As a book lover since childhood, Cherilyn Parsons longed to be a part of the literary community. So, she risked her security, job stability and comfort for her dream of starting a world-class book festival in Berkeley, California.
Although there had been a book festival in her home region, the San Francisco Bay Area, more than a decade prior, there wasn’t one when Cherilyn decided to take a chance and begin her efforts. And even though she had no prior experience in event planning or the literary world, she did have one very important skill on her resume – fundraising.
“I had no experience in event planning,” she says. “I did not know the literary world. I had no money to start with. But I thought, hey, let’s do the book festival.”
And so, with a background in nonprofit fundraising, most recently at the Center for Investigative Reporting – Cherilyn thought she could apply her experience to help launch a large-scale book fest. And although it wasn’t easy, she made it happen. Now in its third year, the 2-day Bay Area Book Festival draws more than 50,000 attendees and 300 authors for events and panels spanning 9 city blocks in Berkeley.
In episode 43 of I Want Her Job: The Podcast, Host Polina Selyutin discusses with Cheryl how she took her idea to launch, the ups and downs along her path and the personal sacrifices she made to make her dream come true. Read (and listen) on to learn why book festivals are such powerful forums for connecting authors and book lovers, as well as what it takes to create, fund and manage large-scale public events.
TOPICS DISCUSSED IN TODAY’S SHOW:
- Setting The Scene: Cherilyn’s love of books began in her childhood. “I always devoured books,” she says, “ … I always wanted to be a part of the book world.”
- Making The Leap: “I had no experience in event planning,” she says. “I did not know the literary world. I had no money to start with. But I thought, hey, let’s do the book festival.”
- Starting From Scratch: While Cherilyn did have a wealth of experience in fundraising for established nonprofits from prior roles, when it came to raising money for a brand new gig, it was “a completely different ball game.” Often asked, “Who else is funding you?” nobody wanted to step up to the plate to be first in line for an event with no track record. “It was really, really difficult and humbling,” she says. “I was used to doing this and raising funds.”
- The Power Of Partnerships: Cherilyn aimed her focus on building partnerships for her first year of her journey. She worked tirelessly to network to gain buy-in from potential partners. To her, a partnership – even without a financial tie – was just as important as funds for the credibility it would help establish for the festival. “I had to build the partnerships in order to have the credibility that showed other people were involved – and believed – in the festival before others would believe in it financially,” she says.
- The First Wins: Through her work, Cherilyn found launch partners in UC Berkeley and the San Francisco Chronicle. “Credibility is essential,” she says. “Everyone looks at who else is involved to know if they should get involved.”
- It Just Takes One: After getting one donor, Cherilyn then leveraged that support to pitch many more donors.
- Facing Fear: When Cherilyn quit her job to pursue her dream of launching a book festival in the Bay Area, she knew her personal credibility – and her future – was on the line. “I made it up as I went along,” she says. “I mean, honestly, there were nights when I was crying on the floor of my little home office, because someone had said ‘no’ to funding and people didn’t trust me.”
- The Power Of Books: Cherilyn feels books are a solitary, sacred and intimate space. At festivals, book lovers and authors have the opportunity to get out of the solitary and join together in discussion. “It’s a very deep communion – a book – between the reader and the writer,” Cherilyn says. “ … There is something really magic about the private experience of reading, and then the public experience of coming together to share this.” She says she loves how festivals contain, “All these people loving books together.”
- Becoming A Leader: Cherilyn’s goal is for the Bay Area Book Festival to become one of the leading book festivals in the world. Because the Bay Area is so innovative and progressive, she wants the book festival to reflect the spirit and innovation of the region. Additionally, she wants it to maintain a strong international focus, saying that it’s important to hear voices from around the world.
- Did You Know: An impressive 70% of book buyers in the United States are women.