How the Literary World Reinvented the Book Festival in Real Time

The Directors of Five Book Festivals Get Real About This New Virtual World

As the literary world moved online in 2020, a central question for many organizations was how to manage the annual festivals that gather thousands of readers from around the world. Here, the directors of five festivals—Sara Ortiz of the Believer Festival, Lissette Mendez of the Miami Book Fair, Amanda Bullock of the Portland Book Festival, Steph Opitz of The Loft’s Wordplay, and Conor Moran of the Wisconsin Book Festival—discuss how their teams made it work.

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Where are all of you right now?

Sara Ortiz, The Believer Festival: Since early March, I’ve seldom left my house in East Las Vegas. While I have an “office space” and desk at home, I usually sit on my kitchen stool at the orange laminate countertop that has become my office. I sit there, or the couch.

Lissette Mendez, Miami Book Fair: I have been working from home since March. I moved around my house a lot—I don’t have an office space—but I’ve settled on this Ikea bent-wood chair, it’s their classic that bounces, and the laptop goes on my lap. I use these box-set of record albums as lap desks. I have this weird collection of old records that are not very good or anything, but they belonged to my grandmother’s cousin and somehow I ended up with them in the wire rack she kept them in. They are from the 60s—there’s a Christmas compilation and one called Latin Fiesta. For years I wanted to get rid of them and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. And now they’ve come in super handy.

Amanda Bullock, Portland Book Festival: I’m in my home in Southeast Portland, in my “shared office.” My partner is a writer so typically when I am going to the office-office, when we went places, it’s usually his office; but I’ve taken it over and he’s been mostly displaced to the kitchen table. So it’s maybe not so much shared anymore. I’m at a standing desk, though I sit for video meetings to… shake things up.

Steph Opitz, The Loft’s Wordplay: At my home in Minneapolis. I’m either in my office, laying on the floor next to my infant answering emails from my phone, on my couch, hiding in my car in the driveway with my laptop on my lap. Basically, if I’m working, depending on the importance of the task I’m doing, I’m trying to be wherever my toddler is not.

“The festival is an unorthodox, majestic, roving festival that takes place in the desert, and it was challenging to visualize a virtual festival.”

Conor Moran, Wisconsin Book Festival: I’m at my house in Madison working from the couch in my living room. For the first five years that I directed the Festival, I was an independent contractor and worked from this exact spot. For the past two years, I’ve been working at Madison Public Library, but the moment we had to quarantine, all of the old habits came back.

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How has your festival changed or adapted this year?

Steph Opitz: Wordplay was, I think, the first literary festival to go fully virtual. We announced in March that we were taking it online, and went from a one day festival (May 9th) to a five week festival (mid April–May 9). My colleagues and I felt like having everything on one day might be a little intense in terms of the viewers staring at a screen and from a tech perspective, so we ended up doing about 8–10 events a week. Given the timing and speediness of our pivot, we were navigating along with our authors on everything from how to do a Zoom call to the sudden shift in schedules (working from home, kids around, etc.).

Sara Ortiz: Drastically. The main way The Believer Festival changed is that it’s not happening. The festival is an unorthodox, majestic, roving festival that takes place in the desert, and it was challenging to visualize a virtual festival (we’d be happy with). Rather than producing a virtual festival, we pivoted our programming into interactive experiences and imaginative directions for our audiences. We’ve done this through various distinct gatherings: For over 24 weeks, The Believer’s art director Kristen Radtke has stewarded our weekly comics workshops featuring various illustrators and hundreds of weekly participants; for 14 weeks, we hosted Severance Radio, an on-air book club in which listeners would hear a live broadcast of Severance by Ling Ma; and most recently, we launched Black Mountain Radio, an artist-driven and community-focused audio project.

