The Business of Books

A Portland literary arts nonprofit transforms a failing book fair into a vibrant community event.

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When Literary Arts hosted Wordstock, Portland’s annual book festival, for the first time last year the organization anticipated 5,000 people would attend. The event blew all expectations. Eight thousand five hundred people showed up, overwhelming ticketing infrastructure and creating long lines.

For Andrew Proctor, executive director of Literary Arts, the experience answered a fundamental question he had asked himself before taking on the event: Did Portlanders even want a book festival in the city? The answer was they certainly do.

Proctor took a gamble running the festival. Wordstock had hit financial trouble and attendance was dwindling when the board chair of Wordstock approached Literary Arts in 2013 to ask if the organization would run the festival. Attendance at the book fair had dwindled to 2,500 that year. “It had gotten to a place where their board didn’t feel they could run it,” said Proctor.

The executive director, a Canadian who worked at the publisher Harper Collins and PEN American Center before joining Literary Arts in 2009, felt the organization could give the festival a higher profile and reach more people with its mission.

The biggest change Literary Arts made to the event was changing the venue from the Oregon Convention Center to the Portland Art Museum and surrounding buildings in the downtown arts district. Literary Arts’s core value proposition is that literature should be at the center of civic life. Having it holed up at the convention center, which lies just outside of the city center, didn’t seem a good fit for the organization’s mission.

“It is our contention that if we were going to run a festival it has to feel like it belongs to Portland,” said Proctor.

In many ways Wordstock was a natural fit for Literary Arts’s existing programming. It is most well known for presenting Arts & Lectures, a series of live lectures by authors talking about their work. Wordstock also hosts authors talking in front of live audiences. The festival provided the organization a venue for expanding its core activity.   

“If you want to be an organization that reaches a broad swath of people, you can’t have one product and say you are going to reach lots of people,” said Proctor.

Being responsive to the needs of the community is one way the nonprofit seeks to grow. Its budget has increased to $2.4 million from $900,000 since 2009 as a result of an increase in programming – some of which has been a direct response to community need.

One example is the expansion of the organization’s Youth Programs, which serves high school students with literary opportunities, such as semester-long writing workshops and visits by famous authors.

One of the new programs is Verselandia, a poetry slam that allows high school students to compete with other schools. That event, now in its sixth year, was created after a group of high school librarians approached Literary Arts for help creating a city-wide contest. Literary Arts agreed to host it. In 2017, Verselandia will be at the Arelene Schnitzer Concert Hall. “It got big fast,” said Proctor.

Wordstock has become a large part of Literary Arts’s overall programming, making up a quarter of its budget. This year’s Wordstock will take place on November 5 at the Portland Art Museum. The organization is adding six new venues in the arts district, including Oregon Historical Society, Northwest Film Center and the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, to accommodate the large number of expected attendees.

Proctor admitted the organization did not make available enough infrastructure last year for the large number of people who showed up. Attendees had to wait in long lines for tickets as well as to see events.

This year ticketing will be located outside instead of inside the art museum, freeing up space inside the building. Organizers are closing off the streets so that amenities, such as food carts, can be at the event. Time between events will be longer so that people can get in and out of venues better. It also added stages, including a larger venue for children’s literature. Powell’s Books will be the main bookselling partner again.

Proctor is unsure whether Wordstock is fundable over the long term. The money the nonprofit secured from the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation, the Meyer Memorial Trust and the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust for taking on the event runs out after next year’s festival. Unlike Arts & Lectures, which has an enduring brand, Wordstock still needs to develop a long-lasting presence.

Proctor is mindful that programs usually collapse because they get built too fast and lack financial support. “We want to get it (Wordstock) into a place where we understand who our donors are and where they are. How big it should be is still unclear to us.”

The executive director is convinced book festivals will continue to attract crowds despite the digitally obsessed world we live in. Book fairs can offer people a sense of community that is fundamental to our sense of belonging, said Proctor.

“Our experience has been that people want to be in intergenerational situations; they want to be together having arts experiences. It think they do feel itemized and isolated by technology. When you give people something good that is collective, they often show up in crazy numbers.”