Libraries, authors, publishers, and bookstores have long found ways to collaborate around public programs. When libraries have an important occasion—like an annual gala—publishers often lend their support by underwriting the appearance of a well-known author. And for first-time and emerging authors, a library author series is often the only chance they have to connect to a live audience and develop a readership. But seldom is there an event like St. Paul, Minn.'s Opus & Olives, where everyone in the publishing food chain benefits hugely.
Opus & Olives, a fund-raiser created by the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library (FSPPL)—in partnership with an international financial services firm, RBC Wealth Management, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press—is a “celebration of fine print and fine food,” featuring authors who interact with a crowd that pays dearly for the privilege. It's also a crowd that has almost doubled since the fund-raiser's start, from 400 to a sold-out crowd of 796 attendees this year.
The 3,000-member friends group began Opus & Olives in 2004 with the goal of raising both the profile of the 14-branch St. Paul Public Library within the city as well as increasing community support.
After netting $40,000 its first year, annual profits have ranged between $12,000 and $20,000 above the previous year's take. FSPPL made a profit of $102,000 in 2008, $12,000 above 2007's $90,000, of which 80% went toward library support and programming, and 20% to the Pioneer Press's Newspapers in Education literacy program.
The impact has gone beyond revenue. In 2008, researchers compiling the annual rankings of America's most literate cities called St. Paul “the rising star of literate cities,” specifically citing a significant upward trend in library activity in recent years.
Opus & Olives has not only raised a lot of money and notice for the St. Paul Public Library. It has also gained a reputation—from the perspective of major publishers—as a big moneymaker. Book sales at the event, which are coordinated by the Red Balloon Bookshop, have hovered around $15,000 for the past five years in sales of both frontlist and backlist titles, with another $5,000 in advance book sales to RBC Wealth Management, which distributes the books beforehand to top clients at an afternoon reception for them and the authors. FSPPL receives 25% of net revenues from all Opus & Olives—related book sales from the Red Balloon, which sells the books at full retail price.
The Secret Sauce
The Opus & Olives evening kicks off with book sales and signings, followed by cocktails, dinner, and a program featuring five authors speaking for 15 minutes each. The party continues afterwards with yet more book sales and signings.
When planners are asked why Opus & Olives has struck such a chord with local booklovers, they give several reasons. “We don't ask for any money at the event,” explains Wendy Moylan, FSPPL director of institutional relations. “It's just a fun party with book people. So corporate sponsors feel great about bringing their clients, and people keep coming back.”
“The program is really well-balanced; we strive for a variety of genres,” declares Sue Hall, a veteran library strategic planning consultant, who has contracted with FSPPL since 2005 to coordinate all the logistics of its major fund-raising event.
“We've got something for everybody: we've got authors for serious readers, we've got authors for mystery readers,” she says. Of 31 published authors who've participated in Opus & Olives to date, nine have been mystery/thriller writers, 10 either historians or journalists, and five authors best known for writing “women's fiction.”
Hall, who is primarily responsible for selecting the authors to invite each year, bases her choices largely on pre-pub book reviews, as well as consultations with FSPPL staff and its 45-member board. Her focus is on a balance of nonfiction and fiction writers who are touring, but may not otherwise travel to the Twin Cities.
Past participants have included the poet Nikki Giovanni, novelist Anita Diamant, journalist Bob Greene, BBC broadcaster Frank Delaney, British mystery writer Val McDermid, and Civil War historian James M. McPherson.
As in previous years, October 25's event featured a potent mix of big names and emerging voices: the evening's emcee, debut author Mike Walsh (Bowling Across America) was followed by Michael Connelly (Nine Dragons), who informed the crowd he wouldn't be standing before them that evening were it not for a librarian in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who'd suggested when he was 12 that he read To Kill a Mockingbird, thus awakening his desire to become a writer himself.
Julia Glass (I See You Everywhere), who won the 2002 National Book Award for Three Junes, also emphasized the importance of books in her life, describing various libraries she has frequented, from the public library where she shelved books during her youth to the Yale University library, as places where romance inevitably blossomed for her.
