The Portland Book Festival, which each year draws up to 10,000 people to more than 100 author appearances throughout downtown Portland, is the latest event to go virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But in an effort to make lemonade from lemons, the festival’s organizer, Portland nonprofit Literary Arts, will expand it from one day to 17 days, running Nov. 5-21. It will drop the admission charge, which last year was $15 in advance and $20 at the door. Events will take place both as live streams and radio broadcasts and will no longer be scheduled simultaneously; many will be available for replay.
Andrew Proctor, executive director of Literary Arts, said the question was never whether the festival would go on, but how.
“We’re going to deliver on our mission no matter what,” he said.
The live-stream events will have more of a webinar format than a Zoom call format, Proctor said, adding that the goal is to create “really intimate events … that deepen the conversations that are already happening and start other conversations.”
The radio broadcasts will be done in partnership with Oregon Public Broadcasting, which was already a presence at the festival, with OPB hosts conducting onstage conversations that were recorded for their shows. In some cases, live-stream events might be edited and repackaged for radio, Proctor said.
Dropping the admission charge means Literary Arts will have to raise all the money to cover the costs of this year’s festival, Proctor said. According to the nonprofit’s website, ticket sales make up about 12% of the cost to put on the festival. But many festivalgoers attend for free — for instance, 940 youth were among those receiving free admission to the 2018 festival, according to Literary Arts’ 2018-19 annual report, the most recent available. Proctor said the total cost of the festival is around a half-million dollars in a normal year. “This year costs will go down a little, but not by a whole lot,” he said.
“We consider this an important way to serve our community in a time of great hardship for so many,” Proctor said of the festival. “Literature, stories, and dialogue matter always, but especially right now.”
Proctor said the nonprofit’s finances were “in decent shape.” Its IRS Form 990 for the fiscal year ending May 31, 2019, showed total assets of about $4.7 million and total liabilities of about $900,000, with total revenue at about $2.8 million and total expenses at about $2.7 million.
Literary Arts is also moving the rest of its 2020 programming online, most notably its Portland Arts and Lectures series, which brings leading authors to town. The last speaker of the 2019-20 series, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead (“The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys”), had been rescheduled to May 2021 – now he’ll speak in a virtual event premiering on Sept. 24. The event is open only to subscribers, and the series is sold out.
Literary Arts had planned to open the 2020-21 series with English author Helen Macdonald, best known for her memoir-slash-natural-history meditation “H is For Hawk,” on Oct. 13. That event will become a digital presentation. American author Yaa Gyasi, who discussed her riveting novel addressing slavery’s legacy, “Homegoing,” at the 2016 book festival, has been rescheduled from Dec. 3 to May 18, 2021.
The rest of the series, which still has subscriptions available, is unchanged for now. Proctor said the number of subscriptions will remain capped at the capacity of Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, in anticipation of an eventual return. But, he added, “we understand that even when we reopen, some folks will not feel comfortable coming back to the concert hall. … We’ll still be simulcasting online until we have a really clear conclusion to the COVID.”
The nonprofit’s writing classes, reading seminars and youth programs, which all moved online in the spring, will remain virtual through the end of the year. Its Writers in the Schools author residencies have been redesigned to accommodate both physical and virtual classrooms.
As for 2021? “We are all stuck in the waiting game,” Proctor said.
The silver lining of going virtual is that Literary Arts has seen participation in its programs expand from the Portland area to the rest of the state and the nation and even beyond, Proctor said. “That’s really enriching those conversations,” he said.
Proctor will hold a virtual community town Hall on Zoom starting at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 11. Click here to sign up.