The New York Pitch: A Different Kind of Writing Conference
The New York Pitch Conference (NYP) focuses on one thing: the pitch that sells a novel to an agent. It’s more of a workshop than a conference. There are no breakout sessions about craft, editing, or book marketing. The NYP is all about the pitch. If you’re in the right mindset, the event could be a valuable step in your writing journey. After four days in the “hot seat,” writers learn to be concise, persuasive, and engaging in a pitch.
I recommend attending the conference if you’re open-minded about your work and, most importantly, willing to change it. The four-day event is an emotional rollercoaster. Be prepared for honest feedback. Comments about your novel will not be sugarcoated. You may be asked to add characters, ditch a point-of-view, or even switch genres. (Note: Memoirs aren’t selling right now, so consider switching to a novel based upon true events.) You’ll be peppered with questions. Don’t defend. Rather, listen to ideas from those in the industry. If you can’t summarize your book into one or two sentences before you arrive, don’t worry. You’ll be well-versed at it after four days of the conference.
The conference is not a cushy event at a fancy New York hotel. Rather, it takesplace in a busy, artsy building where auditions and rehearsals are held for musicals and shows. You’ll mingle with tiny ballerinas, actors of all ages, and fantastic singers. There’s no predicting who will be on the elevator or in the hallways. The conference rooms are basic. Wooden floors with folding chairs that you’ll set up on your own. It’s BYO coffee, water, and snacks. Be prepared for eight-hour days of pitching, which includes an hour and a half “lunch” where you’ll revise your pitch rather than eat. Bring a flash drive and be ready to dash to a location where you can print out documents quickly.
I stayed at The New Yorker, which was only two blocks from the conference.The hotel was perfect. Only a short walk from the event, it was secure, clean, and quiet, with a small-but-efficient business center where I could print anything on demand. Highly recommended!
From my experience, the takeaways of the event are being open-minded about change; creating a concise pitch (that means an author must be brilliant at summary); and getting a glimpse at the publishing-industry machinations involved in selling a novel.
Willingness to Change
Writing is personal. Characters, setting, and conflict are choices an author makes to create a story. However, what if it that story isn’t one that will sell in the current marketplace? If an author has chosen the path of writing commercial fiction, is he or she willing to make the changes necessary to be marketable in a certain category? (And speaking of categories, there are editors at publishing houses who are brilliant at categorizing novels. They know immediately where a novel should be placed within a bookstore. And if your novel doesn’t fit in one of those categories, be ready to change it to fit in one.)
I’m not saying change is easy. Or always the right thing to do. My suggestion is to listen to what the editors and agents say rather than defend. Feedback is not always positive, and in an intense environment such as New York, it can be brutal. After the first two days of the conference, most of us had shell-shocked looks on our faces. Two days of pitching led to conflicting feedback from different editors. What one person said to strip from a pitch was what another person was looking for. “Welcome to the rollercoaster that is the New York Pitch,” an editor said at the start of the third day.
Yes, it was frustrating. However, by listening to feedback rather than defending, we were understanding our own work. We were learning to summarize key aspects of our novels, and we were discovering what needed to be changed. Some writers switched genres. One writer changed the motivation of his protagonist. Another streamlined her concept. Via the practice of pitch, feedback, and revision, we were discovering the phrases and themes that defined our work. It’s one thing to write a book, it’s another to define it for the marketplace. By understanding our novels, we could summarize them effectively. Sometimes, writers made the difficult decision to change major parts of their work to sell it in the current market.
Again, I’m not saying it’s easy. Nor is it always the right decision. However, at this conference, which is dedicated to commercial fiction, understanding what sells in the marketplace is the purpose of the event.
Perfecting the Pitch
Writing a three paragraph description about a three-hundred page novel sounds impossible. However, after four eight-hour days of writing and revising, every writer in my group ended up with a pitch that was concise, persuasive, and engaging. We were pushed to strip down to the basics, to find the plot skeleton, and then once that was identified we could add our voices to describe how the work was unique. Paula, our group leader, was an expert at pitching a book in one or two sentences. She instinctively could find the sweet spot between description and persuasion.
At the beginning, I had an adequate grasp of my work. But the comments from the group leader, the editors, and the other writers improved my perception of what I was writing. The method of feedback is not for the faint of heart: We sat in a half-circle, reading our own pitches and then listening to others’ sessions. We heard everybody’s pitches, including both the positive and negative feedback they received. It was a grind but it provided us a chance to think critically. It was helpful to hear what an editor or agent said in response to a particular pitch, and it provided a glimpse into the internal machinations of the New York publishing world.
Behind the Scenes at a New York Publisher
Every writer should know his or her audience. At the NYP, our audience was a New York-based agent or editor. Agents and editors represent an author’s work to an audience of publishing-industry insiders. Therefore, it’s wise to understand that publishing houses live and breathe issues such as social trends, shelf categorization, politics, bookstore-market uncertainty, and genre popularity. Writers should take note of these matters. The person (an agent or editor) to whom a writer pitches must pitch, too. That person will face an audience of book sales reps, number-crunchers, and internal marketers. To facilitate the job of an agent or editor, an author should make his or her work pitchable; that is, provide persuasive and relevant ideas that will assist in selling a novel.
The NYP is an eye-opener about what happens at a publisher. This insight is an additional benefit of attending the event. A frustrating thing about the book industry is that is can appear to chase its tail. In other words, it sometimes chases trends rather than sets them. The NYP helps understand why that happens.
The NYP takes place several times per year. The first step is to submit credentials and a writing sample. Upon acceptance—not everyone is accepted—attendees are given assignments to complete. I recommend studying these assignments as they help with identifying ideas, which results in more tightly focused pitches. Also, check out the FAQs on the website, and peruse the many links. There’s an abundance of information about the conference, plus industry tidbits. The cost of the NYP is reasonable for four full days of feedback, plus exposure to agents and editors. It’s one thing to write query letters and send them via email; it’s another to face someone across the table and pitch. There’s nothing like the intensity of face-to-face salesmanship. It’s a test of character to sit in the hot seat for four days, pitching to a stranger while others listen. Given the tremendous improvement in everyone’s pitches, the conference was unique and successful.
I’m happy to answer questions about the conference. Please submit questions via Valerie’s contact page and I’ll answer them next month.