Shifting from libraries to current events, New Yorker staff writer and CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin (The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court) spoke of now-retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's role in the 2000 presidential election crisis, while Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, ended the program on a powerful note by taking turns relating the compelling backstory to their book, Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption, which recounts how Cotton spent 11 years in prison after Thompson-Cannino wrongly identified him in a police lineup as having raped her.
Publishers Line Up
Another aspect of Opus & Olives that has raised its profile with publishers is that while authors do not receive honoraria, FSPPL covers travel expenses to and from the Twin Cities, lodging, and meals for each author and one guest. This has become especially important in the past year or so, when publishers have been forced to curtail author tours. Publishers are also permitted to schedule their authors at local bookstores and library branches earlier that weekend.
As word has begun spreading throughout the publishing industry about Opus & Olives's successful formula, publishers are competing to snag a spot for their authors about as eagerly as St. Paul's most well-heeled booklovers vie for the highly coveted tickets to the event, which start at $125 per person and go up to $350 per person.
“I'm grateful to them for considering us,” insists Virginia Stanley, the director of library marketing at HarperCollins, which has sent a total of eight authors since 2004 to Opus & Olives.
“It's like hitting the jackpot, getting an author into Opus & Olives,” she adds. “The book sales are great, and the authors always come back happy. The author care and the attention to detail are beyond compare.”
“Sometimes, when a book launches,” declares Marcia Lane Purcell, director of library and academic marketing at Random House, which has sent five authors to speak at the event over the years, “I'll think to myself, this author is perfect for Opus & Olives.”
“I have to confess,” Purcell adds, “I lobby them for certain people. And they come right back at me with a list of writers they're interested in. They're good at lining up interesting people.”
A Replicable Model?
It wasn't always such smooth going for Opus & Olives organizers. Peter Pearson, FSPPL executive director, recalls that, when he initially proposed a gala fund-raiser similar to one held for the Houston (Tex.) Public Library (which discontinued its fund-raiser three years ago), the FSPPL board assumed it would operate at a loss that first year, and ordered Pearson to budget for a $15,000 loss.
And when Pearson and his staff “cold-called” major publishers in early 2004, they had to “beg” marketing directors and publicists just to talk to them, much less consider sending them authors.
“They probably didn't know much, but I was pretty impressed with their wonderful energy and the involvement of their community,” Stanley says of her first meeting with FSPPL representatives at BEA 2004. Stanley suggested mystery writer Laura Lippman as a speaker, as Lippman had a new release out that season, she was available, and she was comfortable speaking before a large crowd.
“We ended up with a pretty good lineup that first year. I don't know how it happened,” Pearson recalls, with a roster that included, besides Lippman, novelist Lorna Landvik; mystery writer John Sandford, nonfiction author Robert Kurson, and former Harper's editor Lewis Lapham.
Both event organizers and publishers are adamant that FSPPL's successful formula for tapping affluent booklovers to raise money for library support can and has been replicated elsewhere, even in smaller cities. Stanley refers to the Martin County, Fla., library's weekend-long Book Mania fund-raiser, which nets about $35,000 each year, while Hall praises the Steamboat Springs, Colo., library's daylong Literary Sojourn fund-raiser, which nets an average of $15,000 each year, plus more than $10,000 that day in sales of the featured authors' frontlist and backlist titles, and an estimated additional $5,000 in pre-event sales.
“I think Opus & Olives can be replicated in a lot of different formats, using the model we use,” Hall insists. “But to make the money we're talking about, you need corporate sponsorship.”
FSPPL's partnership with the local media is essential as well, Moylan says, as the media coverage not only creates a buzz but also draws in corporate sponsors, such as the 25 companies co-sponsoring this year's event. And hiring a consultant to work exclusively on organizing Opus & Olives has also made it possible to build up the event, without FSPPL staff neglecting other fund-raising responsibilities.
“We've branded Opus & Olives as the place to go and be seen,” Hall concludes. “We're even pulling in people from the other side of the Mississippi River [Minneapolis], so we know we're doing it right.”