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Wisconsin Book Festival

Wisconsin Book Festival events often offer readers the chance to purchase books by participating authors. A shopper looks through Books at Helen C. White during the Wisconsin Book Festival in 2009.

The plot line of the Wisconsin Book Festival has taken a dramatic turn, with the fate of the annual autumn literary event approaching a cliffhanger conclusion.

Madison Public Library director Greg Mickells expects that by the end of the week the library's foundation will decide whether it can supply the funds to take over the city's long-running book festival, formerly run by the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

Board members of the Madison Public Library Foundation "are very supportive of the idea and I feel pretty comfortable" they'll agree to raise a key $100,000 of the $211,000 needed to run the book festival in 2013, Mickells said. "But they still have to vote on it."

The foundation is still working toward its $9 million goal — 80 percent complete — of raising private funds for Madison's new Central Library and is "gathering information" on the book festival proposal, said foundation executive director Jenni Collins.

"We obviously have a huge Central campaign that we have to complete, and other obligations, and we're a really lean organization," she said. "So it's a matter of wanting to take it on and do well."

The Wisconsin Humanities Council recently announced that it would no longer sponsor the 11-year-old Wisconsin Book Festival, which last fall drew 14,213 people to some 100 events in Madison featuring nearly 200 authors. Attendance has steadily increased over the years: 11,388 book-lovers attended in 2011, up from 10,000 in 2009. About 8,200 attended in 2010.

But staging the yearly festival consumed nearly half of the funding the humanities council received from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and also required intensive fundraising by staff, said WHC executive director Dena Wortzel.

"While the book festival is something we're very, very proud of — and we really believe in the festival as a program — it was basically something that we thought was taking a disproportionate amount of the organization's resources given its largely Madison focus," she said, noting the council's mission is to serve the entire state.

The humanities council has pledged $10,000 a year for the 2013 and 2014 Wisconsin Book Festivals and will help with the transition to a new supporting organization, Wortzel said.

The proposal the library has made to the Madison Public Library Foundation calls for $111,500 in in-kind donations and shortens the book festival's run from five days to four, said Mickells, who anticipates many "pre-festival events," such as writers' workshops, at the city's branch libraries.

Centered in Downtown, the festival itself might begin on a Thursday in October or November with a big-name presenter, followed by a late-night event on Friday along the lines of last year's successful "Bookless" celebration, family-friendly programming on Saturday and more events on Sunday, he said.

"It's really hard for us at this point to get down to that level of detail until we have a green light for the event," Mickells said.

But the festival would certainly showcase the new Central Library, slated to open Sept. 21, and have a "Downtown kind of feel to it," he said.

Although economic impact numbers are not available for the Wisconsin Book Festival, events like it help make Downtown "a one-of-a-kind destination," said Mary Carbine, executive director for Madison's Central Business Improvement District.

Proponents of Downtown businesses in other communities "are extremely hungry for creating events just like this," she said of the book festival. "So it's something we're very lucky to have and that is important to Downtown."

Sponsoring the book festival "certainly adds to what's on our plate," said Tripp Widder, who serves on the library foundation board and also chairs the board for the Madison Public Library, which last week voted to support taking on the festival if the financial resources can be found.

The festival's mission is consistent with that of the library, Widder said, "and it presents an opportunity to showcase the new Central Library, because a lot of the action will take place in the new facility."

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