Project Runway, X-Factor, America’s Got Talent—the reality show format offers amateurs and unknowns a chance to display their latent talent and work with mentors to nurture it in a competition charged with tension. Could the format work for writers, too? The producers of America’s Next Great Author think so.
Along with Newbery-winning author Kwame Alexander, the show is the brainchild Arielle Eckstut and David Sterry, authors and co-founders of the longstanding pitch contest Pitchapalooza (an “American Idol for books, only kinder and gentler”) and principals of the book coaching business the Book Doctors. Alexander said after years of developing the concept, the creators are ready to shoot a pilot, which they hope will lead to a full production of the show, aimed at an audience that “loves drama on and off the page.”
America’s Next Great Author takes more than a little inspiration from American Idol’s format—the plan is for “tryouts” to take place in cities across the country, with would-be authors delivering their one-minute pitches to industry professionals. The field will be narrowed to six contestants who will participate in a month-long writer’s retreat during which they will live together Big Brother-style. During the month, the aspiring authors must start a project on the first day and finish it by the last. Throughout the retreat, they’ll also participate in storytelling challenges and work with mentors to develop their stories. Sterry said the challenges will “show off a writer’s ability to use words, think fast, be creative,” but also help them to learn to market and promote their books “because writers are called upon to do so many different tasks now in modern publishing that have nothing to do with writing your book.”
The producers hope to feature “charismatic” would-be authors from diverse backgrounds and areas of the country, says Alexander. “The show is dedicated to including writers who aren’t normally given a seat at the table in mainstream publishing," he said in a statement. "Contestants don’t have to be graduates of an elite MFA program that basically guarantees an open door in the book business. The series will feature writers from communities and cultures all across America who bring their unique voices to readers in the world of literature.”
The pilot will culminate with a pitch competition filmed in San Francisco, hosted by Alexander featuring a live audience and a panel of media luminaries including National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds, NBC News anchor Angie Goff, and writer and performer Marga Gomez. Along with the advice and mentorship, the winner of the pilot show will receive $2,500. When the show is picked up, Eckstut said, “substantial” prize money and publishing opportunities are expected to open up.
Alexander, Eckstut, and Sterry met seven years ago at the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference. Eckstut became Alexander’s agent and helped him start his imprint, Versify (initially at HMH and now HarperCollins). Sterry said he spent a few years working on a pitch deck for the show that was to become America’s Next Great Author and began collaborating with NaNoWriMo founder and executive director Grant Faulkner to move it forward. When Alexander got involved, he “saw the potential immediately.” The collaborators created a joint venture between Eckstut and Sterry’s production company Can Do Entertainment and Alexander’s Big Sea Entertainment to produce the show.
“Right from the beginning, there were certain people in the television—and publishing—world whose eyes just lit up when they heard about America’s Next Great Author,” Sterry said. “They understand just how many Americans want to write books.” He cited a survey from the early 2000s that found that 82% of Americans feel they have a book in them. After operating Pitchapalooza for more than 15 years, Sterry said the demographic for those who want to write books is “staggeringly, freakishly large, from 10-year-old kids to 85-year-old World War II veterans, pierced punks to soccer moms. Retired judges to people living out of their cars. All ages, sizes, sexes, races, religions, philosophies, politics, socioeconomic realities.”
Alexander believes that while it’s true that everyone has a story in them, “that doesn’t mean that everyone has the skillset or even the desire to share their story in a book.” With America’s Next Great Author, he said the producers want to demonstrate that “if you are interested in writing and publishing, and you have put in the work to develop your craft, then we will coach you, give you access to share that talent.”
Still, do literary aspirations make good television in the same way that musical ones do? “There is the perception in Hollywood that writers are boring,” Eckstut conceded.
“I get it,” Alexander said. “It’s writers writing books. That seems boring, right? But, as an author of 37 books, who has traveled on five continents promoting those books, who has written in coffee shops, parks, writing retreats, subways, lunch breaks, who has sold books at farmers’ markets, who has had his books banned, who has lost friendships over bookish drama, you got to see it to believe that it’s drama. The irony is, the stories are drama, so why wouldn’t the writers be?”
Eckstut said that though she believes it’s unfounded, the fear that someone else will steal their idea often prevents aspiring authors from participating in a pitch contest like this one. But that’s just one of the many reasons aspiring authors don’t pursue their dreams. “People don’t understand that the single best way not to get a book published is to not share your work.”
The first season of America’s Next Great Author focuses on novels (both YA and adult) and memoirs. In subsequent seasons, the plan is to concentrate seasons around different categories: mysteries, fantasy, romance, science fiction, thrillers, historical novels, children’s books, cookbooks, self-help, and more.
The producers hope that the pilot will provide proof positive of the concept. “I suspect after we shoot this one episode in San Francisco, the execs will get it, and then we can discover some writers and make their wildest dreams come true,” Alexander said.
Along with the three partners, Faulkner and documentary producer Sydnye White are serving as executive producers. Alexander is also currently executive producing a Disney+ series based on his 2015 Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Award Honor-winning book The Crossover. America’s Next Great Author has issued a pilot casting call, which is available here.