Executive Director and Founder
The Boston Book Festival
I also truly, truly believe that the public events that a society puts on are a reflection of the society and if we don't put on a public event that's around books and ideas those will lose importance in our culture.
By Heidi Legg
This fall marks the 7th Boston Book Festival and the lineup only continues to grow each year, delivering Bostonians across the city a chance to hear from their favorite authors at a free public event that takes place in and around Copley Square October 23-24. Authors including Canada’s Margaret Atwood, and our own Atul Gawande and Sukey Forbes will participate this year.
They say it takes five years to start a business, and so it seemed apt to finally sit down with Debbie Porter; she has been building the festival steadily and energetically over the past six years with the help of many peers, friends, and individual supporters who believe in the possibility of The Boston Book Festival, an “annual, free festival that promotes a culture of reading and ideas and enhances the vibrancy of our city.” Debbie talks about modeling what we want in our society, the power of George Eliot, and why we all need to contribute, and often pay, when we want something in our culture to grow. At TheEditorial.com, we understand both her yearning for this cultural sharing and the reality of what it costs to create it. In the spirit of the theme for our upcoming event at Google during HUBweek on October 8th, here is what Debbie tells us about “Creating Something from Nothing.”
How and why did you create the Boston Book Festival?
One thing you do is a lot of research when you try to start something out of nothing, and I also went to a lot of festivals: the Los Angeles Festival of Books and The New Yorker Festival. Two years in a row I went to the PEN World Voices Festival in New York and I went to a book festival in Jamaica. And when my husband [Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Lab] was speaking at TED, I went to TED and I think those were really valuable fact-finding missions.
When I set out to start a book festival I had to ask myself, ‘what does that mean? What happens at a book festival?’ I wasn't really sure myself. I saw how other places did it and I saw what worked and what didn't work. TED was key because it's so different from a book festival with its eighteen-minute presentations. People have rehearsed, and they've got slides, and there's a lot of power and thought that goes into their presentations. Whereas at many of the festivals, there's a panel of four people and it can drag a little bit and we had to think about how to keep that from happening. But the hardest question is: how do you fund a large public event that you intend to be free to the public?
Was the funding challenge bigger than you thought it would be?
Yes. I naively thought that this was such a good idea to do this in Boston and that corporate Boston would just line up to participate and to have a presence.
You delivered about 10,000 people to the first Boston Book Festival. Didn’t that help?
Yes, but 10,000 people is nothing to a corporation. Thirty thousand people, as a figure, is nothing to them. You can explain that they’ll have their name in front of 30,000 highly educated people but from a marketing perspective that is a "yawn.”
I'm also told that without 30,000 'unique views', no one wants to invest in TheEditorial.com and that no one cares in terms of media buying. So what does work?
If 30,000 people come to our festival, they care. And so maybe free was not the right business model. If you look at The New Yorker Festival and if you look at every single European book festival – without exception, nothing is free. Not a single event is free.
I was really doing this as a civic enterprise. I wasn't doing it to make money, but maybe that was a mistake that impedes its growth. I do know that if we charged even ten dollars for every event, we wouldn't get as many attendees. It would be a barrier for people. And yet we're doing it. We're squeaking by and the festival is growing. We're raising the money every year and we're putting on this festival to, I think, pretty high standards.
Who has attended the Boston Book Festival in the last six years?
We've had some major prizewinners. We had Nobel Prize winners like Orhan Pamuk who was our keynote the very first year. We had Amartya Sen who's an economist who used to be local but I don't think he lives here very much anymore. Joseph Stiglitz, also a Nobel Prize winner, presented one year. We've had multiple Pulitzer Prize winners like Jennifer Egan. Of course, we've had Paul Harding. We've had Walter Isaacson who presented at the very first book festival. Cornell West.
Do you look to local authors as well?
Claire Messud and James Wood have presented. Salman Rushdie was our keynote a couple years ago.
We are always thinking about new ways to engage the audience and new ways to present authors. This can be challenging because we're putting on so many events that we can't spend too much time on any one presentation. This year we’re exploring: Would people come in costume? Could we have a trivia quiz? What could we do to make that interesting? We're doing a session on music with John Seabrook, a New Yorker critic, on his book Inside The Hit Factory and we have two other authors whose books are about 'single songs' with Prince's Purple Rain and a song by Phish. I think it will be very exciting. We think a great deal about how can we get the audience to feel that this is a really special thing.
Are authors and publishers approaching you as a must stop festival?