Lissette Mendez: We decided to create a Miami Book Fair website that could work a bit like a Netflix or Hulu platform—the conversations and interviews and all the other programs would be on demand. We would also schedule lives—so there’s a variety of types of interactions. But we wanted to take as much advantage of the tech as possible—as time and resources allowed. We wanted to solve multiple problems when going online. Not just the pandemic-related problem of no in-person events. I have a demanding job, two kids and a number of obligations to my extended family, so appointment television hasn’t worked for me for years. I wanted to make sure our  programs had the flexibility to fit into any schedule, any set of life responsibilities. Experiencing entertainment at home is not the same as in person—even if the entertainment is of the same category. I wanted for people to experience something that lent itself to the setting in which it would be experienced and so we made it easy for people to save a watchlist that they could make one day and access easily without having to go back to looking for something—I often watch book events while I’m cooking dinner. And also the programming—there’s many more one-on-ones than we would have had at the Fair because people watching on small screens—there’s an intimacy to that and we wanted the programming to reflect that.

Photo via Steph Opitz/Wordplay Photo via Steph Opitz/Wordplay

Amanda Bullock: Portland Book Festival went virtual . . . or is about to go virtual (the festival is November 5-21 this year). We are usually one day and host about a hundred authors. I was reluctant to shrink the size of the lineup, and reluctant to run digital events simultaneously—in person, something’s full, you go check something else out but online, space is often limitless—so we stretched the event over a little more than two weeks to accommodate a hundred authors, which is over fifty events, typically four a day. There were some big drawbacks we saw to the streaming platforms (security, tech support, etc.) available so we are working with a local production company to build a custom streaming site at PDXBookFest.org. Most of our events—the only exception is really the picture book events, and a student reading that has many participants, which will be pre-recorded to better serve those audiences—will be completely live-streamed. I wanted to keep some sort of pressure to be there, in the “room,” and for me one of the best parts about virtual events is seeing who else is “there” in the chat. When it goes well, it feels a little like going to a reading and seeing a friend in the crowd, only now your friend might be in a different time zone.

Conor Moran: In addition to our fall celebration (60 events over four days), the Wisconsin Book Festival hosts about 40 stand-alone events throughout the year, so we were hosting virtual events about two and a half weeks after we left the office. Initially we were really just caught up in the rescheduling of authors we’d booked for the spring, which gave way pretty quickly to recognizing that maybe there were opportunities with authors who might not otherwise have been available. This actually led to some fantastic collaborative events with other Festivals, including our upcoming event with the Portland Book Festival, The Believer Festival, and The Loft’s Wordplay to host Claudia Rankine in November.

We were able to take part in Wordplay when Steph was blazing the trail in digital events, and work with Festivals across the country to co-present authors and panels that expanded our audience outside our event rooms here in Madison. For our fall celebration, I basically got a Master Class in home digital event production. We upgraded the production value from our spring events by integrating an online broadcasting software into our production, adding a pre-event slideshow, and increased the branding of our events.

“We have taken a path of improvisation and experimentation.”

To Amanda’s point, we’ve really seen the friends in a different time zone (or on a different continent) effect. In previous years, our audience for standalone events was almost entirely local to the region. We’d see tourism for the fall celebration, but not a lot of outside draw the rest of the year. This year, we had statewide, national, and international viewers for every event.

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How has your festival stayed the same? What is lost this year, what could you NOT translate online or to adapted programming?

Steph Opitz: We featured 100 authors with new books in curated conversation, which is what we aim to do each year. We lost the ability to do some really special (and in some cases irreverent) in-person events that we couldn’t wrap our heads around adapting in execution or spirit online, like a bird watching expedition with Jeff VanderMeer and a flip-cup tournament Danez Smith and I were planning.

Sara Ortiz: We have taken a path of improvisation and experimentation. For instance, The Kristen Arnett Show was pure silliness mixed with high lit, a welcome respite at the beginning of the quarantine lock-down; The Believer comics workshops put strangers from all over the world on the digital stage; and Black Mountain Radio is about making common space through sound. Our programs continue to offer participants (drawers, listeners, readers) a chance to hear stories, learn from artists, and engage in an exchange of ideas—all while discovering established and emerging voices. As for what is lost: it’s the human connection. It’s the community’s in-person engagement with the authors and artists. It’s standing in line with a book or two in hand, waiting to ask an author the question/comment that one holds onto for that private exchange. It’s those shared a-ha moments with the people sitting next to each other. Also, virtual applause is not the same.

