A Literary Festival for Diverse Voices Finds a Home Online

By The Books brings the canceled Decatur Book Festival to the virtual world

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Mailchimp, Kin, and Code and Theory are boosting diverse authors with a virtual book fair like no other. By The Books
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What happens when you hand over the reins of a literary festival to the hosts of the popular feminist podcast Call Your Girlfriend? You get By The Books: A Collection of Rising Voices, a highly diverse online lit fest.

By The Books starts today and is curated by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow—the hosts of Call Your Girlfriend and co-authors of the book Big Friendship—with an additional program of essays curated by fellow writer/podcaster Ashley C. Ford.

The festival is presented by Mailchimp—which typically partners with Atlanta’s currently canceled Decatur Book Festival—and agencies Code and Theory, and Kin. With women and Black leaders at the forefront of the festival, By The Books prioritizes the voices that need to be heard most right now.

“In developing the idea and name for the program, it was critical that this virtual book festival support and elevate diverse authors and their page-turning perspectives,” said Kwame Taylor-Hayford, co-founder of Kin. “By The Books aims to create positive change in the independent literary community by providing support to underrepresented authors.”

Sarita Alami, director of programming at Mailchimp Studios, said the challenge was how to harness the power of the Decatur Book Festival after its cancellation.

“We had to find a new way to promote these authors facing disrupted book launches and an uncertain moment in publishing,” Alami said. “By The Books is an attempt to take the book festival experience online, curate new conversations, commission new writing and provide a space to engage with stories that we want to share.”

The website’s design allows readers to virtually pull a book off a shelf and start reading. Code and Theory’s associate design director Anton Kolisnyk said the interactive elements were inspired by the team’s bookshelves at their homes.

“We are most proud of how we were able to build a flexible design system that generates unique book designs and shelves for a new site,” Kolisnyk said. “And to express the summer vibe, we created a color palette that was inspired by Henri Matisse’s famous Flowers painting.”

The festival takes a multichannel approach: an author reading series, a curated essay collection, two podcasts, a film series and a branded content series will all be available online.

Just a few of the authors and titles featured at By The Books:

  • “Real Life” by Brandon Taylor 
  • “Minor Feelings” by Cathy Park Hong 
  • “Homie” by Danez Smith
  • “Rodham” by Curtis Sittenfeld
  • “Always Home” by Fanny Singer
  • “A Black Women’s History of the United States” by Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross
  • “Lifting as We Climb” by Evette Dionne
  • “In the Dream House” by Carmen Maria Machado
  • “Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love and the Hidden Order of Life” by Lulu Miller 
  • “Life Events” by Karolina Waclawiak
  • “Look” by Zan Romanoff 
  • “I Don’t Want to Die Poor: Essays” by Michael Arceneaux 
  • “Wow, No Thank You” by Samantha Irby
  • “Mostly Dead Things” by Kristen Arnett

A new podcast titled The Books That Changed Us launches as a festival companion, with hosts Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky of the Longform podcast, with guests Shea Serrano and Saeed Jones talking through their literary faves. There’s also a conversation series, where authors like Arceneaux and Irby will discuss their works together. The film festival portion kicks off July 13, with Raoul Peck’s 2016 James Baldwin doc I Am Not Your Negro streaming free online. 

“When we pick up a book by a fresh new voice, it reshapes our perspective,” said Sophie Ozoux, co-founder at Kin. “It gives us a different lens to see the world through. Something new to stand up for. This virtual book festival experience stands for just that.”

@MaryEmilyOHara maryemily.ohara@adweek.com Mary Emily O'Hara is a diversity and inclusion reporter. They specialize in covering LGBTQ+ issues and other underrepresented communities.