Book festival Wordplay, originally slated to take place in Minneapolis in May, will now happen virtually in April and May in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. All of the original 100+ participants, including Alison Roman, Michael Ian Black, Charles Yu and Scott Pelley, are still slated to take part in the festival, details of which are still being worked out. Wordplay is run by nonprofit The Loft Literary Center, based in Minneapolis.
In an interview, Wordplay founding director Steph Opitz, said the commitment from 100% of the authors, “has gone from some weary folks to everyone being in, as we’ve all quickly adapted to the idea of self-isolation and how we can use technology to cope with that. We’re going to be doing live video conversations, podcasts, visual arts, author Q&As, playlists, social media takeovers, and other creative content. So, folks will be able to access it a lot of ways.”
Opitz credits the decision to proceed with the book festival now, rather than cancel or postpone the in-person event, to her Wordplay colleague Chris Jones, who’s in charge of marketing and communications. Opitz said she “was nervous about it being boring or low-fi, but he had the foresight that things were changing rapidly with COVID-19 and that folks would not only need something like this, but be game to try out unconventional approaches.” The online event will be free to attend, but Wordplay will be asking for donations to lessen the “monumental financial impact” of this shift. While normally Wordplay is funded by sponsorships, exhibitors, and ticket sales, the virtual Wordplay will be funded primarily by presenting sponsors St. Catherine University and Star Tribune.
Opitz said that while Jones was pondering the impact of the event’s cancellation on readers, “I was really thinking about authors, and how devastating it must be to have an entire tour for, say, your debut book, canceled. It feels really important to me to provide a space for artists to share their work, and then, of course, build an audience for that.”
Opitz, whose previous jobs include being a book reviewer for Marie Claire, serving on the board and as fiction co-chair for the Brooklyn Book Festival and literary director of the Texas Book Festival, before being hired to direct the inaugural Wordplay last year. So while the online event “feels like a whole new beast,” for Opitz, there’s also a familiarity to that. “I’ve been working on book festivals for over ten years and every year has its challenges,” said Opitz, such as venues not being available, sponsors falling through, or books stirring up unexpected controversy.
She sees such past experience as useful at during this time when so many in the world of books are pivoting to adjust to the new norm of social distancing. “I think that nimbleness is aiding us,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times in the past I’ve had, in my opinion, a great idea that had to be scrapped for one reason or another and molded into something else. So, that’s what we’re doing here.”
Wordplay is partnering with numerous other book festivals, including Boston Book Festival, the Decatur Book Festival, the Bronx Book Festival, Portland Book Festival, Virginia Festival of the Book and Bay Area Book Festival, among others, though the form that will take will vary. “With some, we’ll co-program by sharing some authors and/or moderators, some will help us signal boost, and others will work with us on some yet-to-be determined creative-something. Other fests are reaching out to us daily with ideas, so our partnership list is growing exponentially alongside fun brainstorming,” said Opitz.
While details of the online book festival are being worked out, Opitz said book sales from both local Minneapolis bookstores as well as via Bookshop.org will be a component. “It’s extremely important to us to help authors sell their books so we’ll have a way to do so for each event.
Wordplay events will begin in mid-April, and will be announced each week via their newsletter.