New Yorker Sells Out Literary Festival Tix

Bring on the Groupies!

Last month, The New Yorker announced it will celebrate its 75th anniversary with a May literary festival, at which New Yorker writers will read fiction and lead nonfiction panels. The unspoken risk was that the magazine’s talent stable might lack celebrity draw. But as of last week, 95 percent of 10,000 tickets were sold, according to New Yorker publisher David Carey. “We’re over the moon,” Carey says of the audience response. Editor David Remnick calls it “very gratifying.”

Literary festivals are untested in the U.S., yet the notion of creative writer as celebrity is gaining ground: Salman Rushdie sold out when he read at Cooper Union last spring. When The New Yorker enlisted actors to read fiction at the Mint in West Hollywood in January, the events sold out in two days. And last month, when the mag cosponsored a Virginia Woolf forum, ticket scalpers lurked at the door. So perhaps it’s no surprise thousands will flock to meet New Yorker writers in person, or that 20 percent are coming from out of town, some as far away as San Francisco and Denver.

Even John Schreiber, whose eponymous company is coproducing the festival, did not predict this response. “Typically with festivals,” he says, “you go into festival week with about half your tickets sold, and you usually sell half again” after that. This one “sold more like a rock concert,” with most tickets gone “in a matter of days.” Noting that a fiction reading by Jhumpa Lahiri and William Trevor sold faster than an interview with TV star Jon Stewart, Schreiber concludes the literary audience is “undernourished” and “underserved.”

The three-day festival kicks off May 5, with 13 simultaneous fiction readings. New Yorker fiction editor Bill Buford attributes Fiction Night’s instant success to audacity (“It’s a wonderfully excessive gesture”) and to the fact that some of the performers, such as Alice Munro and Muriel Spark, “rarely appear.” Then again, Buford knows how devoted readers are to favorite fiction writers. “It’s not quite a celebrity thing,” he says. “It’s a feeling that you already know them, because they’re communicating with you on such an intimate level. It’s analogous to the way people want to see singer-songwriters.”

Just as festival tickets sold fast, the sponsorships did, too. “We started sponsorship sales last September and closed it up by Thanksgiving,” says Carey. All festival programming was arranged by editorial, he says, with sponsors’ benefits kicking in later. Thus, sponsors appear in the ad campaign and enjoy tie-ins with specific events. For example, the Paul Goldberger architecture tour departs from Saks (a sponsor) and Belvedere will be the exclusive vodka served at participating bars on Fiction Night.

Indeed, sponsorships will account for the bulk of the revenues from the festival, which insiders have already projected will turn a profit. Carey decined to comment on profit or loss scenarios. But Rhonda Sherman, the director of special projects who conceived the event, had declared victory even before tickets went on sale, according to one insider. Another insider noted the mag will save money by not paying anyone extra for their participation. “Half the staff will be on the stage,” said this source, “and the other half will be working the doors.” (Staff have been invited to volunteer as presenters, ticket collectors, and ushers.)

Many of magazine’s nonfiction writers have also sold out their events, from Calvin Trillin to Mark Singer to John Lahr. Reminded that they, too, seem to have the draw of rock stars, one nonfiction participant quipped, “I want all the perks that go with that.” Another was more direct, saying, “I’m looking forward to the groupies.”

Spies of the Times

The New York Times has quietly launched a new investigative team based in New York, the latest addition to which is Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Moss. Moss’s hire has some people wondering if the New York group will be a threat to the existing team in the Washington bureau, which loosely includes Raymond Bonner, John M. Broder, Jeff Gerth, James Risen, and Don Van Natta Jr.

Times investigations editor Stephen Engelberg, who oversees the New York team, says it’s meant to be “complementary” to the D.C. team and he expects the two to “work in happy concert with each other.” Indeed, he says, “the fact that we’re trying this at all” reflects a change since 10 years ago, when many at the Times were “zealous defenders” of their turf. Another source says the decision to launch a second investigative team shows that management recognizes the value of the first. (This past Sunday, the Times fronted an exclusive by Risen, who was leaked the CIA’s secret history of the 1953 military coup in Iran.)

Engelberg says his New York reporters will not be an “isolated SWAT team,” but a roving group, “reaching out to colleagues and helping them pursue leads and stories” that require extra time to complete. They will work “cross-desk” (for the foreign, national, metro, business, and science desks), covering topics as diverse as Con Edison and national security — anything where the “investigative sensibility” might apply.

The New York team includes Tim Golden, Diana B. Henriques, Judith Miller, and Moss, with help from Josh Barbanel and Ford Fessenden, who specialize in computer-assisted reporting. It does not include national investigative reporter Douglas Frantz, who has just been reassigned to Istanbul. Frantz’s successor, as yet unhired, will report to national editor Dean Baquet.

The Story of US

Before taking US weekly last month, Jann Wenner boasted to a reporter that “failure is not an option” for the new celebrity mag into which he has sunk $50 million. But he has yet to smell success. Last week, amid news that the People-wannabe is selling poorly, staff continued bailing out. Departures since the end of January include three researchers, three assistant editors, and one editorial assistant.

Why the mini-exodus? According to one insider, the office is a disorganized “well of negativity” where staffers are regularly asked to stay late, sometimes until 1 a.m. It’s one thing to ask 60-hour weeks of senior staff, but quite another when the slave is paid $30,000 a year. Other resignations include senior reviews editor Andrew Essex and systems staffer Peter Walker. Essex, a former Entertainment Weekly reporter, has been hired to edit the Salon Business section, which debuts May 1.

US editors need to speed up the copy flow and stop obsessing over every detail, says the insider. Instead, “they’re doing a weekly with the mentality, approach, and sense of urgency of a monthly.” And apparently, some of these gripes have hit home. At a meeting last week, Wenner and general manager Kent Brownridge reportedly told staff, “We have to change the culture” of the magazine.

A spokeswoman for US Weekly deemed the departures “natural attrition” for a start-up and said the mag is settling into a “steadier groove.”