MIT Press executive editor Bob Prior congratulates Pitchfest winner Stephanie Feuer. Courtesy of Boston Book Festival.

Stephanie Feuer wins 2018 MIT Press Pitchfest at the Boston Book Festival

Editors receive hundreds of inquires each year. What makes one book project stand out from the rest? How do they decide what to publish? On October 13, 2018, the MIT Press invited the public to be part of the publishing process as we launched our first Pitchfest competition at the Boston Book Festival.

Seven finalists—chosen from a pool of over 80 submissions—presented their best science or technology book idea before a panel of judges and a live audience. The judging panel included Harvard Book Store head buyer Rachel Cass; MIT Press acquiring editors Beth Clevenger and Jermey Matthews; professor and MIT Press editorial board chair David Kaiser; and Knight Science Journalism associate director Ashley Smart. Bob Prior, Executive Editor at the MIT Press, served as the event moderator. 

Author Stephanie Feuer was selected as the event winner. Her project, a forthcoming book on scent and human sensibility, blends extensive research in anosmia with a personal inquiry into the connection between smell and memory, seen through the lens of a writer recovering her sense of smell. As the winner, Stephanie will be given the opportunity to workshop a full-fledged book proposal with an MIT Press editor, get advice on how to navigate the publishing world, and receive a $1,000 cash prize.

For Feuer, one benefit of participating in an event like Pitchfest is the direct access it offers to a panel of editors and a savvy bookseller. “Not every writer has an agent bidding and advocating for them, so events like Pitchfest are a significant opportunity for writers and scientists who are non-traditional because of their own background, their writing, or their research,” explains Feuer. “The process of creating the pitch video and synopsis can be beneficial for any writer. For the winner, the opportunity to work with the MIT Press on book development is amazing and the $1000 will help with research costs. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.”

Now in its tenth year, the Boston Book Festival celebrates the power of words to stimulate, agitate, unite, delight, and inspire by holding year-round events culminating in an annual, free Festival that promotes a culture of reading and ideas and enhances the vibrancy of our city. The MIT Press was proud to be a 2018 Programming Sponsor of the Festival.

Read more about Feuer’s book project and her experience with Pitchfest in this interview and check back soon for information about future Pitchfest events.

Interview with Stephanie Feuer, winner of the 2018 MIT Press Pitchfest

Stephanie Feuer is the winner of the 2018 MIT Press Pitchfest competition, held at the Boston Book Festival. Seven aspiring authors were invited to present their proposals for new science books to a panel of expert judges and before a live audience. As winner of the competition, Stephanie receives a $1,000 cash prize and the opportunity to workshop her project with an MIT Press editor.

Stephanie is no stranger to publishing. She is the author of a young adult novel, Drawing Amanda (HipsoMedia, 2014) and has worked in media, marketing, and public relations. For almost a decade she worked at the New York Times, where she created and ran the loyalty programs and special events for readers, launched new sections, and marketed books and photography by Times journalists. She has also worked in marketing and public relations at two New York radio stations, WQXR and WQEW, and for Scholastic Inc., and BusinessWeek magazine.

She started her career as a radio disc jockey and reporter in the Boston area, where she also edited the music and arts monthly Preview and freelanced for the Real Paper, Sojourner, and the Boston Herald. Most recently, she has managed thought leadership and communications for healthcare startups and providers. Her essays and articles have been published in a host of outlets, including the New York Times, Slate, the Forward, and Organic Life

Stephanie sat down with us to describe her project and the experience of participating in Pitchfest.

The book project you submitted to Pitchfest is on the topic of scent and human sensibility—a subject most of us are intimately familiar with, yet, as you point out, remains relatively opaque. Can you describe what fascinates you about this topic?

Smell is our most underappreciated and mysterious sense. You’ve probably had the experience of catching a whiff of something—maybe pumpkin pie, sea air, or your mother’s perfume, and having the smell trigger a childhood memory. When Marcel Proust dipped a madeleine in tea, the flood of memories was so intense he wrote Swann’s Way.

Smell memories are so strong because, unlike our other senses, smell messages are delivered directly to the hippocampus and the amygdala—the areas that govern mood and emotion. And we don’t know why. We also don’t know why the olfactory bulb contains stem cells—but a pioneering researcher in Poland enabled a paralyzed man to walk again by transplanting olfactory cells to the site of his injury. We do know that scent influences the mates we chose, the emotions we feel, it helps Alzheimer’s patients reclaim their identity, and scent can even lessen symptoms of autism and PTSD. 

In your pitch, you explained how your project stems from personal experience. How do you anticipate incorporating both your story and research in your book?

I became interested in the relationship between smell, memory and cognition when I lost my sense of smell due to a virus a year and a half ago. Compared to information on hearing loss or visual challenges, the information available about and awareness of anosmia (smell loss), even among medical professionals, is extremely limited. 

I see this book as transdisciplinary, weaving neurobiology, cognitive science, and cultural anthropology with stories from other people with olfactory challenges, and the narrative of my own journey of losing my sense of smell. I’ve read hundreds of academic papers, dozens and dozens of books on smell, fragrance and scent, sensory perception, neurobiology and cognitive science, and participate in several social media groups on smell loss. I’ve also kept notes about my own experience, as I’ve reverse-engineered the Proust effect by using potent memories and scented oils to reactivate my sense of smell.

How did you hear about Pitchfest?

I saw the Pitchfest call for entries on social media. 

What does a competition like Pitchfest offer to authors?

I love that the MIT Press Pitchfest offers authors direct access to a panel of editors and a super savvy bookseller! That’s important not only for the feedback, but, notably, because the traditional publishing business is predicated on the agent as middleperson between writer and publisher. Agents, of course, are awesome for their market smarts, editor relationships and business insights. But not every writer has an agent bidding and advocating for them. The Pitchfest offers open communication between writer and publisher—that’s a significant opportunity for writers and scientists who are non-traditional because of their own background, their writing or their research. That access is huge. And even though there is only one winner (that’s me, yay!), the process of creating the pitch video and synopsis can be beneficial for any writer.

What was it like to be one of the participants the day of Pitchfest?

I was thrilled for the opportunity, but nervous, especially, since I knew I would be competing with others with outstanding academic credentials (one of the finalists was a post-doctoral fellow in astrophysics at Harvard). I tried to keep my focus on my strengths instead: the need for more information for anosmiacs, how underappreciated our sense of smell is, how olfaction connects to our emotions and memory, and the strength of my writing.

And, of course, your project connected with the judges, as a project that will expand our understanding of scientific and medical research on anosmia and highlight the challenges of anosmiacs, through your personal story. What are the next steps for your book project?

I will be meeting with Bob Prior, executive editor at the MIT Press. I’m so looking forward to working with him on the development of a book proposal. Once I’ve settled on an outline, I’ll write a few sample chapters. Once the book is accepted by a publisher, I’ll dive into extensive, targeted research and the writing.

And, of course, the final question. Would you recommend participating in this type of program to other authors?

Absolutely yes. My journey is just beginning. I’m incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to consult with Bob Prior on the development of my book and can’t wait to see where it takes me.