Lissette Mendez: We wanted to keep true to the spirit of Miami Book Fair so we wanted to keep the programs that our audiences appreciate. So we kept our children’s activity areas and our Florida-centric, interdisciplinary programs and our Street Fair marketplace (minus the Street Fair.) It’s the same programming team as always so there’s that. And we wanted there to be easy access to our partner bookshop Books & Books  for book purchases—just like at the Fair where they are in every building right outside the venues—we have made links to the store from every event and author bios. We really wanted to be Miami Book Fair—online, but recognizably us.

Re: what is lost: Miami Book Fair is very deliberately part of a community college that is colloquially referred to as Democracy’s College, because of it’s 50+ year commitment to equal access—so for me and the founders and staff what we are losing out on is that community rootedness—Miami Book Fair can be something great online—we hope (insert nervous laughter here) but it is a different thing online than in person. There’s something very special about setting up at a community college campus in the middle of the downtown and seeing tens of thousands of people from South Florida streaming through and actively participating in this literary culture that at times throughout  history has been seen as meant for others—White, formally educated at elite schools, wealthy, male, etc. There’s nothing rarefied about what we do. Nothing opaque.

Our goal is to make everyone feel comfortable enough to come and check it out and see how awesome books and reading is, how much they can enhance our lives, and hopefully we make everyone feel welcome. That’s how I experienced the Fair as a teenager from a poor, immigrant, single-parent family with no particularly special educational experiences, and some downright awful ones… and it really made such an impact on my life that finding myself in the position to bring the magic of books and the Book Fair to as many people as possible I’ve made it my life’s work.

Amanda Bullock: For me, having to rethink the event caused some existential questions. What is the Portland Book Festival? What is a book festival? I don’t know if I have the answers even now, but we did want to keep some Portland identity to the event. I hope we are known for stellar curation—a place where you can see literary superstars but also catch exciting new talent—and a diverse lineup, and I think we are offering that again this year. In terms of what is a book festival, I think one of the defining aspects is the density of programming, which allows for discovery, so we didn’t want to lose that either.

Lissette Mendez: I feel the same as Amanda. I’ve had to think about it all. And continue to think about it. So yeah. I think I am working through all of those questions and taking refuge in what drew me to this work in the first place—wanting to be a bridge for authors and their books to readers everywhere. And especially in ways that reach people who might not always feel like they belong in that space.

Photo via Conor Moran/Wisconsin Book Fest Photo via Conor Moran/Wisconsin Book Fest

Amanda Bullock: I love that, Lisette. One of the best things about online events is definitely that the doors have been thrown open much wider, I agree.

Conor Moran: This year there were many conversations about capacity and trying to gauge audience interest without knowing what would be happening in the world months in the future. We decided to offer fewer events over the one weekend and add more standalones in the fall. We stayed true to the type of lineup we typically have: many different types of people on many different topics and we saw that the audience really was interested. Ultimately, the biggest loss was what I often refer to “the festival atmosphere.” We keep the footprint of the Wisconsin Book Festival pretty small. No venues that you can’t walk to in the breaks between events. Because of that a typical year sees people coming downtown for the day, staying for lunch or dinner, walking around the venue, perusing books, finding out about an author or an event they hadn’t known about, or even just staying in the same seat all day long.

We had many people who attended multiple events, but there just weren’t the same moments of serendipity or immersion that we tend to see. Fewer people making new friends who they discover have similar interests and more people inviting their friends to things (which isn’t a bad trade off at all). There’s an essential something that is missing without a signing line as well. Just that moment where people get to meet an author they admire and tell them a bit about what their work has meant. We see some of it in the chat at events, but it’s a little harder to capture.

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What virtual/digital/online/remote adaptations do you think might carry forward once we are able to gather in person again?
 

