Story Seeker: Blanche Israël
Person interviewed: Jael Richardson, Executive Director and Founder
Interview held: September 22, 2021
Held annually in Brampton, Ontario since 2016, the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) is Canada’s first festival devoted to celebrating underrepresented authors and storytellers. The FOLD provides one-of-a-kind events for kids and adults that engage readers, inspire writers, and empower educators by highlighting important voices in literature.
The FOLD’s annual festival is held in late April and early May. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the FOLD Executive Director and Founder Jael Richardson and her team were poised with full plans ready to go for an in-person festival, including live events for more than 1,000 attendees and a full roster of guest authors flying in from around the world. While many other festivals opted to cancel, the FOLD quickly transitioned to a virtual festival in May. For both its 2020 and 2021 editions, the Festival carefully researched and adopted the latest software, used creativity in its program design, and centred audiences in its decisions, which has made the FOLD a leader to emulate in the literary industry.
The Innovation: Forging ahead with both creative and business innovations
The 2020 festival’s pivot to Zoom occurred over a matter of weeks, in part because the communities that the FOLD served were also the most impacted by COVID-19. “Because we focus on marginalized communities, we knew if there were vulnerable communities involved, we couldn’t hold it for some and exclude others,” said Jael. “So we decided very quickly to move to virtual.”
Their shift to digital required a steep learning curve that ultimately set a new bar for virtual literary festivals.
In 2020, the FOLD’s main goals were to uphold the festival’s values and to learn and adapt on the fly. “That first year, we tried to think about our priorities and figure out how to support our authors during a difficult time,” said Jael. The team’s decision-making was guided by the desire to support artists at a time when many summer and fall festivals were already cancelling all their programming. “At the time that we did it, no one was doing their events,” said Jael. “We were the only literary festival that launched with live events virtually.”
By the following year, the FOLD had acquired the software, support, and knowledge it needed to develop a sleek and carefully curated online experience. Wanting something more sophisticated and customizable than Zoom, the FOLD turned to more specialized options on the market. “I was researching a whole bunch of platforms,” Jael recalled. “I became very obsessed with getting it right.” Jael and her team treated their search as if they were making decisions about an in-person event, using what they would normally spend on their venue as a budget for the online platform. They settled on a highly customizable option called vFairs, which is based out of India. The FOLD, which had previously been free, started charging for the festival experience but still managed to maintain attendance levels while allowing for greater accessibility, reach, and community safety.
Book sales are a big part of any literary festival. In 2020, with conflicting reports about the possibility of transmitting COVID-19 by mail, “we struggled to know if we should even be encouraging book sales,” recalled Jael. In 2021, however, when the risk of transmission via shipping was known to be minimal, supporting the literary market became a major focus. “A big question in the industry is how to get people to buy books online the same way they buy books in person,” said Jael. The FOLD worked with Another Story Bookshop, a local independent bookstore that could not afford to compete with online sales giants by offering free shipping to its customers. The FOLD covered the store’s shipping costs within Canada for the duration of the festival and offered festival swag bags to further incentivize book purchases.
The Challenges: Online social safety, shifts in audience behaviour, and funder pushback
While Jael was proud of what the FOLD accomplished in May 2020, not everything went smoothly. “It was a hot mess of transition,” she said. The organizers were learning how to manage Zoom events as they went along, making them particularly vulnerable to online trolling and socially disruptive behaviours. “We didn’t know how to close the chat, we didn’t know how to go into webinar mode,” Jael recalled. Improving the festival’s ability to minimize safety issues was a critical concern addressed as the FOLD moved to a new platform in 2021.
Audience behaviours evolved rapidly as the pandemic wore on, which caused some programming challenges. Jael noted that “it was hard to know how people would actually consume the content”. One learning from the 2021 Festival is that many attendees were interested in consuming the content retroactively – on-demand rather than live. The festival had avoided programming anything concurrently so that participants could view everything live, but Jael now feels that this may not have been necessary. Because the vFairs platform charges by the day, “you could save money if you do fewer days and offer more sessions in a day, with not all of them live,” Jael noted.
The FOLD did receive some pushback from its funders about choosing a virtual platform that was not Canadian. From Jael’s perspective, however, vFairs was the platform that was most aligned with the Festival’s mission: “yes, they are international, but 90% of the staff are people of colour. So the funders are looking at it as being one thing, and I am looking at it as being another.” While local platforms were explored, Jael noted that these competitors didn’t return their calls or didn’t understand the FOLD’s mission as well as vFairs did.
The Financials: Maintaining funder confidence and developing new revenue streams
In May 2020, with the sudden cancellation of airline and hotel bookings, the FOLD had an opportunity to increase its honoraria for authors. However, there was concern that granting organizations would ask for the budgeted travel money to be returned, so the FOLD put a lot of thought into how to make a case for a virtual festival redesign that would maximize and reallocate the available and budgeted resources. “We wanted to hold onto as much money as possible – this was a rare opportunity for us to spread money around in a different way,” said Jael. That creative thinking paid off in the long term, as funders were interested in investing in organizations who were developing innovative approaches that kept artists working through the pandemic. “Funders want to see that you are innovating,” Jael noted. “We were leaders in this area and will need to ask for more in the future to figure out things for other [festivals] to copy.”
In 2021, the FOLD developed two new revenue streams while maintaining its funding from book publishers and government sources, including the City of Brampton. First, the FOLD started to sell T-shirts and sweatshirts. Second, the FOLD decided to charge an admission fee. Going virtual had allowed the festival to grow from 1,000 live attendees in 2019 to 5,000 unique attendees at the free virtual festival in 2020. In 2021, “attendees had to pay $30, and still we had 4,000 unique attendees. It was a whole new income stream for the festival,” said Jael.
Though it was financially advantageous, the decision to charge admission was made in large part as a crowd-control measure. “If they pay, you can track them and trace them, and respond in kind.” For Jael, seeing that audiences felt the festival experience was worth paying for was a huge lesson. “We hemmed and hawed about it being paid. Financially, it puts up a barrier, but in my experience, people are more likely to come to paid events than free events, and the turnout is a lot more predictable.” Jael noted that there are still ways for community members who don’t have the means to attend the FOLD for free, such as the Festival’s Patron Pass Program, which provides a festival pass to readers and writers who may not otherwise be able to attend a literary festival.
The Takeaways: Responsiveness and accessibility
Jael believes that the pandemic was an opportunity for organizations like the FOLD to become more nimble. As a young organization, the FOLD embraced the shift to business models that blur the traditional divide between the for-profit sector’s values of growth and customer responsiveness and the not-for-profit sector’s community focus. “Corporations always have to adapt to what customers are doing, where and when they are doing it. [Not-for-profit organizations] often delay that,” said Jael. “If you are interested in growth, you have to pay attention and respond.” She noted that literature has had an advantage over other artforms during the pandemic due to its flexibility: “live events, music, dance, theatre – those are really hard to duplicate in a virtual space. Reading had a better time: book sales were up.”
For Jael, it was clear from the first virtual festival that an online offering will be an essential part of the FOLD’s programming in the future. What the Festival was able to achieve virtually aligns with its accessibility values. “Something important has happened during the pandemic: it has made everything become more accessible virtually,” said Jael. The FOLD was able to reach up to five times more people because it was virtual. “I think it is going to increase our budget, but for the right reasons – to reach more people.” That being said, Jael is cautious not to assume that this expansion is limitless. “In terms of numbers, our audiences are still largely Canadian, with most attendees from Toronto. But we had big bursts from Vancouver and Ottawa, people who would have never been able to come to the FOLD before.”