Seventy-five emerging authors from around the country gathered on October 30 and 31 in Newark, N.J., to tape the pilot for a reality show called America’s Next Great Author. The brainchild of Arielle Eckstut and David Sterry (authors and co-founders of the longstanding pitch contest Pitchapalooza), along with Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander and NaNoWriMo founder and executive director Grant Faulkner, the event included workshops, critiques, and a pitch performance by the prospective authors. Alexander’s aim for the project was to provide opportunities for authors from diverse backgrounds “who aren’t normally given a seat at the table in mainstream publishing” and introduce readers to unique voices.

The producers began putting out calls for pitches in September, requesting that authors submit a 75-second video pitching their stories (novels, both YA and adult, and memoirs were eligible), along with 10 pages of the manuscript, a book blurb, and an author bio. Eckstut and Sterry made “a personal promise” to review every submission; they were impressed with the hundreds of submissions, which came from 49 states and Washington, D.C. Eckstut said they included “something for every section of the bookstore,” including YA rom-coms, thrillers, sci-fi, and a surprising number of “cli-fi” (climate fiction) stories. Sterry provided feedback for all of the semi-finalists and offered a personal consultation to help authors improve their pitches.

The semi-finalists came from far and wide for the event, but the producers were determined to provide an experience completely opposite from the harsh, mocking tenor of shows like American Idol. They described the ethos as “Lizzo meets The Great British Bake Off,” a kind and supportive atmosphere that nurtures writers. Alexander welcomed participants at Source of Knowledge, a local Black-owned bookstore that also hosted the writing challenge portion of the event, at which Newark mayor Ras Baraka (also a poet) welcomed the participants. The challenge? Authors had to come up with a new slogan for the city of Newark. The main branch of the Newark Public Library hosted the pitch competition, writers’ conference, and q&a with publishing professionals.

Eckstut said Alexander’s personal energy and years of experience in performance poetry helped to create an atmosphere of excitement that echoes the most entertaining elements of reality shows, charging the event with the emotion (and touch of drama) that’s critical to the watchability of these types of programs. As some of the participants told their stories, there were tears in the eyes of everyone from the authors to the camera crew, she said. While some had initially told them the idea of focusing a reality show on authors would be boring, the producers said the result was anything but.

The panel of judges included National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds, author Victoria Christopher Murray, and comedian and performer Marga Gomez. The pool of finalists was narrowed to 20 whose work represented a variety of genres. They pitched for the audience and judges who focused on the author’s idea, style, and potential in the literary marketplace. “We intentionally didn’t call this America’s Next Great Writer,” Eckstut said. “There are now so many more skills involved in being an author that go beyond just writing.” Gomez provided feedback on performance, while “wisdom poured out” of Reynolds.

Of the finalists, the writers with the three strongest pitches were called to the stage where the winner was announced: Joi Miner of Montgomery, Ala., who submitted her work in progress, psychological thriller If These Walls Could Talk. Told from the perspective of the walls themselves, the story pitch was “filled with poetry and Southern charm,” Eckstut said. “And Joi's magnificent performance knocked it out of the park.”

Winning was “just another amazing plot twist in the story of my life,” Miner said. She described herself as an “author-preneur, lesbian single mama of two beautiful and artistic girls” who she has supported through writing, teaching, copyediting, and graphic design. Although she has published 37 novels herself or through independent publishers, she said that she “didn’t think that the [traditional] publishing industry was for African Americans or women.”

In March 2020, Miner suffered a brain aneurysm and a stroke. Since rehabilitation centers were closed during Covid, she had to re-teach herself to walk and perform daily tasks such as holding a fork. “But I could still write,” she said. Friend and fellow writer Ebony Bowser told her about America’s Next Great Author and started a GoFundMe to help her finance it when she became a semifinalist.

Miner is spending November NaNoWriMo finishing the novel and plans to offer workshops on how to write a book in a month or less. “I have always had a heart for community and feel that this win shows everyone—from my daughters and their friends to the young men and the displaced men that I work with—that all you have to do is step out and trust the process. I feel empowered, validated, and charged to spread that to everyone I can.”

Participants in the event now have a new network of supportive writing friends going forward. Having filmed the pilot, Eckstut and Sterry say it provided proof that a show about aspiring authors gaining access to the publishing world is a winner. They’re looking for a like-minded network that will back the show and preserve their vision for it.