I bought the dress. I rehearsed the single-spaced half-page pitch in my kitchen with an oven timer. I took a train to New York and walked downtown through luxuriant sunlight to Hebrew Union College where a lot of anxious-looking souls sat in a row waiting for the chapel doors to open. We’d be sitting on our tuchuses for the next three hours, pitching our books to representatives of Jewish Community Centers from across the country.
In order to make my presence possible, The Head and the Hand reached out to supporters to pay the fee and send a hundred copies of Waveland to the Jewish Book Council by the April deadline. It was a huge investment for a small press, and I carried that weight with me to New York.
I could go on for some time about the experience: the fixed pews and the Torahs behind a smoked glass ark, the empty water-jug marked “Authors”, the plastic cups containing a half-inch of wine at the pitch after-party, but I’ll boil it down to this: it was absolutely worth the trouble. Here’s why.
1. I met a lot of fascinating writers.
As I picked up my author badge with the TUES in hot pink, I ran into Leah Lax, a former Hassid who now lives with her wife in in Houston. Then, I sat down next to Karen Gooen, author of the Mah Jongg guide, Searching for Bubbe Fischer. I said the obvious: “I love your title.”
She asked, “Do you play Mah Jongg?”
I said, “I can’t even spell it.” She was very understanding.
The hot-pink badges matched a hot-pink booklet with 230 titles, and fifty-some authors were on that afternoon. When we were shepherded into the chapel, we were told to look for seats where the booklets were turned to our pages. We would pitch in alphabetical order, and as a Zelitch, I was last.
For the next three hours, I sat next to Sarah Wildman (Paper Love: a family history) and in schmoozing distance from fellow Pennsylvanian Kim Van Alkemade (Orphan Number Eight, historical fiction about the New York in the ‘20s), and just behind two Shapiros: B.A. (The Muralist, a novel about abstract expressionists and Eleanor Roosevelt) and Eddie (Nothing Like a Dame: Conversations with Great Women of Musical Theater).
In theory, an event like this could be cut-throat. After all, only some of us will get invitations from those JCCs. But maybe it was fox-hole solidarity, or maybe I just ran into the nice writers, but the assumption was: we’re all in this together. I got to talk to these people about their work, and after we were released from our fixed seats, I was able to connect to historians, biographers, essayists from all over the country.
Too often, novelists hang out with other novelists, academic writers read papers at conferences, and cookbook authors blog. This networking event created space for us to mingle and find common ground.
2.The pitches leveled the playing field.
When I looked through the JBC network booklet, I found Alice Hoffman, Joe Klein and (heaven help us) Alan Dershowitz mixed alphabetically into the 230 writers from a variety of presses—some self-published—each with a book cover, description, a postage-stamp sized photograph, and brief bio.
Each of these writers— published by Knopf, Schocken, Fig Tree, McWitty, or The Head and the Hand—got his or her two minutes. The JBC Mistress of Ceremonies and Pitch Wrangler—Andrea Miller—held up lime-green cards: One Minute. 30 Seconds. 10 Seconds. Wrap it up. And who cares if you won a Pulitzer? You wrap it up.
Under these circumstances, what makes an author stand out from the crowd? It helps to be funny. At least a third of the books were Holocaust-related, and more than half of those Holocaust writers managed to tell jokes. Of course, there are other ways to wake up the audience. A cookbook author sang.
It also helps to be male. There weren’t many men presenting, and maybe it was my imagination, but after a series of sopranos, the audience seemed grateful for a bass or baratone. Those men also got to occasionally break the dress-for-success dress-code. Eddie Shapiro apologized for wearing the same Hawaiian shirt he’d worn when he’d pitched the hard-back edition of his musical theater book the previous year.
In retrospect, I should have worn a Hawaiian shirt. Or maybe I should have brought my guitar. Or grown a beard. As pitch followed pitch, and the line moved to my row, I tried to take in everything I learned but at the same time knew that now was not the time to stray from the two minutes I’d painstakingly rehearsed.
3. I figured out how to tell Waveland’s story.
So there I was at the podium—making a lame joke about being last—and I just started: “How many of you have seen the movie Selma?” And off I went— and that’s when I realized my hands were shaking.
As Joyce Lit, my pitch-coach, can attest, it took a long time to get past that first line. I had to understand what my audience knows about the Freedom Movement, particularly the disproportionate role of Jews. Then, I had to proceed from that foundation and consider how my book went further. .
I had to explain that the title of my book came from Waveland, Mississippi, a a real place, just like Selma, a resort town on the Gulf coast where people gathered after Freedom Summer to talk about the future of the movement. Some of the people at Waveland were white and Jewish. Some were black and suspicious of white activists. Yet somehow, back then, these people could sit together on a Waveland dock and really talk—comfortably and fearlessly– about that future. Why does this seem impossible today?
Two minutes. When I reached that Waveland dock, I got the “30 seconds” card. When I reached “It’s not enough to know we marched with King in Selma”, and the current Civil Rights revival, it was “Wrap it up.” And then, the session ended.
I have no sense of how it went. A few people approached me and said I did a good job, but I said as much to any number of authors I barely heard out of the aforementioned fox-hole solidarity. Few representatives of JCCs seemed to be in the basement for the after-party, though I met some lovely folks from Houston, Atlanta, Rochester, and Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I drank my half-inch of wine out of one pre-poured plastic glass and took another.
In the next few months, the JCCs send invitations, and I’ll see if I get to take Waveland on the road, but now I know: My pitch, my brand, my story is: we’ve got to meet strangers face to face, even when its scarey.