The Essential Guide Tour Pitchapalooza #18: Nirvana in Naperville–300 Writers Flock to Anderson’s for Pitchapalooza

Naperville? On a Thursday night? Seriously? That’s what we thought when our publisher told us our Chicago Pitchapalooza would be in a suburb 45 minutes and a world away from the Windy City. That’s kind of like doing your New York City event in Hohokus, New Jersey. We rolled our eyes. We shook our heads. We tutted.
OMG, were we wrong. When we showed up at 6:25 for our 7pm event, there were already 50 writers waiting, pregnant with their book ideas, expectant, hungry, make-my-dreams-come-true looks in their eyes. Turns out Anderson’s is a bookstore with a capital “B”. It is a destination. A hub of intelligent, fun, interesting events that people look out for. And a staff that is as knowledgeable and professional as you’ll find.
On arrival, we were whisked downstairs into what the employees affectionately call, “The Dungeon”. One of the fun things about doing events in bookstores is that you get to go where all the books are before they get put out onto the shelves. It’s like some strange beautiful alternative universe you imagine exists when you’re a kid who loves books and reads way too many of them.
Downstairs, we met with an 11-year-old writer who the Make-a-Wish Foundation people hooked us up with (we will be sharing more about her soon). She told us she wants to be published by a REAL publisher, no self-publishing for her, which made us laugh because many of the adult writers we meet don’t know the difference between the two. Her pitch was incredibly moving, and so accomplished for her age.
When we hustled back upstairs it was about five minutes ‘til eight.
Our flabbergasted eyes and jaws popped and dropped wide open. Every single chair was filled by a writer, or someone with deep affection for them. There were writers and their entourages 10 rows deep behind the chairs. Writers huddled and cramped in the aisles behind the rows of books on either side of the chairs. Writers hanging from the rafters. Over 300 writers and writer-lovers waiting, breath bated, for us to start listening to their pitches. On a Thursday night. In Naperville.

We were lucky enough to have assembled an absolutely fabulous panel to gently yet firmly critique all those book ideas: Dominique Raccah, founder, president and publisher of Sourcebooks; Joe Durepos, author, Executive Editor at Loyola Press and former book rep and literary agent; and Wendy McClure, senior editor at Albert Whitman & Company and author of the forthcoming The Wilder Life. It’s always shocking to us how generous book people are with their time and expertise. These are all top-notch pros, coming out to give writers their immense, invaluable wisdom. For FREE!
Suddenly it started, and the pitches were flying thick and fast. Paranormal apocalyptic novels, picture books with purple yawns, hard-boiled thrillers set in the high-stakes world of international finance, and about a dozen pitches with awkward outcast geek teens overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to save the world. In fact, about 75% of the pitches that night (and we heard 25 of them) were for children’s books.
Why, we found ourselves wondering, do so many adults want to write books for boys and girls? Arrested development? A nostalgic desire to return to that hormone-drenched time when your biggest worry were zits and heart-stopping crushes? A Back-to-the-Future yearning to correct the injustices of cruel adolescence? A boom in the YA business? Parents with kids reading children’s books and thinking: I can do that? We’re not sure, but the fact is, grown-ups are reading and writing kids books at an alarming rate.
A fascinating phenomenon: about half the people who were picked to pitch chose not to. Afterwards, a bunch of writers told us that when they saw a few pitches, they realized how ill-prepared and lame their stuff was. But everyone told us how much they learned just watching other writers pitch, and listening to what our cavalcade of publishing pundits had to say about them.
A few highlights:
• A young woman overcoming OCD who pitched a beautiful book about a kid who’s compelled to wash and re-wash his hands ad infinitum.
• “Hello My Name Is…”, a series of books written from the perspectives of kids from different eras, races and ethnicities to promote diversity. The author acted out one story in the character of 10-year-old daughter of a slave which was funny and sassy, even as it broke your heart.
• A dad who had lost two children writing on behalf of all fathers who had lived through the death of a child.
• The true story of a woman whose mom lived most of her life without knowing that her “sister” was actually her mother.
• Our winner, a schoolteacher who gave a bravura performance of her YA novel pitch full of tongue-twistingly hysterical characters and situations.
Here are a few nuggets from our most excellent panel.
• Joe Durepos told writers to think of publishing like a parking lot. You can’t park where there’s already a car. And you have to find a vacant spot in the place that’s nearest to the destination you want to be. In other words, you can’t sell a book that’s too much like something else. You have to find a hole in the market were your book fits nicely. But you also have to stay within the area.
• Dominique Raccah said that writers need to show her the particulars about what’s new, fresh, different and unique about their books.
• Wendy McClure, after listening to a writer’s story about a teen who has to become the sole caregiver to her younger sister, then save the world, told the writer that the pitch should be more about taking care of the kid sister. “I get stories every day about teenagers saving the world. Saving the world’s easy. Being the sole caretaker to your kid sister, that’s hard.”
It took us almost an hour to sign just some of the 171 books we sold that night. Becky Anderson, the boo-yeah owner of Anderson’s who made all this possible, said she’d never seen that kind of attendance for a reference book, which made us feel proud and that all the energy expended was well worth it.
We thanked our thoroughly awesome panel of judges, then, elated and exhausted, we staggered out into the frigid Midwestern night, reveling in our Naperville nirvana.