Steph Opitz: Digital question asking. I love the ability to vet questions, prevent “this is more of a comment than a question” types, and have the audience vote on which questions they most want to hear the answer to. It’s really raised the bar for the audience Q&A.

Sara Ortiz: Yes, Steph, we too are big fans of vetting questions! When we made the decision to pivot away from a virtual festival, we felt committed to offering programs over radio, because radio is a grand equalizer. Not to mention, Zoom burnout is very real. A listener doesn’t need a wi-fi connection; and a listener can tune from the car. A listener doesn’t need a babysitter to enjoy the program. A listener doesn’t need transportation to arrive at a venue. I’m interested in radio as a democratic medium, especially when there is so much inequity in this world. By the nature of radio, most can listen with few barriers of entry. Our audience grows at least ten times over. When we get back to in-person gatherings, I hope we hold on to radio as a “venue.”

Amanda Bullock: Sara, I agree about radio and audio programming. Literary Arts already had a radio show and podcast, though we did expand it this past summer with a podcast-only interview series. It’s so accessible to so many more people. I think meeting people—whether the audience, the author, etc.—where they’re at is more important than ever right now, because you never know the full complexity of what someone might be navigating in these overlapping crises. I mean, I barely understand what I am navigating, much less what anyone else is. On a less, like, existential level I think that the video streams are great for a lot of events mainly because they do offer a space for the audience members to connect with each other, but with so many book events being conversation-based audio is a logical format for many of the things we are doing.

Lissette Mendez: my goal is to keep all of it. To become truly hybrid. Some online and some in person with streaming to online what’s happening in person. I want to see how this year goes but I want to continue exploring both formats to see how they can inform each other to fulfill our goal of more access to literary culture, and more readers for writers. More participation, more representation—that’s what guides my work.

“I just hope we survive; our festivals are all nonprofits who depend on grants and sponsorships and we were able to cover costs this year because of not having an in-person event.”

Conor Moran: Lisette, I couldn’t agree more. I think digital events are very fruitful ground to bring author events directly to people wherever they are. I don’t see a model for in-person events in the future that doesn’t involve a streaming element. (Sara seconds this!) We’ve seen such growth in who is able to attend events regardless of when they watch. We’re seeing about 35% of the live audience watching the events in the week after as replays, so it’s clearly working for people who might have to deal with putting kids to bed or alternative work schedules or bad weather and won’t want to leave the house some nights. I think that people who put on author events will also need to think deeply about how this affects the author experience as well. Maybe we wait a week to post the replay to maintain the immediacy of being in the room. Maybe we only stream part of the event. Clearly I haven’t worked it out completely, but my ideal is to have a fantastic in-person event with all of the electricity and energy that a live audience provides and be able to include people who couldn’t attend.

Amanda Bullock: Honestly, right now I don’t have an answer for what will remain from these “pivots” after we… pivot back. I’m really proud of the festival we’ve built this year with the constraints and circumstances facing us, but what is lost with moving to virtual in terms of author/book events is so much more than what we’re gaining. And I think that authors, especially not-super-famous authors, are losing the most: book sales are really difficult in this environment (please buy books from the bookstores hosting the events you are attending (Steph enthusiastically chiming in to second this) (Conor too!)), and authors are missing the opportunity to connect with their readers and also, critically, with each other. As much as we try to be excellent hosts and keep things grounded in Portland, there is no real place in this digital environment and that makes it really, really difficult to feel connected. I would say I do think that virtual events have prompted a lot of places to think more carefully about how to be more accessible to more people, and I hope that we all continue to think about how to eliminate barriers to access.

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How do you feel about the sustainability of digital gatherings and programs?

Lissette Mendez: I feel that the audiences and the interest is there. I don’t think it’s either or. I just hope we survive; our festivals are all nonprofits who depend on grants and sponsorships and we were able to cover costs this year because of not having an in-person event. Another reason we built a website that will be relatively easy to keep up. But in general what will the economy look like in years to come? Will we be able to support our organizations? That’s what I think about now. How will literary culture survive a year of bookstore closures (COVID and non-COVID) and weak fundraising?

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about the craziness!

