LA Times holds Festival of Books virtually

In April, the festival usually hosted two jam-packed days, but due to the postponed online format, this year’s event will span over four weeks. (Daily Trojan file photo)

The L.A. Times Festival of Books is the largest literary gathering in the country, with over 150,000 Angelenos filling USC’s campus with pandemonium as students, families, press and residents gather each April to hear from a variety of authors and celebrate their love for books.

As with many other large gatherings, the festival was postponed because of the pandemic and later moved its operations online for the first time. Beginning this week, the Los Angeles Times commenced an online festival that will take place from Oct. 18 to Nov. 13.

“It was important for us to keep it going and to continue to support the authors and the booksellers and the exhibitors that we’ve worked with for all these years, to keep that event going in the way that we could, which was virtually,” said Ann Binney, special projects coordinator for the Times.

Binney has helped plan the event for the last 13 years and said the festival was easier and more affordable to coordinate through an online platform. Although the team of organizers continued to work with publicists, publishers and authors, she said organizers could include speakers whom they wouldn’t have been able to normally. She said that since the event is taking course over a period of four weeks, it offers a broad range of time to schedule speakers, compared to the typical two-day festival. 

Participants can browse the author lineup, which includes Jennifer De Leon, Natalie Portman, the Honorable Jerry Brown, Marlon James and USC professor Viet Thanh Nguyen. On the website, they can also note important dates through the Festival of Books website and register for virtual events on Eventbrite. 

Never having been to the festival before, Alyssa Delarosa, a junior majoring in psychology, said that she was always very interested in attending the event, but due to scheduling conflicts, she was unable to go in past years. She said the virtual format made the event convenient for her to participate this time.

“It means that they’re pushing for as much normalcy as possible,” Delarosa said. “And ‘the show must go on’ mentality. The event is so great that they’re gonna have it regardless of the format, so I like that.”

As with past events, moderators will lead authors or panelists in discussions on their writing process, and others will do readings of children’s books. They also explore current issues such as race and immigration and politics and coronavirus and provide tips on skills such as writing for audiobooks. In most cases, the moderator will ask questions that attendees submitted in advance.

Most years Binney said there can be up to 600 author events happening simultaneously within a two-day time frame, whereas this year’s festival will feature 25 events over the four-week period.

As all the events are online, Binney said event organizers collaborated with a video production team from the Times to make sure all of the speakers had good internet connection and lighting.

Although attendees can’t stand in line to buy books and have them signed, local booksellers partnered with the Times will place pre-signed bookplates into the books so attendees can still have that souvenir while supporting local sellers.

“Twenty-five years, we’ve had really strong relationships with the book selling community here in Los Angeles,” Binney said. “We’re doing what we can during this time, which is a difficult time for small businesses everywhere. It’s an especially hard time for booksellers. We’re doing everything that we can to support them with this event.”

According to Binney, the festival coordinators began promoting the events in September through digital and newspaper ads, social media posts and radio broadcasts. They also worked with the Times communications department, outside public relation firms and the author lineup to ensure a great outcome for the Festival of Books.

“We’re doing everything that we can to get that same excitement and engagement,” Binney said. “It’s hard, obviously, because we’re not in person. It’s just a different kind of engagement and it’s hard to replace the excitement of being in person and being around all that energy and excitement on campus. We’re doing everything that we can to translate that to the virtual format.”

Rachel Bernstein, a junior majoring in history, said that the L.A. Times Festival of Books cements the city’s presence in literature. As a native Angeleno, Bernstein attended the Festival of Books at least eight times, going back to the early years that the festival was hosted at UCLA.

“It’s just such a wonderful validating experience, especially for a reader,” Bernstein said. “I remember running around the UCLA courtyard [as a child], and I got to hear different children’s singers. And it’s really, really wonderful that you get to see, you get to meet celebrities. It’s just a really exciting thing you can do and it’s definitely a very special literary experience.”

Binney said that this year’s festival, the 25th year the event has been hosted, is a landmark moment that will still be celebrated through the online festivities. She said she believes this year’s festival will be frequently reflected on since all the events are recorded on YouTube for people to look back on. 

“I do think that we’ll always look back on this as being, you know, a significant time and way that we did this event,” Binney said. “I hope that we’re not in this forever, and that in 2021, we’ll be able to gather again in person and celebrate books with the community of people of Los Angeles at USC as we’ve done for all these years.”