Yes. I'm glad that people view The Boston Book Festival as being one of the best to present work. I feel proud of that. Obviously we can't take every author, especially all the local ones, but we really, really try.
Who do you see as your audience? Is it ever changing?
I think we always like to attract new audiences and, frankly, maybe we don't do enough of that but that's one more thing to think about! The program is very much set by what books publishers are launching in the fall because if it's a new book that's coming out, the publisher will put us on the author's tour and pay for the author to come to Boston. And yes, we do think about audience. We know that women are 70% of our audience and the audience is well-educated with college degrees and advanced degrees.
Why did you add a children's program in June?
Our children's programming at the book festival is always very popular and people always ask us to do more. There's a little bit of a down season from November to February. My two colleagues, Norah Piehl and Sarah Parker, both have very young children and they have really done all the programming for the children's festival and they've done a fabulous job. Spring 2015 was the first one. It’s not solely a children's book festival. It's also an arts and STEM activities festival. There was one ticketed event and we set aside 200 tickets to give away to the community groups that we work with and Boston Public Schools.
Boston has so much money. How can everyone come together to support these social missions that lift up a society?
There’s plenty of money in Boston, but there are also many serious issues out there: whether it's hunger, cancer, unemployment or homelessness, and for some people that is their giving priority and I totally get that. But I believe it is also important for society to support cultural events and institutions—things that nourish the mind and soul. Mostly, it is done through philanthropy. In the case of the BBF, we have a major sponsor, WBUR, and a few other important corporate sponsors, but mostly we rely on philanthropy.
Do you think the City of Boston or state of Massachusetts should be funding this?
I think in other places, the host city does take on some of the costs of public festivals. The city of Edinburgh helps fund The Edinburgh Book Festival, for example. But I would also point out that the Edinburgh Festival and other book festivals in the UK are not free, but rather each session is ticketed.
Does the City of Boston sponsor you at all?
We received our first grant from the Boston Cultural Council this year, for which I am grateful. It was not a large grant, but every bit helps.
Is there a public opinion you’d like to change?
I would like to send the message that if you are the beneficiary of something that you enjoy and that’s important to you, you should support it in whatever way makes sense for you. In the business world, there's this sense that people who benefit should pay for services and I understand that more now. The people who come to the festival could contribute, and many do, but we would love to see more of that. The question we are asking ourselves is ‘how do you make that happen?’
I'm trying to find an individual who'll give us a matching grant, say, 'we'll give you $10,000 if you can raise $10,000 from the audience' and then we would have to get up in front of those rooms full of 500/600 people and say, 'we need everyone to give us $5 to fund the festival.' Just like public radio fundraisers: if you love us, give us some money! Now, granted, people are also buying books and they're buying lunch so it will add up, but people should know that you have to pay for the good things in society. Not everything can be free and the city and state can only do so much, given the general public’s opposition to taxes. It's a conundrum. You want the people who are there enjoying it to help you put it on but once you give it away for free, there's a sense of entitlement. Having said that, it is important to me that the BBF remain free, if not 100%, then 80%, and that no one is excluded on the basis of a fee.
Another opinion I’d like to change is that people, especially men, say that they don't read fiction because it's not practical and it doesn't apply to them. I think fiction is so good for the soul and it can move you and it can make you think about things in a new way. I wish more people read literary fiction and that was what the One City One Story project is all about.
What is One City One Story?
The all-city book read is a concept that's about twenty years old, started in Seattle in 1998 [If All of Seattle Read the Same Book was the original concept]. I like that idea. I like the idea of the city coming together around a piece of fiction or a piece of writing. I didn't want to do it based on a book where people have to take the book out of the library or buy it. I wanted it to be even more accessible than that. This idea of doing a short story came up and it was modeled on an initiative in Brooklyn called One-Story.com. It's a subscription and they send you a short story in a little bound booklet or digitally. I thought if we could get a story and print up many, many, many of them and give them away, we might be onto something. If you hand someone a story as they come out of the subway, maybe they'll read it - so we've been doing that every year. It's a challenging project to find a really good story that is accessible to a lot of people because the story is not necessarily for people who read on a daily basis. It's for people who don't. What we are trying to say is, 'Here. Try this. When you get on the train, just start reading it. Maybe it'll capture you.' Now people call us to find out when the story's coming out.
Would you tell us about the author dinners you organize?