Amanda Bullock: I hope that there are people who have attended things they otherwise might not because it has been so easy to access this year, and that they are so excited about literature now that when we can be in person again, they come.

And again: BUY BOOKS. From independent bookstores hosting or supporting these events. While here are many things that make a successful, memorable event, the authors, publishers, and bookstores need you to buy books, if you can.

Sara Ortiz: I’m surprised—and not surprised—by the programmer’s and director’s endurance. Though, I’m even more stunned and impressed by the audience’s stamina to engage digitally. We’re nearing eight months of this new normal, and my original guess was that the landscape would change a great deal after six months. I’m no optimist, but I’m hopeful about the future of literary programs. Though, if this year has taught us anything, it’s that good things can be taken away from us in a snap.

Photo via Sara Ortiz/Believer Fest Photo via Sara Ortiz/Believer Fest

Steph Opitz: I’m still deciding, and watching, and learning. There have been events I have attended with surprisingly tremendous audiences of very engaged attendees, that I can’t really picture being able to reproduce regionally. But there are also events that are incredibly special and the audience size doesn’t represent that. I worry that there might be a really celebrity-driven (literary celeb or otherwise) lean to the success of an online event and what that will do to the whole economy of literary events.

Amanda Bullock: I share your nervousness about the balance, Steph. It’s hard enough for the 99% of authors who are not celebrities already, and this is making that imbalance more pronounced, I think. You’re right about the audience size not defining some of the “best” events, the most memorable about connection. Sometimes being a part of a large audience is part of that, but often it’s not. The flatness of online makes that really difficult.

Conor Moran: Can I just agree with my colleagues here? Yes, all of the things they said. Yes. When I think about the longevity of digital events, I think we’re only going to hit an inflection point when people can begin to do things again in a way that feels comfortable. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that even once in person events resume there will be people who don’t feel ready to gather in person. I think that’s when we’ll learn about the staying power of virtual events.

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How is your festival and/or organization responding to and engaging with the upheaval of the year, from the election to protest movements to the pandemic, if at all?
 

Sara Ortiz: Believer editors Neila Orr and Ismail Muhammad are shepherding Black Talk Black Feeling, a series of roundtables that seek to connect this critical moment and contribute to a continuum of Black literary responses to issues of urgent importance. In a couple weeks, BMI is hosting a workshop for UNLV’s MFA creative writing students led by Felicia Chavez on “How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom.” Equally exciting is that Black Mountain Radio is produced and designed by an entirely women of color team. There is always room for learning, unlearning, listening, and betterment. Most organizations, including ours, can always make room for voices and perspectives that challenge traditional systems. Our team is working as a staff through monthly equity and inclusion meetings—though, I should note that we began those discussions over a year ago before the protest movements of the summer.

Amanda Bullock: Yeah, it’s certainly been quite the year in Portland—at a recent virtual event Mitchell S. Jackson mentioned we’ve probably never been in the national news more. With the Portland Book Festival specifically (Literary Arts houses several other programs as well), we knew for two years that this year’s festival was going to be the Saturday after the election, and I thought that was going to be our biggest challenge in 2020. It’s still a challenge, especially because we don’t truly know when the election will actually end . . . There are a number of events within the festival designed to create space to respond to the election; although I believe all art is political (whether it intends to be or not) and it will come up pretty much everywhere, we did want to structure some specific conversation around it, no matter what happens. Some of those events are direct collaborations with the other folks “here”: We’re working with Sara and The Believer to host Black Talk, Black Feeling during the festival, and we’re working with BMI, Loft, and Wisconsin to host Claudia Rankine for her new book, Just Us, which is explicitly engaged with race and politics in America. And we’re co-presenting two events with Miami Book Fair!

Steph Opitz: I asked Loft’s ED Britt Udesen to respond: The Loft has completely shifted the way that we present our programs, with not only a necessary move to becoming virtual, but to making programs free and accessible. This has encouraged us to create new revenue streams and alter our funding plan, our work plan, and our vision for how we serve our community. We’ve also dug even deeper into the work of becoming an actively ant-racist organization. It’s a long process but one we’re putting at the center of our decisions. The world today hasn’t so much changed the Loft but forced us to become even more intentional about who we aspire to be and to be more direct about our desire to put literature at the center of civic life. 

