Wordstock: Why Writers Need to Go to Book Festivals

As The Book Doctors, we travel around the country, going to book festivals, writers conferences, and independent bookstores, and we kept hearing about Wordstock in Portland, Oregon, one of our favorite cities. When we looked at the roster of presenters this year, we were blown away: Sherman Alexie, Dianne Abu-Jaber, Carrie Brownstein. And our old friend Cathy Camper, who won our Pitchapalooza at Powell’s, the iconic bookstore in Portland, and now has two graphic novels out with Chronicle. So we thought we would pick the brain of Amanda Bullock, the festival director for Wordstock, and get some inside skinny on what makes Wordstock tick.

Wordstock: Portland's Book Festival, November 5, 2016, logo of umbrella on red background

The Book Doctors: We travel the country presenting at writers conferences and book festivals, and we tell writers that these are one of the few places where you can actually get up close and personal with great writers, editors, and publishers. How do you see your mission at Wordstock as it relates to talented amateur writers who want to take the next step to become paid professionals?

Amanda Bullock: Wordstock: Portland’s Book Festival creates community around literature through a one-day, intergenerational celebration of books, writers, and stories. Amateur and aspiring writers can participate in writing workshops to hone their craft; browse the bookstore to meet great local, regional, and national publishers and presses; and, of course, attend events featuring some of the most exciting contemporary writers to hear them speak about their own work.

TBD: What can writers do to maximize their time at a festival like Wordstock?

AB: I think at any festival it’s important to be open to serendipity and chance. One of the greatest things about the density of a festival is the sheer number of options — it can be intimidating to narrow things down, but it also means that if an event you hoped to attend is at capacity, you have so many other great choices. Make time not only to see on-stage events but to check out our pop-up readings in the Portland Art Museum galleries, to see some great local music, to sample the food carts and beer tent, and to shop the book fair. Pop into an event even if you haven’t read the author yet; you might find your new favorite book! There’s so much available.

TBD: We like to tell writers that one of the best ways to become a better writer is to read great writing. We believe this also pertains to learning how to present their writing publicly. What have you observed writers do that makes their presentation more effective? What would you tell writers to avoid when they are presenting publicly?

AB: I’ve seen probably thousands of literary events, and this is a tough one to put into words. There’re the basics, like practice (you’d be surprised), stick to your time and don’t go over, especially in a group reading, be gracious to your hosts (even if you didn’t get the crowd you expected, even if something else went amiss…), etc. Speaking of group readings, I always enjoy seeing authors speak to their editor or just another writer friend who can interview them about their work at a reading, and it takes some of the pressure off of the author as the star attraction.

Amanda Bullock speaking at Wordstock 2015

Amanda Bullock, Wordstock 2015

TBD: There are so many amazing writers and publishing professionals coming to this year’s Wordstock. We don’t mean to put you on the spot, but what are some of the things you are particularly excited about seeing?

AB: This year we are presenting at six new stages, including the 2,776-seat Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, which is hugely exciting. On that stage we have Sherman Alexie with his wonderful new picture book, Thunder Boy, Jr.,and we have a conversation between Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad) and Yaa Gyasi (Homegoing), which I think will be one of the great moments of this year’s festival. Overall, seeing writers in conversation with each other and exploring the intersections between their work is one of my favorite things about festivals and, again, a great opportunity that the density of a festival makes possible. We have a slew of great debut novelists this year, including Yaa Gyasi (Homegoing), Jade Chang (The Wangs vs. The World), Stephanie Danler (Sweetbitter), Lily Brooks-Dalton (Good Morning, Midnight), and many more. Seeing authors at the beginning of their career on stage with living legends and award winners, such as Richard Russo, Alice Hoffman, Nicholson Baker, is so exciting.

TBD: You seem to have a wonderful diversity in your presentation, with books for kids, nonfiction and fiction, and people of color seem to be well represented. Is that part of your mission?

AB: Thank you for mentioning this! We strive for diversity and inclusion in all aspects: genre, age, race, gender, geography, and so much more. It is definitely a hugely important part of our mission, both at Literary Arts and at Wordstock, and as a curator I am always working toward greater representation, diversity, and inclusiveness. I truly want there to be something for every reader at our festival.

P.S. I’m also proud that we have great representation from independent publishers in our lineup!

TBD: David has performed at several Lit Crawls with the fantastic festival Litquake in San Francisco. We see you have one too. Describe the sheer exuberant fun of Lit Crawl for people who’ve never been to one.

AB: I was first introduced to Lit Crawl in New York, and it’s one of my favorite literary events. I’ve never believed that book events are boring — the cliché of a tweedy author in elbow patches droning on in front of a leather-bound library has never, ever been my experience at any kind of book event — but I love that Lit Crawl explodes that idea, that book events can be fun, and makes it super accessible by bringing literature “to the streets,” as they say. I think for readers, particularly those who don’t see themselves as a book-event type of person, it’s a wonderful introduction to the literary community. Book nerds are the most fun.

Book fair at Wordstock 2015, readers browsing books on tables

Book Fair, Wordstock 2015

TBD: Portland has such a great tradition of artists and writers. What have you done to tap into that fantastic pool of talent in the Pacific Northwest?

AB: Half of our festival’s featured authors are Oregon writers! It’s not difficult at all to reach that goal, since, as you mentioned, we have such talented writers here. Literary Arts also presents the Oregon Book Awards and Fellowships, so we have a great pool of writers already part of the Literary Arts family. This year features past OBA&F winners or finalists Margaret Malone, Alexis Smith, Gina Ochsner, and many more!

TBD: People who’ve never put on an event like Wordstock have no idea how difficult it is. What are some of the joys and difficulties for you? And what are you going to do in terms of celebrating and collapsing once this thing is over?

AB: This sounds like I’m dodging the question but I swear it’s true: I love reading the books by the festival authors. Since I aim to program as diversely as possible, I’m often, of course, programming authors in genres I don’t read that often, and it’s great to find work I might not have come across if I wasn’t directing a festival in Portland.

I’ve mentioned a few times that the density of the festival is its strength — the sheer number of people — but of course, it’s so difficult to efficiently plan multiple venues and simultaneous events. We’ll always be learning how to do it a little better.

Last year I got a post-festival massage at Löyly, a lovely Finnish spa in Portland, and I’ll hopefully repeat that recovery plan this year… also whiskey.

TBD: We kind of hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?

AB: From an events perspective: Be a good literary citizen! It’s much easier for a bookstore to say yes to an unknown or up-and-coming author if you have been a part of their culture before pitching your event. Go to events, shop there, put the time in before your book is even written so that they’ll know you. In fact, work at a bookstore if that makes sense for you. And support other writers in your area by attending their events. Engage with the community!

Amanda Bullock is the Director of Public Programs at Literary Arts, a nonprofit literary center in Portland, Oregon. She is the festival director for Wordstock: Portland’s Book Festival and produces Portland Arts & Lectures. Prior to joining Literary Arts, she served as the Director of Public Programming at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in downtown New York City. She is the co-founder and –organizer of Lit Crawl Portland, of the Downtown Literary Festival in NYC, and co-founder and –organizer of Moby-Dick Marathon NYC.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

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About David Sterry

David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, book editor, activist, and book doctor. His first memoir, Chicken, was an international bestseller, and has been translated into 10 languages. “As laconic as Dashiell Hammett, as viscerally hallucinogenic as Hunter S Thompson. Sex, violence, drugs, love, hate, and great writing, what more could you ask for?” – The Irish Times.

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