May 26, 2008

Field report: Pilcrow Literary Festival

Pilcrow Literary Festival

Pilcrow Literary Festival

Pilcrow Literary Festival

Pilcrow Literary Festival

I just got done attending the new Pilcrow Literary Festival here in Chicago, the brainchild of local author Amy Güth (in fact, I interviewed Amy about Pilcrow last week for the podcast -- you can click here to listen to it, if you're interested); and I have to admit that I had a great time, probably the most fun I've had at a smaller lit fest in years. In fact, I was kept so busy this weekend that I never actually got to sit down and interview any of the visiting artists, which I had been planning on doing; I did, however, want to mention some of the things I saw at Pilcrow that went really right, in the hope that it will inspire the runners of other lit fests to make these things a priority at their own events...

--None of the events ran over time. And believe me, in a situation where your panels and workshops are all being held in the same small amount of venues, like is the case with most regional lit fests, this is of crucial importance to the overall happiness of your attendees; there's nothing quite as frustrating as a whole day of small overruns, leading to a final panel that's an hour late and that cuts into everyone's dinnertimes. And similarly, although the evening spoken-word events are ostensibly the highlight of any small literary festival, it's important to remember that it's merely one part of an attendee's 18-hour day of activities; any performance event longer than 90 minutes or so in such an environment is bound to have audience members either nodding off or anxious to go socialize, which is why I was so glad to see Pilcrow maintaining nice, tight evening shows as well as daytime events.

--Heavy cooperation with the local community. How did Pilcrow manage to pull off as cool a weekend as they did, given just a skeletal staff and no admission/registration fees whatsoever? Well, for one, because they partnered with a whole series of existing organizations; just to mention one good example, Friday's main evening event was actually a special edition of Jonathan Messinger's longstanding The Dollar Store Show, over at hipster bar The Hideout. This is a real key to pulling off something legitimately impressive for not a lot of money, is being able to give up the urge to micromanage and to instead get outside organizations as involved as possible; it was something Pilcrow was especially good at this weekend, leading to the plethora of interesting events that they had.

--Treat your visiting authors like rockstars, 24 hours a day. And similarly, how is it that Pilcrow managed to convince over 80 published authors to come attend a brand-new festival, and even pay for their own expenses in almost every case? Well, because as a working author herself, Güth realized the main motivation behind most authors' attendance at these events; to sell books, to schmooze, to spend a weekend away from the usual day-to-day drudgery and frustration that comes with being a small-press author, to spend a weekend feeling like that feted star they always knew one day they would be. Festivals like this are an opportunity to celebrate and venerate mid-level writers, not bog them down in bureaucracy and petty squabbles; and the way to do this is to treat all your visiting authors with the utmost respect, clear away as much red tape from the registration and performance aspects as possible, and generally make sure they're being treated that weekend as the centers of the freaking universe that they are, all things that Pilcrow excelled at.

--For God's sake, get a good PR person on your staff. I can't emphasize this enough, of how incredibly impressed I was that all Pilcrow events were free, and in fact they didn't even charge a registration fee; and despite that, also having all the little trappings of any cash-flush professional festival, things like multicolored badges, a well-done paper program, even a giant novelty check to take photos with at the end of their Saturday-night fundraiser for the New Orleans public library system. And the reason they were able to pull such things off is pretty simple; Pilcrow had a healthy share of corporate sponsors and other help from small businesses, with for example nearly twenty companies taking out paid ads in the festival's program. And I suspect that a big reason for this was the early and heavy involvement of Leah Jones, not only an author herself and tireless supporter of the arts, but also an executive at famed public-relations company Edelman; as much as artists sometimes don't like admitting it, such a connection can sometimes be the absolute most important key to pulling off an event like this, and especially in a way so that the whole thing can eventually be presented for free to the general public.

--Lots and lots and lots of documentation. And then this is maybe the final key to why Pilcrow was so successful, that in as many ways as possible, they tried to encourage as much documentation of the event as possible; they had their own Flickr pool, for example, set up a special page at their website just to mention who there was going to be Twittering the event, and even made it easy as possible for such bloggers and podcasters as Unscene Chicago, Phil Gomes, Ben Tanzer and of course myself. This is a crucial aspect of such smaller festivals, I think, that when you can't afford to simply hire someone famous to be your headliner, you need to instead take advantage of as much alternative publicity as you can; I encourage all you events organizers out there to be as tech- and blogger-friendly as the people at Pilcrow were.

Anyway, as you can tell, I was much impressed with Pilcrow, and am very glad I got a chance to attend. My hearty congratulations go out to Amy and all the rest of the Pilcrow crew, and here's hoping that next year's festival is even better.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:46 AM, May 26, 2008. Filed under: Arts news | Chicago news | Literature | Profiles |