Lissette Mendez: Miami Book Fair has a long history of making space for BIPOC writers and readers and those from other traditionally underrepresented communities in the wider literary community. Which is why I always felt comfortable there—even back in the late eighties when I started attending. We’ve continued to double down on that and as we’ve grown we’ve done our best to include all of our community—we have programs in Haitian Creole that highlight Haitian literature, because that is one of our communities; and we co-present and co-founded the Little Haiti Book Festival. We also have a relatively large number of programs in Spanish with authors from Latin America and Spain.

We’re not perfect and I definitely don’t pat myself on the back—we have to do more, continue doing more. We want everyone to feel included. That’s our goal. And we work on it every year. The majority of our staff are POC who are sensitive to this issue, and even those who aren’t are committed to equal access for all. Many years ago (I’ve been at the Fair for 16 years in various positions)  I gave a short presentation at a gathering and I said MBF had always been a social justice project and I got kind of blank looks… but that was a long-time ago and I think those people would hopefully understand that today. We’re not perfect but always working toward the goals of access and inclusion.

Conor Moran: By inviting authors who represent different viewpoints and backgrounds, we are able to present a wider swath of experiences and ideas to a much more representative audience than people might assume for a literary event in a Midwestern college town. We work each year to be responsive to not only what is being published, but what is being discussed in our newspapers, our offices, our classrooms. This year, decisions on how to program for the national and global nature of the audience took many forms.

We hosted a year-long series on elections and voting rights with our bookselling partners at A Room of One’s Own Bookstore. We specifically choose events about race, white supremacy, gender expression, and climate change for the fall celebration in order to bring Wisconsin readers into these national conversations. We’ve been working with long-term partners like the Madison College Office of Equity and Inclusion to put together multiple events promoting anti-racism, culminating in an event with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi the day after the election. We’ve only had one event where the express topic was the pandemic, but COVID has found its way into every event in one way or another.

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Sara Ortiz is the program and festival director of The Believer magazine and Black Mountain Institute. Daughter to Salvadoran immigrants, Ortiz strives to cultivate cultural and creative programming that offers a platform to amplify underrepresented voices. She has curated events and marketed books for literary institutions, such as McNally Jackson Books, Scholastic Inc., Penguin Random House, and Disney Publishing Worldwide.

Amanda Bullock joined Literary Arts in 2015 to relaunch the Portland Book Festival. As director of public programs, she also produces Portland Arts & Lectures and special events. Prior to joining Literary Arts, she was the director of public programming at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, a nonprofit social enterprise in downtown New York City, where she curated, publicized, and produced 200+ events annually. She is the co-founder of the Moby-Dick Marathon NYC, and has worked in book production at Random House and as a bookseller. She’s always happy to recommend a book or talk about what you’re reading.

Lissette Mendez is Miami Book Fair‘s programs director. Born in Cuba, she arrived in the U.S. as a refugee in 1980, and has lived in Miami Beach since. Prior to joining the Fair 16 years ago, she worked as a writer and editor. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University where she studied with Campbell McGrath, Lynne Barrett, Dan Wakefield, Denise Duhamel and Maxine Kumin.

Steph Opitz is the founding director of The Loft’s Wordplay in Minneapolis and a visiting instructor at the University of Minnesota. She serves on committees for the National Book Foundation, PEN America, LitNet, and the Portland Book Festival. She has curated literary events and festivals around the country and was the books reviewer for Marie Claire magazine for six years.

Conor Moran has been directing the Wisconsin Book Festival since 2013 when Madison Public Library took over Festival operations. In this role, he has overseen the expansion of the Festival from a weekend celebration into a year-round events series. Before joining the Festival, Conor worked as a floor manager and in the events department at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington DC. Conor always wants to talk about what you’re reading, and misses the days when people gave him books as gifts.






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