On March 10, 2020, fans of the Virginia Festival of the Book learned that the COVID-19 pandemic had closed the book on that year’s gathering.
“It was a factor of timing that we were the first major event in Central Virginia to cancel,” said Jane Kulow, the festival’s director. “We dismantled everything we’d spent a year building.”
A year of creative thinking and experimentation later, the 27th annual festival will be presented in an all-virtual format from Saturday through March 26 that promises to be one for the books.
Despite the deep disappointment of canceling the 2020 festival, Kulow said that the team remained committed to its community focus and its goal of connecting authors and readers. Before long, organizers realized that the same virtual meeting technology that was keeping businesses and their suddenly homebound employees on the same page could allow authors and audiences to continue their stimulating conversations at a safe distance. Within weeks, the festival began scheduling events on Zoom and Facebook to see if readers would give them a try.
“We started presenting virtual events last April. We called it Shelf Life,” Kulow said. “We not only found our traditional audience, but we found an audience far beyond the one we’d had.”
Shelf Life revealed the potential of an exciting new chapter for the festival.
“We launched Shelf Life in April, and one of the things we asked [participants] was whether they had attended a live event” as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book, Kulow said. “We’ve reached more than 28,000 people in 36 states and 23 countries. Roughly 50% of the thousands of people have never been here.”
For an event that prided itself on its accessibility, the transition to an all-virtual presence offered a variety of challenges. The book festival, which was established in 1994 and went live in 1995 for the first time, “was founded as a community-focused festival,” Kulow said. “When we knew that we would be presenting an all-virtual festival, we asked, ‘How do we do that virtually, and how do we do that with basically a staff of two and a half people?”
Community partners pitched in to host some events, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Virginia Film Festival and the Creative Writing Program at the University of Virginia.
Teaming up with like-minded, book-loving nonprofits also has helped the festival expand its reach outside the Charlottesville area. Look for events on this year’s schedule that are presented not only with Charlottesville’s WriterHouse, but also Norfolk’s The Muse Writers Center, Richmond’s James River Writers and George Mason University’s Watershed Lit Center for Literary Engagement and Publishing Practice.
In the virtual universe, “we’ve had access to authors we ordinarily wouldn’t, including in international settings,” Kulow said.
Meeting readers where they are offered many of the answers Kulow and her team sought.
“This year, we learned much more about accessibility,” Kulow said. “We began offering live captions for each of our events in September. It has just become a part of what we do.” Festival fans can click on the closed-captioning logo to activate the feature.
And the festival will be offering American Sign Language interpretation for an event for the first time at 7 p.m. March 23, when author and disability rights activist Judith Heumann will take part in an event focusing on her book “Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist.”
“It’s all virtual, and it’s all free,” Kulow said. “And there’s no overlap.”
No overlap means no juggling. If you’ve spent time before past festivals factoring in driving and parking distances to map out which consecutive events you could reach in time, attending the talks you’re interested in just got easier. The schedule for the canceled 2020 festival was packed with 125 public events; the streamlined virtual 2021 lineup offers 44.
“If you want to see an event, it does not conflict with another one,” Kulow said. Expect two to four events on each day’s schedule, many of which can be seen later on video. Working late? Staying up with a new baby? Missing out on events that appeal to you is so 2020.
Keep in mind that part of the Virginia Festival of the Book’s community focus is making events available to everyone — even folks who haven’t read the books. Busy people often haven’t. Don’t let shame or pride keep you at arm’s length from a discovery that could ignite your imagination. You may have more time to read up after a fascinating conversation.
“One of the things that we try to get across is the message that it’s not only for avid readers,” Kulow said. If you’re interested in, say, a panel about the environment but you haven’t read the featured book, don’t let that stop you. Attending events is a great way to introduce yourself to a timely topic, she said.
“Anyone who approaches our schedule will find something,” she said. “It has been an extraordinary year.”
To check out the schedule, learn more about the guests and register for events, go to vabook.org.