling books about writing, poemcrazy: freeing your life with words and Fool’s Gold: Making Something from Nothing and Freeing Your Creative Process; and the “Book Doctors,” Arielle Eckstut and her husband, David Henry Sterry, authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.

Eckstut has been a literary agent for 18 years, and Sterry is the best-selling author of 13 books, the last of which appeared on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. They’ve appeared on National Public Radio many times and taught publishing at Stanford University. They’ve helped dozens of talented amateurs become professionally published authors.

Pitchapalooza participants, their time allowances strictly enforced by stopwatch, attempt to convince the experts that their idea is worth consideration by an agent. After each writer’s pitch, the judges critique everything from concept to potential in the marketplace. Aspiring authors come away with concrete advice on how to improve their pitches, as well as a greater understanding of the ins and outs of the publishing industry.

Even if a pitch was poorly written or presented, the three judges gave encouraging feedback. I was told that a selling point in my favor was the fact that my wife and I had actually walked the medieval pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain that the hero of my novel follows on his quest. (I described that walk in “The bones of Saint James,” a feature story in the Dec. 24, 2009, issue of the CN&R that was another outgrowth of the Pitchapalooza.)

Nancy Wiegman, my wife, also attended the November 2006 event and was so impressed with the number of writers in the Chico area that she was inspired to create a platform for their books through radio interviews. A few months later Nancy’s Bookshelf debuted on Northstate Public Radio. She has now interviewed more than 150 mostly local and regional authors for her show, which airs on KCHO, 91.7 FM, Fridays at 10 am.

Sterry eventually returned to Chico to be interviewed on Nancy’s Bookshelf about memoir writing and how he helps writers put their passion into print.

He described the Pitchapalooza, which he invented, as “kind of like an American Idol for books, where everybody gets one minute.” When Nancy commented that the judges’ evaluation of each pitch was always very kind, Sterry replied, “Well, there’s no Simon [Cowell]. Yes, I have to censor all the angry, bitter, cynical thoughts that come through my head.”

Sterry thinks it’s important that everyone pitching a book idea get encouraging words: “You don’t want to go in public and be humiliated. Many people have a dream of getting a book published, and who am I to say their dream shouldn’t come true?”

Eckstut and Sterry have done Pitchapaloozas all over the country for years. “What I’ve discovered is that at every single event there are at least five book ideas that someone pitches and you go, ‘Oh, my God, there is a great book just waiting to be born.’ And people don’t have the mechanism in place for even explaining what their book is. What’s one of the hardest things to do is to take a 300-page book and condense it down to be able to explain it in 25 seconds, 30 seconds. It’s really an art.”