AJC Bookshelf: Mailchimp, MJCCA host virtual book fests

By the Books is a virtual book festival hosted by Mailchimp. Contributed.

The AJC Decatur Book Festival (DBF) isn’t the only virtual book festival in town.

Since 2015, Atlanta-based marketing company Mailchimp has sponsored and curated its own literary track at DBF, bringing in such high-profile authors as Roxane Gay and Alexander Chee. When COVID-19 forced DBF to scale back and go virtual this year, Mailchimp lost its literary platform. So, last month it launched its own virtual book festival called By the Books, which continues through Labor Day.

I’ve often wondered why Mailchimp, a $700 million company that specializes in email marketing for small businesses, puts so much energy into promoting books and authors, so I asked Talia Gerecitano, head of marketing.

“Among the software platforms for small businesses, we’re known as the friendly and creative brand, and we felt like that gave us a little bit of license to try to put different types of content in front of customers,” said Gerecitano. “What we’re trying to do is embody the emotions and the emotional side of being an entrepreneur.”

Authors are entrepreneurs, too, Gerecitano pointed out. And one of the mantras at Mailchimp is to celebrate the underdog. It just made sense to do something to support writers at a time when book festivals and book tours were being canceled, she said.

“When (DBF) was canceled, we still wanted to support the authors and talk about books in some way. At the same time, we’d always used (our DBF track) as the basis of an internal employee reading program called Read This Summer. We, like everyone else, wanted to figure out what is the virtual version of this?”

Reese Witherspoon collaborated with Mailchimp on its virtual book festival, By the Books.

Credit: AP file photo

Credit: AP file photo

Last year, the company launched Mailchimp Presents, a streaming platform of original content at mailchimp.com/presents. Much of the content is short, informational videos for small business owners, but some of it isn’t. In March, when South By Southwest was canceled, Mailchimp began streaming the short films that were slated to debut at the festival.

Among them is a heartwarming short called “Snare” directed by Madeleine Gottlieb about a 50-something man who’s rekindled his dream of being a punk rock drummer to the embarrassment of his grown son, also a struggling musician. It’s a perfect illustration of how Mailchimp champions individuals who pursue their dreams.

Mailchimp Presents provided the perfect platform for By the Books. Among the virtual book festival’s multifaceted programming is a recommended reading list of 15 books. Curated by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, who host the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend” and who published the book “Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close” in July, the books emphasize women writers and writers of color. Titles include “Wow, No Thank You” by Samantha Irby, “A Black Women’s History of the United States” by Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross, and “Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life” by Lulu Miller. There is also a series of Q&As Sow and Friedman conducted with some of the featured authors. For instance, Danez Smith and Cathy Park Hong talk about writing as a form of protest and infusing humor with poetry and prose.

Other components include a weekly podcast called “The Books That Changed Us” hosted by Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky, who talk to authors such as Saeed Jones and Rebecca Traister about the books they love. Ashley C. Ford curates a selection of essays, including one by Heather Havrilesky (New York magazine’s Ask Polly columnist) called “Friendship in the Time of COVID.” And there is a documentary series on writers such as James Baldwin, Fran Lebowitz and Maurice Sendak.

The newest addition to By the Books is Book Shook, a collaboration with Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine media company. The three-episode video series features three actresses — Witherspoon, Jameela Jamil (“The Good Place”) and Yada Shahidi (“Black-ish”) — talking about the books that moved them. Featured titles include “Hunger” by Roxane Gay, “The Measure of Our Success” by Marian Wright Edelman and “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin.

Deepak Chopra presents an author talk for the MJCCA Book Festival on Sept. 30. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

The Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA) is also presenting a virtual book festival this year. In place of its annual fall event, the organization has launched MJCCA Book Fest in Your Living Room, a series of live virtual author talks presented via Zoom. Some events are free and others cost but include a copy of the book. Registration is required at atlantajcc.org.

The lineup includes the big-name, bestselling authors we’ve come to expect from this prestigious book festival. Upcoming are Erin Brockovich (8 p.m. Aug. 30), Ken Follett (1 p.m. Sept. 15, $42), Jodi Picoult (8 p.m. Sept. 23, $36) and Deepak Chopra (8 p.m. Sept. 30, $31), among others.

Watching authors speak online isn’t the same thing as seeing them live, but it’s pretty close. From a viewer’s perspective, you can’t beat the convenience. From a presenter’s perspective, you can’t beat the ability to reach audiences far outside the immediate environs. It will be interesting to see if virtual programming continues after the pandemic passes. I sure hope so.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor for the AJC. svanatten@ajc.com.

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