A simple Twitter post helped debut author B.B. Alston land a three-book deal and a film option at Universal Pictures for his middle grade fantasy series. Last fall, the aspiring author had been living in South Carolina and working on the manuscript for Amari and the Night Brothers before heading into a biomedical science program in preparation for medical school.
“I’d been writing as a hobby for most of my life,” Alston told PW. “I can remember as far back as middle school when I would write horror stories featuring all my classmates. They’d all gather around the computer to see who made it to the end.” In October 2018, Alston had been looking for seasonal work at a nearby Amazon warehouse. On a whim, he decided to pitch his work-in-progress to literary agents through #DVPit, a Twitter hashtag created by agent Beth Phelan to amplify “marginalized voices that have been historically underrepresented in publishing.”
Alston described his middle grade fantasy project with a few hundred characters on Twitter: “When an inner-city kid gets nominated by her long missing brother to try out for the Bureau for Supernatural Affairs, it’s her chance to learn what happened to him. But it’ll mean competing against the nation’s wealthiest kids.”
Five literary agents reached out to Alston after his Twitter pitch, including Gemma Cooper at the Bent Agency. “This was the perfect book for me,” said Cooper, describing how the manuscript’s underprivileged heroine fearlessly enters a fantasy world dominated by the elite. “Amari is a brilliant character and really inspiring. For me, this part of the market is about these characters. They may be young, but they are taking the world by storm.”
Cooper had been closed to new submissions at the time, but she always enjoyed following the #DVPit conversation. The Twitter pitch session launched in April 2016, inviting aspiring novelists from diverse backgrounds to pitch literary agents through evocative tweets. The hashtag quickly became a trending topic on the social network. and has since expanded to include a day focused on the work of artists and illustrators as well. According to the organizers, more than 100 creators have found representation through the event and it has inspired “dozens” of book deals.
When Cooper contacted Alston, he told the agent that he needed a little more time to polish his manuscript. He shared the book with Cooper two months later, last December, and the literary agent said she soon realized, “Oh God, this is really good.” They began working on the manuscript together, preparing it in time to sell the rights at the Bologna Book Fair this past April. Rights to the book sold in nine territories before the fair and Kristin Rens at Balzer + Bray secured North American rights in a six-figure deal for three books—with six houses bidding on Alston’s work.
Within a month, Amari and the Night Brothers had captured Hollywood producers’ attention. “I read the book overnight,” said Todd Lieberman, co-founder of Mandeville Films, who loved the underdog heroine at the heart of the book. “Then, I read it again to make sure I caught every moment of it, so I could discuss it more eloquently with the author. That’s a true indication to me that something is special.”
After an auction led by Mary Pender-Coplan at United Talent Agency, the book landed at Universal Pictures, with Mandeville, Genius Productions, and Avengers star Don Cheadle lined up as producers. Black-ish star Marsai Martin will both produce and star in the film. In a twist of fate worthy of a movie, Alston had to forfeit his opening weekend tickets to Avengers: Endgame so he could discuss the potential film project with Cheadle.
“He’s a real talent,” Lieberman said when asked about Alston’s work. “I couldn’t believe he’s as young as he is and that this is his first novel. I was completely floored by the skill level, the character work, and the imagination.”
As Alston prepares to publish his debut novel in January 2021 and adjusts to his new life as a novelist, he still marvels at how his impulsive Twitter post had such major effects. “I was kind of hesitant to even do the pitch contest. My first thought was, ‘Yeah, nobody’s going to respond to this,’ ” Alston said, recalling the moment he decided to share his pitch online. “It changed my whole life. It’s kind of crazy.”