She does the heavy lifting to get a book fair off the ground.
Despite its new-on-the-scene status, the Inspire! Toronto International Book Fair is not messing around. On at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre from November 13 to 16, the fair is expecting between 30,000 and 50,000 visitors in 2014, its inaugural year. Some will be drawn in by the chance to meet big-name authors such as Margaret Atwood and William Gibson. Others will be sitting in on workshops such as “Hip-Hop in the Classroom” and “How to Secure an Agent.” It goes without saying that nearly everyone will be shopping for books.
Nicola Dufficy is the one tasked with managing the frenetic schedule—she’s been the director of programming and operations at Inspire since January 2014. Previously, she spent a year overseeing the five Word on the Street festivals across Canada as the organization’s national festivals director; before that, she was the director of The Word on the Street Toronto for four years. “It’s incredibly exciting to be involved in an event in its inaugural year,” she says of her new role at Inspire, “and so my goal is to create a program and deliver operations where people will come to the event and feel like they’re at an event that’s much older than its first year.”
Dufficy, 32, has been in Toronto for nearly six years. “I fell in love! We came over thinking that we would be here for two years, and here I am, six years later.” Her hometown is Toowoomba, Australia, a “biggish” city of about 130,000 people. She holds a bachelor of Creative Arts from Griffith University and a Bachelor of Education from the University of Southern Queensland.
Our interview with Dufficy—about the power of Post-It notes, the role of self-publishing, and what it takes to wrangle an international author—is below.
Torontoist: Inspire is quite big, with seven stages, three days of programming, and multiple big names coming through. How did you know where to start?
Nicola Dufficy: I had my foundation working at The Word on the Street, and having insight into how to plan book events. The vision of the three executive directors at Inspire was really exciting to me when I accepted the position. So, looking at the foundation that they built with the stages that they wanted to run, my vision was to really go big with the programming. The way that I program is very strategic, so I want to actually draw people around the [venue of the] fair. I don’t just program stage by stage. I actually program the event as a whole. When we put the program together, we’re really looking at a balance of interests, a balance of readers, a balance of ages—everything! I’m very visual, and I put Post-It notes up on the wall so that I can see the whole program at one time, because I want to look across every hour to make sure there’s a mix of things that will interest people.
We have a whole bunch of workshops that are available, and we were really looking at targeting readers and writers. We also have workshops for teachers, librarians, schoolchildren, and a bunch of different writer’s workshops on offer. We really wanted to make it well-rounded: whether you’re interested in writing, whether you’re an established writer, you’re emerging or looking to self-publish, if you’re looking at it from the teaching angle or from an acquisition angle, there’s something for you at the event. We could have done the main program and that would have been enough for our first year, but having those workshops and catering to such a wide range of interests was a huge appeal.
Can you talk about the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit circle? It’s a different format from the rest of the stages, which seem very structured in their programming. This one seems a little looser.
We’re working with a group based out of B.C.—a First Nations publisher, a writer, and an artist—and they’ve helped contribute to and curate the programming. We’ve had a lot of phone conversations over the last few months about the vision for the circle, and it was really to create a platform that was different from the relationship an audience has when there’s a presenter on the stage and an audience in front of them. They really wanted the circle to be more dynamic and intimate and involve discussions between the presenter and the audience. We created a program that was a well-rounded look at what’s happening in First Nations, Métis, and Inuit literature across Canada. There are some writers who have a more traditional approach; we have children’s authors, we have spoken word artists and poets, political writers and playwrights. It’s a huge range of different perspectives, and it’s a really fantastic opportunity to celebrate and create a stage that’s a heartbeat to the fair. The working group was very much responsible for curating the program and coming up with which authors should be involved, and then we basically helped build the circle itself by organizing the travel and putting it together from there.
How did the self-publishing awards get started?
The Association for Art and Social Change, which is one of the producers of the book fair, has partnered with Blurb, the self-publishing company, to create an award that will really celebrate self-published authors. Blurb really feels like it’s an important platform to build because a lot of people are seeing self-publishing as a very exciting and validating option for them. The traditional publishing route has only so much scope when it comes to what they’re able to put out there, and a lot of it based on the profitability and marketability of the titles. And that makes sense, because it’s a business model. What Blurb was finding, and what I find really exciting, is that self-publishing can offer a platform for people who perhaps don’t want to sell thousands of copies of their books. They want to create a niche project that’s going to reach the people that they want it to reach. That goes from an artistic point of view, but they’re also contacted by not-for-profit groups who want to release a book that won’t work on a bookstore shelf, but still really needs to be out there and needs to be published.
What was your biggest coup? What are you most proud of getting out there?
To be able to bring in a big author for the event takes a concerted effort and sometimes many months of different types of proposals. For the big authors in our fair, we created targeted proposals and targeted pitches for the types of events that we’d like them to do. One of the authors I chased for many months was Jeff Kinney, the author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. His [new] book comes out November 4, and I saw the opportunity to bring him to the event and have him do the Canadian launch of his book with us. The Friday of our event is a PD day in Toronto, so a lot of kids are going to be out of school and coming in with parents and grandparents, and we also have schools that are bussing kids in from outside of Toronto. There are so many children who are so excited about Jeff Kinney. I chased Jeff Kinney for four or five months, and I was so happy when we landed him.
It’s generally understood that print sales are dropping and that online retailers are taking over a larger share of the bookselling market. What role do you think book fairs have in selling books?
Two of Inspire’s executive directors launched a feasibility study into why Toronto didn’t have a book fair, and one of the things that came out of their talks with publishers is that what’s missing is the ability for customers and readers to discover new books. I haven’t seen a computer program that can intuitively tell me what I want to read next. Most people want to be able to browse with something tactile, or hear about something from word-of-mouth. The buzzword that we’ve been throwing around is “discoverability.” What our fair offers to readers is discoverability—being able to have a conversation face-to-face with the people who are producing these books, and to hear about new books, and to buy books for their families and friends, and discover their next read. Aside from being an amazing cultural event, it’s about being able to connect creators with readers, and to celebrate reading.
Has the fair faced any major hiccups or challenges?
Any major event is a huge challenge, and a first-year event is always going to be challenging, because you’re really trying to work out what the identity of the event is. All of our staff are very experienced and able to tackle those types of things, but I think in our first year the challenge is really creating that vision and then communicating it to people: who we are, what we want to achieve, what are our policies. It’s working out who we are operationally, so that we can have smooth operations for our publishers and visiting authors. It’s also introducing the world to who we are and what we stand for, and how they can get involved in the event.