20th Annual National Book Festival Goes Virtual

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For the seventh consecutive year, Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., will return as the official bookseller for the Library of Congress National Book Festival, which this year will take place virtually from Friday, September 25, to Sunday, September 27.

The 20th annual festival will feature talks with more than a hundred bestselling authors, novelists, historians, poets, and children’s writers, including Colson Whitehead, Sandra Cisneros, Jason Reynolds, Amy Tan, and John Grisham.  The full list of participating authors can be found on the Library of Congress website.

Marie Arana, literary director of the Library of Congress, told Bookselling This Week that she works with a division within the Library of Congress called Literary Initiatives to develop content and find talent for events surrounding books, publishing, and authors, which includes the National Book Festival.

Moving the event to a virtual space, Arana said, has been a dramatic change. Generally, when event organizers are working on content and signing authors, they invite guests, negotiate their participation, and then bring them to the stage. But that looks different for virtual events.

“You’re conceptualizing the festival, but you’re not necessarily curating every minute of it,” said Arana. “There’s a point at which the author takes over — they are the program. In the virtual world, that’s changed completely. Not only do you conceptualize who will be participating in your festival, and the mode, the shape, and the information that’s conveyed, you’re also curating it step-by-step.”

This means event organizers must shape each performance in a specific way, Arana said, adding that it’s similar to the difference between a live Broadway performance and a Hollywood movie.

Arana noted that she’s known Politics & Prose as a community partner and cultural force for a long time. “They have become so adept at their network and their outreach,” she said. “We’ve been shoulder to shoulder in developing this.”

Bradley Graham, who co-owns the bookstore with his wife, Lissa Muscatine, told BTW that since March, the store’s staff have gained a lot of experience in holding online events. And, like many other stores around the country, book sales at Politics & Prose have been placed primarily online.

Nonetheless, Graham said, preparing for the virtual National Book Festival has been quite the undertaking.

The virtual National Book Festival will feature two new entry points for audiences. From Friday, September 25, to Sunday, September 27, attendees will have access to on-demand videos, live author chats and discussions, and book-buying possibilities. Then, on Sunday, September 27, PBS stations will broadcast a program called “Celebrating American Ingenuity,” hosted by Hoda Kotb. Viewers will register for the event online; books featured at the festival will be linked to the Politics & Prose website.

Graham noted that this year, one challenge his store faces is gauging how many book sales should be expected, since sales data collected from past in-person events bear little relationship to how many could be placed in this year’s virtual format.

“But, we’ve made the best guesses we could about how many sales of each to expect,” said Graham, noting that more than 200 titles will be featured at the festival. “We’re also collaborating with Ingram, which has set aside specific quantities of each title for us. We’ll process the orders for those books through Ingram.”

Politics & Prose is promoting the event at all three of its Washington, D.C., locations by creating book tables displaying titles that will be highlighted at the festival. The event will also be promoted online via social media in the two weeks leading up to the event.

Arana is also working with Graham and Muscatine to decide how certain aspects of the festival will work virtually, including how many book plates each author should sign and to what extent authors should be managed.

Despite encountering new challenges, Arana said that moving events online has allowed for a greater global reach.

“In our Q&A sessions, we were having questions from Jakarta, Indonesia, and Johannesburg, South Africa, and Montenegro. It was stunning — it’s a new world,” she said. “Even though we call ourselves the National Book Festival, and this exercise makes us truly national, it’s actually international because anyone can come in and listen to the programming now. The world is wide open.”

Arana also noted that the PBS special occurring on Sunday, September 27, has been filmed and produced in people’s homes, which allows for an extraordinary level of intimacy. “You see an author in a different space than you would in a signing line or on a stage where everybody is filing through,” she said. “It’s been deeply rewarding in that sense.”

She added that all of the workers who are bringing this to fruition are all doing it remotely, saying, “We’re all doing it on the fly, and we’re all making it up as we go along. It’s really quite remarkable when you start seeing the results.”

More information about the National Book Festival can be found on the festival blog and the Library of Congress website.