Julie Buntin is the literary events coordinator at powerHouse Arena, where she curates, manages, and publicizes between 15 and 20 book events a month. Previously she worked for the NYU Creative Writing Program as the reading series assistant, helping select fiction readers, write introductions, and tame a finicky audio system. As a co-curator of the KGB Emerging Writers Reading Series in 2010, she worked with writers like Anne Enright, Chad Harbach, Nick Flynn, and many, many more. After work, you can find her writing freelance book reviews for Publishers Weekly, reading like a maniac, and obsessing over her novel. Julie is finishing up her MFA fiction thesis at NYU. Her prose can be found in Sonora Review and Explosion-Proof, and she is an editor-at-large at Bodega Magazine.
powerHouse Arena is Togather’s downstairs neighbor in Dumbo, so we met up with Julie over lunch to talk about punk rock posters, unlikely author pairings, how bringing two disparate audiences together can lead to a really amazing event, and how not to pitch your event to her. (“I think my friends might come” is a no-no.)
Togather: Are there any events you’ve done in the past few months that really stand out?
Julie: Food events! I dunno what it is about books and drinking, but food helps and alcohol is pretty much a must. Preferably a lot, and preferably with an inventive or thematic twist. If your novel is full of whiskey drinkers, let’s serve whiskey cocktails instead of white wine. We just did a great food event for Valentine’s Day—“The Valentine’s Day Cookie Swap” we called it. It featured Smitten Kitchen blogger Deb Perelman, and Adam Roberts who wrote a cookbook called Secrets of the Best Chefs, plus the guys from Baked and Dawn Casale from One Girl Cookies. They brought cookies, and most of the audience brought cookies, and we set up a huge table. Everyone just filled a take home container with a sampling of different cookies. And people really represented! All the hardcore home cooks of New York brought fancy cookie masterpieces and there was a great conversation about the New York food scene and things the author/chefs had baked in the past, and then we had a signing.
I also love when you meet a super famous or super literary author, and realize how intensely charming and down to earth they can be. We had David Mitchell here in October—Tea Obreht was interviewing him about the Cloud Atlas film adaptation—they had the room wrapped around their fingers. Both writers understood that the audience was there to get something they couldn’t get from reading the book alone—the chance to experience a favorite author’s personality.
Togather: So it was almost more of a social thing?
Julie: Definitely. I love booking events that aren’t straight readings and Q&As. If it’s a discussion with a multimedia element where you have a slideshow with images or you have a book trailer that you can show, it helps engage a crowd. Adam Mansbach, who wrote a terrific book called Rage is Back, had a wonderful launch where he had his cover designer, Blake Lethem, do a graffiti installation on our gallery wall. DJ J.PERIOD made a playlist inspired by Adam’s book, and he came and live DJ’d the evening.
I also like when disparate writers are brought together. Last Friday we had A.S. Byatt in conversation with Tracy K. Smith and Leonard Lopate moderated. It was a collision of two different literary spheres—on the one hand, the author of an elegiac Pulitzer winning book of poems, and on the other, a Man-Booker winner known for writing sprawling academic novels. People come to an event like that and wonder why the writers are together. It was so exciting to watch Smith and Byatt interact, and see the connections between their books and writing philosophies come forth via conversation. Plus hardcore A.S. Byatt fans were buying Tracy’s book, and vice versa, so lots of people left having discovered a new author.
Togather: How did you go about booking something like that?
Julie: For that event both writers were affiliated with Rolex, which has an arts and mentorship initiative. But in some cases if an author wants to have an event but has another event somewhere else in the city—say, Center For Fiction—the question is “what can you bring to this event that makes it different than that one?” Do you have a friend who does something a little bit to the left of what you do? Having another writer is good, but if you get your best friend who just wrote a coming of age novel and you just wrote a coming of age novel and they are both literary fiction, maybe that’s not going to create the most dynamic conversation. Sometimes it might, but in terms of getting an audience or expanding upon an audience that’s built in… what if you had a sportswriter talk to you about baseball if that’s a big part of your book?
Togather: I like that idea of creating these unlikely pairings.
Julie: Yeah, and I love to get a media person—someone from Tin House or Paris Review or n+1—to moderate. If you’re an author try to get someone to interview you who has a following or has connections to a social media channel.
Togather: How do you publicize your events? What’s the process like to get the word out about an event like that?
Julie: We send out a newsletter every week that highlights six or seven upcoming events. We sent one out right before I came here and the RSVP section of my inbox fills up immediately after that. And then of course we do Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr. I send out a listing release, which is basically a press release for the event, to a slew of contacts that are tailored to what the event is—so if I’m doing a kids event I send it to my kids list, if it’s a literary thing I’ll send it to MFA programs. I do that four weeks before and two weeks before an event. And if it’s something that I really want to get traction, I’ll just email someone I know at New York Magazine or my contact at Time Out New York.
We worked with Brandon Stosuy at Pitchfork—he moderated the Peter Hook [bassist from Joy Division and New Order] event we did. We’re doing this really cool book launch for Quirk Books, it’s this book called Swissted, which is by a designer named Mike Joyce that did a Swiss-inspired mashup of punk bands as posters. I thought, the Pitchfork people would like this. So I sent it to them and asked if they could tweet about it. Basically you just need to be an advocate for every event and rely on word of mouth as much as you can.
Togather: Speaking of word of mouth, if I’m a new author who wants to speak at your store, how should I go about contacting you? What advice would you give to someone to help get the word out?
Julie: I would encourage new authors to be organized! I can’t tell you how many times I get half-baked pitches. As an event planner, I care about each event, but I have trouble getting behind something if someone emails me and says that they could “maybe get this contributor from my book” and “what if there was beer?” and “I think my friends will come.” Instead of being unsure you should treat it very seriously: write down how many people you are expecting, what your goals are for the event. Let me know what your programming will be. Are you going to read or talk about your book or do something more than that? Where are you doing events and where have you done other events? What kind of social media presence do you have? A lot of authors will come to me and give me a book and say “my book just came out I’d love to do stuff at your store!” But what they don’t realize is they just gave me a ton of work. If you’re not going through a publicist, then I want the event proposal to be very clean and detailed as possible.
Togather: What do you personally look for in a book event? Something that you might go to outside of work.
Julie: I want an event to surprise me. There are so many things to do in New York—why would I go to your book event unless I love your book already, or I know you, or you have food or drinks or music or a dynamic moderator or another element to capture my imagination?