The second floor of the Strand bookstore was packed Wednesday night with aspiring writers looking to pitch their book in front of a panel of publishing insiders that included agent James Levine, Time Warner Book Group head Larry Kirshbaum, Publishers Weekly deputy editor Karen Holt, Mauro DiPreto of Harper Entertainment, and newly appointed Bloomsbury publishing director Annik LaFarge. The setup—40 writers would have one minute each to describe their project, then the experts would tell them what they were doing right, and what they’d need to improve—was put in motion by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, the husband-and-wife team behind the new writer’s guide Putting Your Passion Into Print. (Eckstut knew her panelists well, having formed relationships with them through her own work as a literary agent at Levine Greenberg.)
“Is this whole night going to be about sex?” Kirschbaum jokingly griped after the first two proposals focused on the erotic awakenings of middle-aged women as told in fiction and memoir. Soon enough, the panel was hearing out a woman who survived a bout with cancer and became a hospital clown, followed by a woman who asked, “If I could talk to my dad after he died, why couldn’t I talk to God and the angels?” in order to reveal that she could, and they’d given her all sorts of advice to pass on to us. Kirschbaum pointed out that she was working well-mined territory and urged her to look at the competition. “Do you have a new take on this?” LaFarge pressed, while Holt urged her to determine whether she was writing self-help or spirituality, so she’d know where the book would fit in the marketplace.
The advice was largely encouraging; one fellow who wound up pitching a second memoir in his final five seconds, based on a completely different set of experiences, earned a recommendation from LaFarge to find the story he most wanted to tell. When an urban historian pitched an idea for a collection of New York City maps with overlays to present historical transformations of the five boroughs, the panel thought it was a great idea but likely too expensive to produce for too small an audience, but Levine suggested that MIT Press might be interested. Levine also had strong enthusiasm for a handbook on drawing caricatures, telling the young artist that he might have come up with the perfect niche book. LaFarge suggested expanding the audience to include people interested in drawing realistic faces as well; no, Levine countered, this book is prefectly distinctive, “and if your expectations for an advance were realistically modest,” the author was definitely on to something. And so it went… I had to bail halfway through, but it looked like even those writers who weren’t getting to pitch their ideas were taking copious notes.