Bookfest Goes Bust
Facing Financial Challenges, Decreasing Crowds, and Increasing Irrelevance, Northwest Bookfest Throws in the Towel
After a string of failed executive directors, everyone thought Danielle Bennett might be the one who could turn Northwest Bookfest around. "If anybody can do it, Dani can," a former Bookfest executive director said in February, when Bookfest's board of directors announced they had hired Bennett to run the 2004 festival. Less than two months ago, at a Bookfest "kickoff" party at M Coy Books, where board members and longtime volunteers drank wine and munched on several kinds of cheese, Bennett introduced herself to the crowd and made it clear that she wanted this year's festival to surpass everything the organization had ever done--which wasn't saying much, given recent festivals, though they've put on some great ones in years past. "We're out there looking for some new and better ideas to make Bookfest newer and even better this year," she said. "It's our 10th anniversary and we'd really like to make a splash with it."
Six weeks after the party, Bennett's role in the organization turned rather quickly from well-respected new executive director to unfortunate bearer of really bad news. On Wednesday, May 26, in a long board meeting that one board member later described to me as "contemplative" and "difficult," the board of Northwest Bookfest decided to cancel the 2004 festival--slated for October 23 and 24 at Sand Point Magnuson Park--and suspend all operations as of June 30. (The news broke last Thursday afternoon on The Stranger's website and was reported the next day in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Times.) According to Bennett and several board members, the decision, made official by an 11-2 vote, had "been coming for a while," as Bennett put it, and was the culmination of several weeks' worth of conversations.
"If we were going to try to put on another festival at the caliber that we wanted to, then we knew we would be at a deficit [when it was over], and that would be irresponsible," Bennett said last week. Bookfest faced a $60,000 deficit after the 2002 festival. The following year, to try to earn more money off the two-day event that takes the organization a full year to produce, attendees were charged an admission fee for the first time. Admission dropped by more than half. Nine thousand people turned up for the 2003 festival, compared to an estimated 20,000 in 2002 and 25,000 in 2001.
"It was the only decision that we could make at this time. We determined that we couldn't financially put on the program," board president Jon Schorr said last week, adding, "We all wanted to make it [work]. Everyone [on the board] was very disappointed to make this decision."
The argument over what Bookfest could have done better is now hypothetical, but what no one seems exactly ready to admit is that if recent festivals had been better and more accessible (and more interesting), they would have drawn more paying vendors and more paying attendees, and the finances would likely have fallen into place. Financial instability, dwindling attendance, the remoteness of the Sand Point venue, and increasing criticism about the quality of the festival are among the problems that have plagued Bookfest in recent years. The Seattle Times, Bookfest's presenting sponsor, pulled its longstanding backing after the most recent festival. Though the official line is that the board voted to end the festival because of financial concerns, Bennett told the P-I that "many factors contributed to the festival's demise."
News of the board's decision was not yet widely known last Thursday, the day after the fateful vote, even among people close to the organization. One board member who hadn't been at the meeting, contacted last Thursday afternoon by The Stranger for comment, was still in the dark. Likewise, news of the death of Seattle's largest annual literary festival came as a shock to past staffers, current volunteers, and anyone familiar with the optimistic tone the Bookfest board has maintained through recent tough times (and dismal festivals). As recently as three weeks ago, The Stranger published a letter to the editor from Bennett, written in response to a long piece unfavorably comparing Bookfest to a better literary festival in Spokane ["The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Books Festival," Christopher Frizzelle, April 29]. In her letter, Bennett wrote: "I've been involved with Northwest Bookfest since its first year in 1995. It's my dream, my passion, and my 10th anniversary, too. I'm here and I'm NOT going anywhere."
This kind of resolve and the confidence Bennett exuded at the kickoff party in April are exactly what make the sudden news so surprising. "There were a lot of sponsorship proposals out on the table at that point. The optimistic feeling was that they were going to come through, and they didn't," board member Rick Lockard explained last week. "Six weeks ago, things looked different. Or at least we had hope."
"I was a real fan of Danielle Bennett and I know she had the best interests of Bookfest at heart," Kris Molesworth, executive director of Bookfest from 1998 to 2001, said last week. "If Dani couldn't make it work, I don't know who could."
Now, of course, Bennett will not have the opportunity to produce any festival whatsoever, and as of the end of the month will be out of a job. (Last week she answered The Stranger's questions by phone while both putting the finishing touches on a written statement and ignoring another phone that rang incessantly in the background.)
"I think this is a city that deserves a great festival," said Era Schrepfer, who served as Bookfest's executive director in 2002 and as a Bookfest staffer for four years before that. "It doesn't mean Seattle doesn't deserve a festival, just because an organization makes some bad decisions." She added, "Most people don't understand how expensive or difficult it is to do [a festival like this one]."
Kitty Harmon, who founded Bookfest 10 years ago, did not return a request for comment.
The failure of this once-great tradition calls into question whether Seattle, with so many other literary programs, can support a major book festival anymore. "We just don't know the answer to that," said board president Schorr. "It was evident that we weren't going to be able to do it."