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Interview: Behind the Scenes at Chicago’s Printers Row Lit Fest

Interview: Behind the Scenes at Chicago’s Printers Row Lit Fest

The largest book fair in the Midwest descends upon Chicago this weekend at the 32nd annual Printers Row Lit Fest. More than 100 writers—including Marilynne Robinson, Charlie Jane Anders, Garrard Conley, Sebastian Junger, and Kameron Hurley, as well as Chicago authors Rebecca Makkai, Martin Seay, Joe Meno, Chris Abani, Natalie Moore, and Lori Rader-Day—will join dozens of booksellers and over 100,000 people in one of Chicago’s most historic downtown locales: the eponymous Printer’s Row, once home to the city’s publishing houses.

I spoke with two of the people who’ve made Printers Row happen for the last decade or so about what sets the festival apart and what to expect this weekend. Haley Carlson, National Director of Events & Sponsorships at Tribune Publishing, oversees the business side of the festival: marketing, production, and sponsorship. Teresa Basso Gold, Program Manager of the Printers Row Lit Fest, brings in all the authors, sets the lineup, and curates the whole weekend in terms of programming.

Adam Morgan: Why did the Chicago Tribune purchase the festival from the neighborhood in 2003?

Haley Carlson: It really spoke to our support of the literary community and the written word. Being in the publishing industry ourselves, it felt aligned very closely with our mission. Our sister publication, the Los Angeles Times, has their own festival called the Festival of Books, and we thought it would be a good opportunity to have something similar here in Chicago.

Adam Morgan: What sets Printers Row apart from other literary festivals across the country?

Teresa Basso Gold: First, it takes place in a historic district, a lovely neighborhood, so we’re still able to keep that local feel thanks to our partnership with the Near South Planning Board. But then we’ve been able to attract national authors; we have more on board every year.

Adam Morgan: Over the past 5 years, has attendance being going up, down, or holding steady?

Haley Carlson: As you can imagine, in Chicago it really does fluctuate depending on the weather. On a perfect weekend, attendance has remained steady year over year. We’ve found that we kind of have two different audiences. We have the audience that comes to programming, which is most always sold out, and that’s indoor programming and outdoor tented stages. And then there’s the audience that just comes to the street festival, to browse the new and used booksellers and absorb that atmosphere.

Across the board, our exhibitors and our sponsors have been really consistent every year with how they’ve done in sales. We’ve had some exhibitors that have been with us almost since the beginning that continue to say this is their most successful weekend in terms of sales throughout the year, so that’s really important to us, that we’re giving back in that way as well.

Teresa Basso Gold: And we have so much support from authors, publishers, exhibitors, and attendees. I’ve brought some people from Indiana and Michigan and as soon as the next year rolls around, they want to know the date, because they plan their summers around it.

Adam Morgan: Other than attendance, what measures do you use to quantify a particular year as a success?

Haley Carlson: Our demographic has tended to be the same every year, but in the last 3 years we’ve been working to evolve that into a slightly younger demographic. We have multicultural programming so that we’re not always speaking to the same audience and the same consumer. That’s always a goal. And we measure success in everything from social media chatter to sponsor and exhibitor satisfaction. We do have revenue goals that we seem to hit every year.

Teresa Basso Gold: Also, every year we try to increase our partnerships. We reach out to places like Open Books and other programs that inspire kids and teens to be creative. It’s very, very important for us to give back to the community.

Adam Morgan: How will the 2016 festival be different from years past? What are you looking forward to this summer?

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Haley Carlson: We have a great lineup! Teresa and her team have done a great job procuring some great headliners this year. Another thing we’re trying to do is shrink the footprint of the festival. In the past, it’s been really spread out. We’d have programming at the Chicago Public Library, at the University Center, at Jones College Prep. So this year, we’re not scaling anything back, programming-wise, but we’re really honing in on the original footprint in the Printers Row neighborhood on Dearborn, Polk, and Harrison. That means bringing a lot of headliners to the outdoor stages, more so than we have in the past.

Teresa Basso Gold: I also think this year’s theme speaks to what the festival is all about. From an author standpoint, our theme this year is “What’s Your Story?” and so many authors are excited to share their story and how they got to this point in their careers and what they’re doing today. I’m really excited about it. We’re all excited to share a story.

Adam Morgan: Do you have any favorite memories from the festival in years past?

Haley Carlson: We have so many! But if I had to pick one, we had a wedding right in the middle of the festival. We were contacted by a couple who met at the event, and they asked if they could get married within the book tent. So we basically helped them throw a wedding!

I think that speaks to how beloved this event is by so many people. I know when I first came here and started working on the event, the love and the appreciation that people have for this event, I couldn’t grasp it until I experienced my first festival, and I think that memory kind of sums it up.

Teresa Basso Gold: Watching the festival come alive, from the tents and the signage to the authors and exhibitors arriving … every year that really stands out.

Printers Row Lit Fest runs Saturday, June 11 through Sunday, June 12. Admission to the festival is free, but some events require purchasing a ticket.

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