New York Pitch Conference II: Forster’s Gold

New York Pitch Conference II: Forster’s Gold

Picture this – you’re an emerging writer who loves travelling and you want to combine your two passions. So you apply for a travel grant to visit New York for a pitching conference to sell your first novel to an agent. You launch into a funding application and you chance upon a question about why you’d need to appear in person for a pitch when a video conference might serve just as well. 

For a short while, you thrum your fingers against the desk top, pace the room, or wander off to the kitchen, troubled with the idea of how to word your answer. You know – by instinct more than any specific research – that a face-to-face meeting with your editor or agent holds the potential to forge deeper ties than a simple video conference. You might write “face-to-face is better” but now you’re worried the answer won’t hold up to scrutiny. There are no statistics to back you up here. And where did you get that idea anyway?

It wasn’t until after I’d won the grant that I found an answer to this question. It came from the direction of the English novelist EM Forster, best known in our century as the writer whose work inspired three Merchant Ivory film productions. Curiously, his short stories included a science fiction dystopia, The Machine Stops. The story, published in 1909, is over a hundred years old but feels as if it’s forged this century. The earth’s surface is a wasteland, and people now live in underground in cells, isolated but with a Machine to connect them to music, information and amenities, as well as other listeners. Forster’s protagonist, Vashti, has been served by the Machine all her life. So when the Machine stops, she’s confused, terrified and at a loss what to do. Humans no have no other choice but to communicate with each other through face-to-face encounters. It is a prospect so terrifying that some citizens elect to opt out and suicide.

Since his story was a work of fiction it’s easy enough to dismiss the suicide scenario as hysterical hyperbole. But the story works so well because it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of technology and how it leads to isolation and depression. Like most good stories, there’s psychological truth in it. Increasingly, in this century, we’re able to avoid face to face transactions through means of video conferencing and online shopping. For example, to organise the pitch conference, I used Airbnb, to buy tickets I bought them through the web and to connect with other conference attendees beforehand I used Twitter email. No tasks required face-to-face contact. I could justify going this way because these methods were fast, convenient and competitive. But if that’s the case, why not simply Zoom into that conference? How do we argue that face-to-face is still superior? Why do I feel as if Forster’s tale is psychologically honest and contains a lesson for us all? 

What his story underlines is that relationships forged by face-to-face encounters are more meaningful than the alternatives. In face-to-face encounters we’re able to dip into all those non-verbal clues and signs that tell us whether we’re getting our point across or failing. We can better assess a person’s body language, clothing, deportment, nuances of voice, and view how the potential new agent interacts with others. With more comprehensive input, we’re in a better position to know whether to respect, like and trust the agent we’re focussing on.

To what extend did the face-to-face option help in my own encounters with agents in New York?

The pitching conference I’d targeted was the Algonkian writers’ New York Pitch Conference, run every three months in Manhattan. In September 2018, I flew over from Australia to Manhattan to pitch to four editors, face to face, over the same number of days. On the first day, all conference attendees, fifty-odd strangers, gathered in a reception room at Ripley Grier studios to receive our name badges and sign the attendance roll. The conference convenor outlined the agenda – we would divide into three groups, of at least 15 participants, separated according to our genres. The convenor assigned each group a workshop leader, and in the case of myself, and fellow Australian writer and conference attendee, Suzie Strong, we were assigned Ann Garvin, an experienced writing teacher and New York Times bestselling novelist. It was Ann’s job to help us craft a pitch that would best promote our work to the editors. The first day’s work involved pitching before Ann and the others in our group. The other three days would involve pitching to our four New York editors.

New York Times best seller Ann Garvin

The process of face-to-face pitching, as you might imagine, was far more daunting than submitting via email. There were more variables to control: was my hair right, my make-up adjusted, my voice calm and my manner confident? Was the passion for this story being adequately conveyed?

Ann rallied to our side, sitting alongside us in the pitching process. With a trusty note taker at our side, we didn’t have to panic about writing down or forgetting the advice coming from our editors. We could gauge the editor’s body language and observe where we’d specifically gained traction or lost it. This information could lead us to adjust our pitches in preparation for the editor on the following day. In mastering a face-to-face pitch, we put more of ourselves on the line, and the pay off, compared to exposition, was a good deal more accurate feedback as well as the confidence gained in selling our work, a confidence that would carry us well beyond the context of pitching. Most of us walked away with a fair estimation of whether we’d impressed our editor or not, although some editors kept their body language close, and were harder to read than others.

Back in the pitching workshop, Ann used her dynamic personality to create a group atmosphere of mutual support. If we did not reach our ultimate goal, the holy grail that was a Request to see more, then we had the group support to buffer against the loss and rise up for the next challenge. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where, using technology alone, this collective quickening could occur.

Ann Garvin’s group at the September 2018 Pitch Conference

Another advantage of face-to-face format was the power of the group collective. When groups are cohesive and unified, they expedite trust, which, in turn, encourages each member to disclose more, which then facilities more learning. A specific case in point was the crisis I’d suffered on the second day over a plot point in my pitch. When I asked for group advice on the way forward, responses were immediate and consensual. Feeling I could trust the group consensus, I took their advice. I am sure that a second Request was aided by the fact that I’d received this collective advice.

There was a further, unanticipated benefit to the face-to-face format. As part of the acquittal process for the grant I’d received to attend, I presented my conference notes to Sunshine Coast branch of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Arguably there is a lot more interest and enthusiasm from listeners when they understand that the speaker has immersed herself in the city and conference atmosphere rather than simply sitting behind a computer. Furthermore, for any writers group on the Coast thinking to run a similar pitch conference, I can now offer advice on what worked and what didn’t.

The author presenting conference news at October SCBWI, Sunshine Coast
Australian writers at the New York Pitch Conference 2018, with the author at left, Suzie Strong, centre, and Paula Constant.

EM Forster, were he alive today, would most likely applaud this face-to-face prioritising, and the work of organisations like the Sunshine Coast Council, who through the Regional Arts Development Fund, continue to fund conferences where face-to-face connections are cherished above all else.

*I’d like to acknowledge the contribution of the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland and the Sunshine Coast Council through the Regional Arts Development Fund.

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