For the past 11-plus years, Maret Orliss, associate director of events, programming at the Los Angeles Times, has been in charge of organizing the newspaper’s weekend-long annual Festival of Books, which takes place each April. For a booklover like her it’s a dream job. But it’s also, she says, a “giant beast of a thing that has a zillion people and a zillion moving parts.”
This year’s festival, held on the campus of USC, included more than 600 speakers and attracted more than 145,000 attendees, making it the largest public literary gathering in the country.
CAM+E: When do you begin programming the festival?
MO: It begins in earnest in the fall when publishing catalogs for spring are coming out. That gives us a good idea of authors who may be touring and interested in taking part. I also put out a call to all our publishing and publicity contacts letting them know we’re formally taking submissions. Editors here at the Times also suggest authors, speakers and topics, and writers who want to pitch themselves can reach out to us through a general email address. In early October we start scheduling regular meetings and in November invitations to authors start going out.
CAM+E: How do you keep track of it all?
MO: It’s a big logic puzzle. You have all these writers and themes and various scheduling concerns. There might be a couple of people you’d like to see in conversation together but one’s only available on Saturday and the other one is only able to attend on Sunday. Before I joined the LA Times I did author events for Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. They did over 300 a year when I worked there. I approach the Festival as if I were doing all the 300 events we did at Vroman’s in a single weekend. We rely on a database that was built for the Festival and, as it gets closer, we’re printing out these giant Excel grids.
CAM+E: What’s your secret weapon?
MO: If there’s a secret weapon it’s that there’s a huge team of dedicated people putting the event together. When there’s an author who has a particular need we’ve never experienced before, everyone works together to figure it out. This year one of my colleagues was working with the TSA to have their bomb dogs come and do a demo for our Travel Stage. The dogs travel in special vehicles that didn’t fit in our garage, so we had to find a special place for them to park.
CAM+E: What do you know now that you didn’t know a decade ago?
MO: I know both how to be flexible and when to stand my ground. The event is always evolving—this year we had more live radio shows and podcasts, for example—and you have to stay open. We want as few TBDs as possible when the festival is getting close, but we always have three or four. I’m constantly figuring out what the real final deadline is, whether that’s for a sponsor or an author we’re desperately trying to get. Still, at some point, you have to say, “If you can’t tell us by this date, we’re putting someone else on the stage.” I’m also happy to do whatever it takes, within reason, to make our authors comfortable. Some request a particular type of pen for signing books; say, a pink or green Sharpie. If a little thing like that will put them at ease when they meet their fans, we’re happy to provide it.