Conferences, Festivals Taking a Hit

Kevin Nance
From the May/June 2009 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Although the current recession is hammering all sectors of the literary economy, including publishers of books and magazines, booksellers, and service organizations—not to mention writers themselves—one of the community's smallest but most important components is proving particularly vulnerable. Many writers conferences, workshops, and festivals are under severe stress this year, with several having postponed or canceled their 2009 events due to lower-than-expected registration, shrinking stock portfolios, dwindling support from private donors and foundations, and other financial problems.

The list of affected events is lengthy and includes both established and relatively new names, as well as those sponsored by nonprofit and privately operated organizations. The thirty-six-year-old Santa Barbara Writers Conference has announced a "hiatus" in 2009, for example, as has the Lambda Literary Foundation's two-year-old writers retreat in Los Angeles.

"When you're talking about businesses that depend on discretionary income, those are the first to be hit hard in a bad economy," says Marcia Meier, executive director of the conference in Santa Barbara, which usually takes place over a week in June. "Writers are notoriously broke—we don't make a lot of money—and we just aren't sure it's wise to spend whatever we do have at the moment. People are hunkered down. We're hopeful, with the new president, but in the meantime people are thinking, ‘Wow, I'm holding on to my pennies right now.'"

Charles Flowers, Lambda's executive director, has decided to wait until his organization's fledgling retreat can offer writers as much as it possibly can before it resumes. "At least half of the students at the first two retreats received some form of scholarship money, and we just weren't sure we could raise those funds this year. We decided to defer the retreat for a year and come back in 2010, when hopefully there's a better economy."

In the meantime, even some of the best-known literary events are on the brink or beyond. In February the International Poetry Forum, which sponsored poetry readings and performances in Pittsburgh as well as in northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., announced that it would shut down after its stock portfolio dropped by 25 percent. And a month earlier, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, which has seen its own net assets drop by one-third, announced the cancellation of its biennial poetry festival in Waterloo Village, New Jersey. Over the years, the festival has hosted some of the biggest names in poetry; nineteen thousand people attended its most recent edition, in 2008. (In early March, the New Jersey township of Montclair offered to host the festival; to the Newark Star-Ledger, Dodge Foundation president David Grant expressed "cautious optimism" that the festival will be back "in some form in 2010.")

Other events that have been recently canceled or postponed include the Lake Tahoe Writers Conference at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village, Nevada; the Heartland Writers Guild's annual conference in Kennett, Missouri; a novels-in-progress workshop sponsored by Green River Writers in Louisville, Kentucky; the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Writers Workshop in Gainesville, Florida; WordHarvest's Tony Hillerman Writers Conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico; the Catskill Poetry Workshop in Oneonta, New York; and Canada's Halifax International Writers Festival.

While many of these struggling conferences and festivals were supposed to have been held later this spring and summer, signs of the economic slowdown in large-scale literary events were evident as early as last year. The Kenyon Review canceled its biennial literary-studies trip to Italy because of a decrease in sign-ups; the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers' Conference at Chicago State University was postponed due to "funding concerns" (the conference was rescheduled for last month); and the Florida First Coast Writers' Festival was canceled because of "funding issues."

But not everyone is having problems. Some of the nation's most prestigious writers conferences are doing just fine, thanks in part to their reputations, star-studded faculty, guest literary agents, and substantial support from their hosting academic institutions. "So far, so good," says Michael Collier, director of the venerable Bread Loaf Writers' Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont. Applications for the next event, which is being held in August, are holding steady. And although the college has experienced some budget trimming in recent months, partly because of an endowment buffeted by the market, Collier says the downturn hasn't affected the core of the program. "Middlebury is committed to keeping its level of funding for the conference at what it has been," he says.

At the Sewanee Writers Conference at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, student applications for fiction-writing spots at this summer's event (July 14 to July 26) are running even with 2008 levels, while applications in poetry have doubled and playwriting applications have tripled. "I'm sure the economy has had some effect, but we haven't seen it yet," conference director Wyatt Prunty says. "The key to our success has been the quality of our faculty, which continues to be very strong."

Sewanee also benefits from its status as a beneficiary of the Walter E. Dakin Memorial Fund, which was established by the estate of Tennessee Williams. Proceeds from the fund, which is regularly replenished by income from productions of Williams's plays, defray about 30 percent of the cost of the event. It helps, too, that the conference uses university facilities, which include relatively inexpensive housing for students and faculty. Prunty also cites an increased interest from visitors to, which has become a key marketing tool. "That's opened up things for us," he says. "We used to get letters through the mail; now our Web site gets a hundred thousand hits and fifty thousand visitors a year, so we get a lot of e-mails."

Increasingly, smaller conferences and festivals are using the Internet to stay alive. "I want to really look at how we can serve writers in the twenty-first century by continuing some of our workshops online," says Meier of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. "Writing, self-marketing, self-publishing workshops—all these things could continue on the Web, for a fee, and students could stay in contact with their faculty leaders after the conference is over. That's also a great way to keep them connected to us."

And if writers conferences and their organizers are feeling a bit daunted at the moment, many are also defiant. "I'm not giving up," says Karen Newcomb, executive director of the Lake Tahoe event. "We know people want these things. They want to be exposed to writers who know what they're talking about, instructors who know how to teach, agents who can help them get their manuscripts published. So we will definitely try it again. Not sure when, but we will try it again."

Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.