For 48 hours each weekend, C-SPAN’s BookTV gives readers nonstop access to authors appearing at town halls, literary festivals, and bookstores from Washington, D.C., to Washington State. From studios in an unassuming office building near Union Station, BookTV is led by senior executive producer Peter Slen and has amassed 200,000 hours of programming, all of which is archived online for viewers.
BookTV grew out of C-SPAN’s Booknotes program, which launched in 1989. Over time, says Slen, with so many authors to cover, C-SPAN decided to broaden its coverage and created BookTV in 1998. A dedicated staff of six now coordinate coverage of more than 800 events for nonfiction books a year. Half of those events are filmed outside of the capital.
“Where we can get out there, it’s a good thing,” says Slen, who rattles off a list of independent bookstores and festivals with whom BookTV regularly works, from Denver’s Tattered Cover to Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company. In that way, he hopes the program gives readers a window into the book culture of the entire country. “If you turn on BookTV, you’re seeing a bookstore—you’re not just seeing Washington and New York authors.”
The other half of BookTV’s coverage is in Washington, D.C., however, and the programming is widely recognized by the area’s publishers, think tanks, and literary institutions as an essential component of any author tour. BookTV covers so many events at nearby Politics and Prose Bookstore, its crew leaves a set of lights there permanently. At the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “We have a dedicated table in our AV room for C-SPAN,” says the institute’s director of communications Jeffrey Rubin. “Either they’re covering our books or our people are covering other books.”
Even with marketing that reaches across many major media platforms, Marji Ross, president and publisher of Washington, D.C.–based Regnery Publishing, says C-SPAN provides an essential forum that can’t be replicated. “When we plan events,” says Ross, “we always focus on events where we can get C-SPAN to cover the author.”
In a politically charged city, such universal respect stands apart, and Slen sees the impartiality of the programming as the attribute that continues to make it a respected forum. “Our goal is to get lots of points of view on the air,” he says. “We don’t determine the national conversation. We cover the national conversation.”
For Slen there’s a measure of pride in the longevity of an idea that began with a simple, “Let’s give it a try.”
“BookTV is the only place that I can think of where book talks are on the air,” he says. “Sure, you have Terry Gross’s Fresh Air. You have Good Morning America. But authors here have an hour.”
All over the country, he says, there are readers who want to see those authors speak, but “can’t attend—so we bring them there.”