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Against all odds

Despite a recession and a lack of experience running major public events, Deborah Porter managed to bring a book festival back to Boston

By Danielle Dreilinger
Globe Correspondent / October 10, 2010

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It was the little festival that could.

Amid the worst recession since the Great Depression, mounting anxieties about the future of the printed word, and a nasty storm, thousands of readers put down their books last October and flocked to the first Boston Book Festival.

There they heard readings and presentations by big-name authors like Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, fellow novelists Tom Perrotta, Richard Russo, and Dennis Lehane, former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky, and movie star and celebrity vegetarian author Alicia Silverstone. There were also musical events and activities for children.

“It was a smashing success,’’ said Christopher Castellani, artistic director of the Grub Street creative-writing center and a member of the festival’s literary advisory group.

This year’s event, on Saturday, promises to be bigger and better, with the addition of three venues. Some 130 authors have signed on to participate, up from about 90 last year, and more than twice last year’s 12,000 attendees are expected. The celebration, which takes place in various locations around Copley Square, also will host Boston’s first “One City One Story’’ event, a citywide reading-club discussion of a short story.

The festival, which is the brainchild of Deborah Z. Porter, came about largely thanks to the planning and preparation of an independent nonprofit with a staff of two and a handful of interns. It was an impressive feat, especially considering that some of the nation’s other big-city book festivals are held under the auspices of a city (Baltimore, Free Library of Philadelphia), a college (Miami Dade College), or a major media outlet (Los Angeles Times).

For Porter, the festival’s president, the event’s success represents the culmination of a kind of epic, against-all-odds quest. Porter had never organized a major public event before. In fact, she’d never been to a book festival. In 1987, she started a small nonprofit to find internships for Boston children. After about 10 years, she got a master’s degree in children’s literature, then reviewed books for Kirkus Reviews, Ruminator Review, and WBUR’s now-defunct arts blog.

At the end of 2006, with her youngest daughter almost done with high school, Porter was looking for a big project. She considered starting a lecture series modeled after San Francisco’s City Arts & Lectures. Then her friend Sarah Baker suggested a book festival, as the city had been without one since The Boston Globe discontinued its event in 2004 after a run of more than 30 years. “I thought, why not fill that need?’’ she said. She didn’t know that she was embarking on a nearly three-year odyssey.

“I didn’t really realize how massive [an undertaking] it was,’’ she said in the Cambridge house she shares with her partner, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte. “It took a while to figure it out.’’

She began her research by visiting other events: the New Yorker and PEN World Voices festivals in New York, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and the Monterey Entertainment Gathering, which would eventually serve as a model.

At home, Porter and Baker started pitching their idea to literary and cultural organizations, including the Boston Public Library, PEN New England, Boston Athenaeum, and Grub Street, and they formed an advisory council. Porter also talked to publishers such as the Hachette Book Group and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and to the Boston Foundation.

The cheerleading garnered interest, but little momentum. “Everyone was very eager to have a book festival in Boston,’’ Porter said. “But after months of meetings and discussions I realized that it was up to me to get it off the ground, meaning get funding and just go ahead and start planning.’’ Baker stepped back in May 2008.

Porter quickly discovered that the key to success was raising funds. She declined to share the budget for the one-day celebration. But the Baltimore Book Festival, which features 225 authors and draws about 55,000 people over three days, costs almost $200,000, Tracy Baskerville, communications director of Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, wrote in an e-mail.

The first company to pledge support was Verizon. By the summer of 2008, Porter had raised enough money to make the project a go for 2009, and she hired executive director Emily Pardo to handle event management and logistics. “I wanted to focus on the vision of what the festival should be, the look and feel, and the program,’’ Porter said.

Pardo managed to land the festival’s largest 2009 sponsor when she met Ronald E. Logue, then chief executive of the Boston financial services company State Street, at a networking event.

Logue was unavailable for comment, but State Street, which is not a sponsor this year, said in a statement that it has an obligation as a good corporate citizen to bolster local cultural activities whenever possible.

Other sponsors offered various reasons for getting involved. Boston-based insurer Liberty Mutual, which returned as a patron this year, says its decision was part of a larger commitment to support educational initiatives.

Google’s reasons were more practical. The California firm, which wasn’t involved last year, jumped at the opportunity to become part of this year’s fest, saying that having a presence would give it the chance to publicize its book projects, especially its upcoming e-reading store. “For us it’s an opportunity just to talk’’ to readers, said Boston engineering director Steve Vinter, and “demonstrate all the services we have available today.’’

Other 2010 sponsors include the Boston Foundation and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Funding will remain an issue, as there is no long-term committed sponsor and no financial support from the city. Space for fee-paying exhibitors is limited.

This year, the team wants to attract more individual support. At the festival, 15-second audio spots playing in and around the venues will encourage attendees to text a $10 donation.

And the programming makes every effort to thrill. This year’s keynote speaker, Joyce Carol Oates, will be joined by high-profile writers and thinkers such as Gish Jen, Bill Bryson, Joseph Stiglitz, Juliet Schor, Atul Gawande, Justin Cronin, Joshua Ferris, and Jennifer Haigh. Jamaican-born Marlon James, Daphne Kalotay, a Boston University grad and Brookline resident, and Noni Carter, a Harvard student, are among the emerging novelists taking part in panel discussions.

More sessions will focus on hot-button issues such as the economy, the Middle East, and innovation. Others will delve into the story behind the story, such as the question of how to follow up an early success. There will also be a “kids’ keynote’’ by Jeff Kinney, author of the popular “Diary of a Wimpy Kid’’ series.

Thankfully, the festival does not have to pay authors to attend, Pardo said, adding that they do it to support the cause of books and reading as well as to promote their own work.

In preparation for the “One City One Story’’ discussion, 30,000 free copies of “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face,’’ a short story by Perrotta, have been distributed at locations around the city. The tale was also made available on the festival website, www.bostonbookfest.org. The author and Mayor Thomas Menino will lead the discussion.

While Porter and Co. have managed to follow up on their initial success, they quickly dispel any notions that they are comfortably established.

“When it’s not ridiculously hard work and anxiety-producing, it’s fun,’’ Porter said. “We just have to figure out how to make it happen every year.’’

Danielle Dreilinger, a regular contributor to the Globe, can be reached at somervillescene@gmail.com.