Since 2013, Mailchimp has been a proud sponsor of the Decatur Book Festival, the largest independent book festival in the United States. Over the last few years, this partnership has taken the form of Read This Summer, a play on the summer reading programs many peeps remember from elementary school. My Corporate Citizenship teammates and I were excited to start planning for 2020. Then, you know…things happened.
Like so many other projects, the onset of the pandemic meant we had to find a new way forward for Read This Summer and our DBF sponsorship.
How could we support the important work of the festival, amplify the voices of amazing writers, and foster community and conversation around their work—all remotely?
I’m so grateful that we were able to work with our Mailchimp Presents (MCP) team to evolve this program into something new: By The Books. We called it a “virtual book festival” and I’m so excited for you to see what MCP pulled together.
But first, let’s take a look at how we got here.
Once upon a time…
Since 2015, Mailchimp has worked with authors we love to bring a diverse group of emerging writers to the Decatur Book Festival (DBF) as part of our Read This Summer program. Our past curator-authors include Alexander Chee, Roxane Gay, and Jenna Wortham. (You can see all our previous authors here.)
Read This Summer was always fun, but it was also sneakily strategic. The program highlights Mailchimp’s values and purpose with our people, in our community, and alongside our brand. It engages our employees across the company, creates a marketing platform for diverse voices, and reinforces what makes our brand special. Our product is built for small organizations like the DBF and for influential creative voices like our Read This Summer authors. Bringing them together, with a focus on service and local impact, is the kind of engaging expression that helps differentiate our brand through creativity, humility, and independence.
On average, 47% of Mailchimp employees engage with Read This Summer every year. And we got amazing feedback from the writers too.
Here’s one message an author sent me in 2019: “It has been such a brutal time for so many of us in this line of work, a hard time to get up and face the page every day, and the care and nurturing you gave us went soul-deep. It was extraordinary, and unlike anything I've ever been through before. The details, the pride in the work, the pure deliciousness of it, the clear expertise behind everything—whew. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
In early 2020, we were sitting on some exciting news about Read This Summer 2020: our curators would be Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, co-authors of Big Friendship and co-hosts of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend. And then the coronavirus threw a wrench in the gears.
Writing on the wall
In late March, right after we all went remote, I checked in with Joy Pope, the Decatur Book Festival’s Executive Director. Earlier that day, she’d had to lay off her entire staff. Authors’ book tours were being canceled and festival sponsorship relations were drying up. Mailchimp decided to maintain our DBF sponsorship, which helped them to lay off their staff with the smallest bit of grace. It was clear that the festival wouldn’t be happening, which meant Read This Summer’s fate was uncertain too. I started thinking about how else we could help.
Around this time, Mailchimp Presents launched Support The Shorts. In just 2 weeks, the team designed a new site from scratch and licensed more than 70 films that were supposed to screen at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival before it was canceled. Filmmakers appreciated it, the press talked about it, and Amazon even made their own similar attempt a month later. Support The Shorts quickly became MCP’s most successful debut and signaled that creatives had a home at Mailchimp—even during a time of crisis.
So after the Decatur Book Festival was canceled too, I began talking with Sarita Alami, Mailchimp Presents’ Director of Programming. How could we turn a really crappy time into something positive? How could we step up to meet the moment? The more we talked, the more I realized that we’d need to make some tough choices concerning Read This Summer, doing away with some of the more beloved employee-engagement aspects of the program (like branded swag and book giveaways). But at the same time, we’d be better able to serve our goals of elevating important new authors and supporting the DBF.
So in the spring, the Mailchimp Presents team worked to create By The Books.
A new chapter
By The Books: A Collection of Rising Voices is a virtual book festival celebrating the stories that deserve to be told and the people who write and enjoy them. The Mailchimp Presents team has retained the spirit of Read This Summer and brought back a number of alums to make this happen. It’s familiar and yet entirely new.
By The Books features our Read This Summer reading list, curated by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow; a compilation of literary essays curated by writer Ashley C. Ford; and conversations with authors including Cathy Park Hong, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Danez Smith. You can peruse the list and read those essays and conversations here.
All visitors to the By The Books site will be prompted to, well, buy the books. We’ve partnered with Bookshop.org (a Mailchimp user!) on the e-commerce element and 10% of revenue generated by our Bookshop affiliate link will support the Decatur Book Festival. We hope this will help them hire back their staff and plan for 2021.
And we launched an original podcast, The Books that Changed Us, hosted by Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky of the Longform podcast. It premiered with guests Shea Serrano and Saeed Jones. All 12 episodes are available on the By The Books site and wherever you listen to podcasts.
This was a tremendous effort, and I’m so proud of what Sarita and the Mailchimp Presents team have accomplished. I hope you’ll spend some time with By The Books. Happy reading (and listening).