In the world of Netflix, social media, and smartphones that subject us to an endless barrage of communications and distractions, a book festival that attracts tens of thousands of annual guests may seem incongruous. But the Boston Book Festival proves that a love of the literary is here to stay. Boasting a cast of presenters that ranges from Margaret Atwood to Neil Gaiman, the festival is a free celebration of books with a bustling schedule. This year’s festival resides within and around Copley Square and kicks off with a short keynote address by Atwood on Friday, Oct. 23, followed by a crowded day of sessions including book discussions, writer’s workshops, and musical performances on Saturday, Oct. 24.
The festival’s history traces back to founder Deborah Z. Porter realizing that Boston was one of the few major cities that lacked a large-scale literary celebration. Gathering support from local organizations ranging from public libraries to literary groups, the project to establish a festival quickly picked up steam. The first Boston Book Festival in 2009 drew in a crowd of 10,000 people, overflowing their allotted venue. Since then, it’s grown in scope, according to Porter. Last year, the festival attracted about 30,000 visitors.
What makes the Boston Book Festival special is a focus on diversity and accessibility through novel outreach programs like “One City One Story,” specifically designed to bring the literary to those in the city who might not otherwise consider it a part of their lives. With the support of a hardworking team of staff and volunteers, this year’s festival strives to engage even more people than ever before.
Setting it apart from many other literary festivals around the country, the Boston Book Festival has maintained free admission for all attendees (with the exception of two ticketed events this year) in a move to increase accessibility to the literary world. “It’s important to me that it’s free,” Porter says. “If we were to charge $10 per session, we wouldn’t have as many people. I want to have those people.”
The motivation of maintaining free admission is to appeal to as many people as possible. “We try to appeal to a wide cross section.” Further, to continue to achieve this goal, the festival is looking to improve its audience engagement. Fresh to their lineup is a session discussing the mechanisms by which the fantasy worlds found in “Dungeons and Dragons” and “Star Wars” have “captured our collective imaginations and turned escape into an experience of community and collaboration,” as the Boston Book Festival website declares, and a literary trivia quiz. Additionally, the festival features “craft sessions,” in which successful authors take snippets of their work and dissect the thought process behind them for their audience.
Of course, throwing a large festival in the center of Boston is not free, and the organizers turn to sponsor support and donations to keep afloat. “I want the people who can afford it to give what they can,” Porter says. “The people who are enjoying the festival can help support it.”
Norah Piehl, the festival’s deputy director, also stresses that donations are a great way to help out the organization. Donors receive gifts ranging from “swag bags” to invites to exclusive cocktail parties with the presenters as thanks for their contributions. And for those who can’t donate, there is always the option to donate time instead. ”We always, always need volunteers,” Piehl says, adding that between 250 and 300 volunteers help run the festival each year.
Without the burden of an admissions fee, the festival has steadily attracted more visitors. “You end up going into all of these places you normally wouldn’t. Small churches and places like those, that’s where everything is,” Laurence A. Ralph, an associate professor of the social sciences in Anthropology and African and African Americans Studies, says of the allure of the festival. “Places you wouldn’t normally go into because it isn’t a shop or something. And then you get people shopping on Newbury Street or something coming and seeing what’s happening and becoming engaged.”
However, the actual attendance at the festival is somewhat skewed. “In general we have a highly educated audience. Our surveys show that half our audience has been to a graduate school,” Porter says. She adds that the attendees are predominantly female.
In addition to increasing audience engagement through free admission, the Boston Book Festival began a program after the first festival in 2009 called “One City One Story” to reach out to the entire city in the weeks leading up to the festival. The phenomenon of an all city read, where a single book is selected to be read and discussed by an entire city was becoming increasingly popular in large metropolises such as Boston. Considering that the demographic they wanted to target might not be inclined to purchase or check out an entire book from a library, the idea of an all-city read was retooled to an all-city short story read, Piehl explains.
Since 2010, “One City One Story” has annually selected a short story and distributed it for free throughout the Boston area. Each year’s story can be found in booklet form in locations such as the Boston Public Library, the Harvard Book Store, and even at select Dunkin’ Donuts shops. It is also distributed en masse at various events around Boston leading up to the festival. This year, the story was given out at the Latino Family Festival, the Cambridge Carnival, the Boston Local Food Festival, and many more. A total of 30,000 copies of this year’s short story “Home Movie” by Jennifer De Leon has been distributed this year—25,000 in English and 5,000 in Spanish.
The culmination of “One City One Story” is a live, town hall style discussion at the Boston Book Festival, explains Niki Marion, the “One City One Story” project manager. The audience has a chance to interact with the author of the story and as a community. “It’s very much more a community interactive experience,” Marion says. “The moderator really engages the audience. We want people to come to the discussion ready to share their thoughts and to engage with the story.”
Piehl explains that they “try to find a story by a local author that will connect with people in the city.” The first story chosen was “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face” by Tom Perrotta. “We want something that has a high level of literary quality, but also something that will connect with a wide range of readers,” Piehl says. “It’s a challenge, to be honest. The reality of the publishing industry is that not as many authors of color are publishing as any of us would like.”
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