I’ve had some wonderful dinner guests like Walter Isaacson and Adam Gopnik. When the poet Billy Collins was doing a reading at The Harvard Bookstore, I got in touch with his publicist and I said, 'when he's done, would he come to a dinner?' and he agreed! It's hard to get Billy Collins. Someone in Beacon Hill hosted and it was amazing. He is so funny. Throughout the dinner, every twenty minutes or so he would stand up and read a poem, some of which hadn't yet been published. It was just so great.
How do people join these dinners?
That's interesting because we don't send out invitations to everyone who subscribes to our newsletter. It’s a high ticket item and we don't want people to be offended by the price of the ticket. People can write to me and ask to be on that mailing list, and I'd love to include them.
What's the cost?
It's $500 a person.
You shouldn't apologize for that, you need to raise funds. Or a corporation should fund it and you can give tickets away.
The challenge is to find that person. It has to be a special person that people will pay $500 to come and hear over dinner. This year my husband was doing some conference at Simmons and he saw a poster saying that Arianna Huffington was coming to town to speak at their big women's event and he said, 'I have Arianna's email. Would you like me to write to her and see if she would stay for dinner?' She couldn't stay for dinner but she came for drinks and she talked and she was lovely. She was so genuine and gracious.
Given your vantage point, what types of books would you like to see published more?
Especially in children's literature, there needs to be more voices published from people of color and even women. I think that's true across the board but it seems to be especially true in children's literature.
There's also a huge debate among certain women authors about chick lit and the complaint that if Jonathan Franzen writes a book about a family, it's serious literary fiction but if a woman writes a book about a family, it's women's literature. I do think that women aren't taken as seriously. It's just the way it is.
I can see, here in your bookshelf, that you’re a huge George Eliot fan.
I discovered George Eliot when I was already married and had a baby. I think I read Adam Bede first and I thought, 'oh my God. This is amazing' and then I just went through it all, staying up late at night reading her work.
How do you feel about the modern take on George and her work in My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Meade?
It was wonderful. I'd read a bunch of biographies on her but she brought out some things that I didn't remember and that I really hadn't seen about George Elliot. I love that book because it highlighted the relevance of a book that was written in the mid-19th Century to our lives, and I think it's a shame that people don't think it's worth reading anymore. Honestly, the first sixty pages of Middlemarch are really tough to get through and I can imagine that most people, certainly most of the men I know, never made it past those sixty pages but the rewards come later.
Does it feel utterly contemporary to you?
No, it doesn't really feel contemporary but that doesn't mean that it doesn't have relevance to the same kind of dilemmas and issues that we all have about relationships and family. I think George Eliot had amazing insight into the psyche and she also wrote about, as Jane Austen did, using subtext. Reading her biographies reminded me of what an extraordinary person she was. I remember reading somewhere that in the 19th Century if a woman wanted to improve herself, she taught herself a new language or learned to play a musical instrument and today, we tend to go to the gym.
Where did you find a first edition collection?
It was a gift.
There appears to be a flood in the market for women buying and writing non-fiction today. Do you see this continuing?
I think the whole memoir genre is exploding. We did a session last year called ‘All About Me’ where nonfiction writers picked a topic like Rebecca Meade and George Eliot and inserted themselves into the experience and asked, 'what did this discovery of whatever mean to my life, not just to the world?’ It’s a relatively new genre and it's exploding. People writing about themselves reflect our culture of ‘me’ and it is on the rise.
What does The Boston Book Festival mean to you and why should we want it to grow?
I think culture is important. I think ideas are important. I think reading is important, both literature and nonfiction and it's important for children to read… but children don't read if they don't see their parents reading. I also truly, truly believe that the public events that a society puts on are a reflection of the society and if we don't put on a public event that's around books and ideas those will lose importance in our culture. Some people argue that those things are losing importance in our culture and maybe this is hanging on by our fingernails to say, 'this is important too. We must celebrate this publicly or it will go away.'
Favorite place for a cocktail?
We go to Puritan a lot. I like their Thaw in the Straw. It's my favorite.
Favorite place in Cambridge to decompress?
Right here in my house.
One place in Boston everyone should visit?
The Boston Public Library.
Author you most want to have at the festival?
On my summer reading list is A Little Life and the author is Hanya Yanagihara. I have the Elena Ferrante books. She's an Italian contemporary author who is keeping a very low profile. The first book in her trilogy is My Brilliant Friend. Until recently no one knew who she was and people speculated, 'it's really a man.' Megan O' Grady said, 'whenever someone writes a really great book with a pseudonym and it's a woman's name, people think, "Oh, it must really be a man." But she is a woman and I am looking forward to reading her work.