Usually a venue for best-selling authors, the Washington bookstore was filled instead with would-be novelists, expectant memoirists and unpublished writers of all kinds. They’d come for Pitchapalooza! — “The American Idol for Books” conducted by husband and wife team Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. The Book Doctors, as they call themselves, are the authors of “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published,” which instantly sold out at Politics and Prose.
Anyone who bought (or ordered) a copy might be one of the 20 people — chosen at random — to make a one-minute pitch to the Book Doctors along with local guest judges Joe Johnson, a sales rep for Penguin, and Gail Ross, a literary agent who counts several Washington Post reporters and editors among her clients.
One by one, the hopeful scribblers came to the mike and poured as much writerly persuasion as they could into 60 seconds, and not a second more. Thrillers, autobiographies, self-help, medical mysteries, political espionage — the evening was a card catalogue of sure-fire bestsellers.
The first contestant wanted to ghostwrite her mother’s memoir, “Paid to Party,” the story of an out-of-work housewife who takes a job in a frat house. “Think Betty White meets John Belushi,” she said.
“That’s going to get you on ‘Good Morning America,’ ” Sterry predicted with his signature enthusiasm. With a full head of scruffy gray hair and blazing eyes, he could sell sand on a beach. He’s done hundreds of television commercials and published 13 books, including his most recent, the subtly titled “Confessions of a Sex Maniac.” (“If Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James Ellroy had a three-way,” the publisher claims, “this would be their bastard child.”)
Another woman came to the mic and said, “With a nod to Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven,’ this is a story about a pug.”
“Dog books, they sell,” observed Johnson, the Penguin rep.
The next writer announced, “I’m an unemployed toll collector and a historian.”
“Drop the ‘toll collector,’ ” the judges recommended.
We heard about assassinated Saudi princes and gay ministers and the magic of pancakes. Most of the pitches were polished and quick to the punch. Some aspiring authors described their books like auctioneers: in a single, panicked breath. Others began with such perplexing premises that it was hard to concentrate:
“ ‘The Last of the Mastodons’ is an erotic drug-fueled dramedy,” said one.
“Paulo Coelho plus Michael Crichton,” said another.
Although strict with the stopwatch, the judges were always kind, gentle and positive when it came to their critiques. No one at this “American Idol for Books” played Simon Cowell. Over the past year and a half, Sterry and Eckstut have conducted hundreds of Pitchapalooza events across the country.
“Don’t tell me your book is sad; make me cry,” Sterry advised. “Don’t tell me your book is funny; make me laugh.”
And never, ever, under any circumstances use the word “essay.”
A elderly woman in a jaunty green cap won one of the coveted pitch spots but seemed to have wandered in by accident. “This is such a surprise,” she confessed. “I’m not really prepared.” She thought maybe she’d collect her poems about places around the world. “And I have lovely photographs!”
“Our goal is to help everyone in this room get published,” Sterry said, and he has enough energy and good will to make you believe it just might be possible.
Robin, with a penchant for catchy phrases, pitched a self-help book called “Let the Lay-off Pay-Off!” She reassured the packed store of would-be writers that “a setback is a set-up for a comeback!” She could have sold 100 copies that night.
Rochelle hoped to publish a comic volume of “grande dame lit” about a woman with four husbands because “it’s hard for a good woman to be satisfied by one man.”
“You’re going to be on NPR with that,” Sterry told her.
“Well, I’ve made CNN,” she shot back. “I don’t know about NPR.”
After 90 minutes, the judges retired to choose the winner, who would receive an introduction to an agent or publisher.
Jared, a technical editor for a government contractor, came away with the prize. He’s working on a book about his great uncle, a sociopathic doctor who specialized in gender reassignment surgery. Eventually, the eager plastic surgeon graduated to cutting off the limbs of people suffering from body integrity identity disorder. His last patient died of gangrene.
Sterry knew just how to sell it: “It’s ‘Henrietta Lacks’ meets ‘Running with Scissors.’ ”
Look for it at your local bookstore. Soon.