Jennifer Widman has served as the director of the South Dakota Center for the Book, housed in the South Dakota Humanities Council, since 2012. Her primary responsibilities include planning and executing the many components of the annual South Dakota Festival of Books, as well as coordinating the One Book South Dakota, the Young Readers Initiative, and other literature-related programs. An avid reader and lifelong South Dakotan, Jennifer earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from South Dakota State University in 1990 and 1995, respectively. Before coming to the Council, she taught high school English and journalism, worked as a writer and editor for SDSU University Marketing and Communications, and taught in the SDSU English Department.
Jennifer, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Could you offer a brief history of your event and what led to its creation? How is your event experience unique to others like it?
The South Dakota Festival of Books launched in 2003, immediately following the establishment of the state’s Center for the Book in 2002. The first Center and Festival director, Sherry DeBoer, had traveled the country visiting other centers and festivals to learn about their programs, and she worked with an advisory committee to determine how to implement their best ideas in South Dakota. They held the first Festival in Deadwood, and the rest is history!
We are unique in that we are a smaller event compared to many festivals and conventions, but we do strive to build the highest-quality lineup possible and to emphasize the strengths that come with a more intimate event, like opportunities for author networking. We have the dual goals of bringing nationally-known authors to South Dakota and of highlighting the best in local and regional talent, so about half of our lineup each year includes authors who live in the state or have another connection to it. This not only allows our audiences to meet a wide range of writers, but also allows those writers to mingle with one another, developing and renewing relationships. National Book Award winner and frequent Festival presenter Pete Dexter, who attended college in South Dakota, has told us that the event feels a little like a family reunion, and he loves that aspect of it.
With the popularity of events growing worldwide, event organizers are challenged on many levels, including competitive marketing strategies, maintaining the safety of guests and attendees, offering a multi-faced agenda to meet multiple interests, and so forth. What have been some of your hurdles and how did you overcome them?
Marketing is always a challenge. We’re fortunate that there’s no other literary event of this magnitude or quality in the state, so we’re not in direct competition for audience members in that sense. However, there are always many other events and responsibilities competing for people’s time, and it can be hard to break through that background noise, so to speak, and convince people that our Festival is the activity they should choose for a long weekend or even just for a full day. Once we get people to an event, though, they usually become loyal Festival fans!
Many of our challenges have to do with the fact that we’re a rural state with a small population but a large geographical area. So that we can share attendees’ travel burdens fairly, we hold the Festival on the western edge of the state (in the Wild West town of Deadwood, in the beautiful Black Hills) in the odd-numbered years and on the eastern edge (our primary host towns have been Sioux Falls and Brookings) in the even years. Our office is in Brookings, and Sioux Falls is only an hour’s drive away, but Deadwood is almost a seven-hour trip, so that kind of travel for planning meetings and the event itself is a huge challenge for staff. However, we all love the Deadwood atmosphere, and we have an absolutely fabulous group of local volunteers there, so it’s definitely worth the road miles!
Another challenge is simply putting on an event of this size – 10,000 session attendees, more than 100 individual events in as many as 20 venues, 60-70 presenters – with a non-profit budget and a staff of only six, two of whom are part-time and one of whom works off-site. Fortunately, Sherry and her committee developed an excellent organizational template for the event, and we learn a little more about increasing our efficiency each year, so with that experience – and, again, our tremendous volunteers – we make it happen!
Book festivals, conventions, etc. can often be intimidating for unseasoned authors. What advice would you offer to help them have a positive experience at your event? Do you offer panels or other special activities for them to interact directly with their readers?
A tagline we often use at the South Dakota Festival of Books is “Bringing Readers and Writers Together,” and we strive to create opportunities for that to happen. We kick off each Festival with an evening reception for participating authors and Festival volunteers, as well as interested members of the public, who can buy tickets. We also include panel discussions among our Festival sessions. Perhaps the best opportunities for author/attendee interaction are our writing workshops, which are generally smaller, longer sessions that allow for one-on-one interaction, and our mass book signings, at which all authors have the chance to talk with their fans.
This is an area in which the smaller size of our Festival is an advantage. As I mentioned before, authors often praise the intimate feel of the event and tell us we’ve created an environment in which casual conversations among authors and between authors and attendees happen organically, whether during signings, between sessions, or while exploring the area. For example, on any given evening at a Deadwood Festival, you might find a couple of writers and a couple of readers sitting at a table in Saloon No. 10 (where Wild Bill Hickock was shot), having a drink and talking about books! Considering all that, my advice to authors is to come to the opening reception, attend other authors’ presentations, and always leave time for Q&A at the end of their own sessions. All of that can lead to some great connections.
While the majority of our exhibitors are authors or publishers, we don’t have a formal policy excluding any particular type of vendor. While that could leave us open to problematic situations in the future, rejection of a legitimate business or organization also presents the potential for accusations of discrimination, so we’d be very hesitant to do that. I’m definitely interested in hearing how other events handle such issues when they arise.
When is your next scheduled event and where can interested parties find more information? Anything more you would like to add?
The 17th annual South Dakota Festival of Books will take place Oct. 4-6, 2019, in Deadwood. Learn more at www.sdbookfestival.com.
It has been a pleasure, Jennifer!