ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT INSIDE.COM (9/18/00)
This week marks the beginning of the 22nd year of New York is Book Country, one of the oldest and largest American book fairs. Typically, New Yorkers think the publishing business begins and ends in this city, and with 350 writers, more than 200 exhibits — including a new technology pavilion — and an expected 250,000 attendees parading through the five-day event, NYIBC is pretty impressive. And this year’s theme, ”A book, e-book, any book!,” is particularly timely.
Still, it’s hardly the only fair to visit these days.
From Amarillo, Tex., to Wooster, Ohio, from Seattle to St. Petersburg, Fla., the season’s regional book festivals are increasingly showing prime-time potential — and racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of sales every year.
Beyond NYIBC and other blowouts like the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books (which brought 90,000 readers to the UCLA campus in April) and Chicago’s Printers Row Book Fair (which packed in 75,000 attendees last June) — or even the up-and-coming Santa Fe Festival of the Book, slated for Oct. 12-14 — fairs seem to be putting authors front and center in regional hubs from coast to coast.
As the Miami Book Fair’s Mitchell Kaplan explains it, the popularity of book fests is a classic case of the ”out-of-New-York syndrome.” With scant book review coverage in the local media and even scanter author tour support for minor-league cities, he says, the public is ravenous for the chance to meet writers and their work.
Just ask Galyn Martin, director of the 12-year-old Southern Festival of Books, which kicks off in Nashville on Oct. 13. Last year, some 250 authors and 30,000 attendees descended upon the fest — and left with $50,000 worth of books from the fair’s tables alone, not including sales from participating booksellers. This year, the festival is one of four fall fests being featured on C-SPAN (the others are New York, Austin, and Miami), which can boost business to, well, multinational levels. ”When we got mentioned on C-SPAN two years ago, we got a letter from Mongolia,” Martin says. ”I didn’t know they had cable in Mongolia.” The festival still relies heavily on publishers to send authors and buy booths; HarperCollins will be sending a dozen authors this year, while Ingram, whose employees had previously volunteered at the fest’s book sales table, are now getting paid for their efforts, courtesy of Ingram president Jim Chandler.
Then again, maybe it’s just something in the air. ”Everybody gets excited about reading and writing in the fall,” says Era Schrepfer, exhibition coordinator for the Northwest Bookfest, ”probably because it gets really cold and dark in Seattle.” Indeed, some 30,000 fest-hoppers from the Northwest will pack into Seattle, where the 200-author-strong Bookfest (Oct. 21-22) has been cultivated by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association and the Washington Commission on the Humanities. The event funnels the $5 suggested donations to small literacy organizations in the region — and pulled in nearly $50,000 for the cause last year.
Every book fair, it seems, serves a slightly different constituency. ”The purposes of book fairs are almost as diverse as the areas they’re located in,” says Kevin Howell, bookselling editor for Publishers Weekly. ”Some are self-explanatory, like the three Latino Book and Family Festivals (in Los Angeles, Chicago and San Bernardino, Calif.), or the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival that not only promotes the late playwright but also New Orleans literature.” He adds, ”Most festivals exist to promote regional writing, regional authors and local bookstores.”
That’s emphatically the case at the Great Basin Book Festival, which aims to put Reno, Nev., smack on the nation’s literary map. ”Contrary to what some people may believe, Reno and Northern Nevada is an area where there are a lot of readers and writers, and we wanted to make a statement about that,” says Judy Winsler, director of the Nevada Humanities Committee. Writers are heading for Reno by the SUV-load, Winsler says, and this year’s fourth Great Basin book bash, held on Sept. 28-30, is part of a master plan to gather together readers, writers and university faculty in the region. As for national support, the bookselling chains’ corporate offices ignore them, says Winsler, but ”the local Barnes and Noble is going all out. The manager writes us a personal check, and with any luck she’ll get reimbursed six months down the line by the corporate headquarters.”
Which raises the question: Are fests worthwhile for booksellers? While it’s ”hard to say” what the festival does for Reno-area book sales, Winsler says local bookstores see the ”book festival as significant and important,” and booksellers in other cities say that the ripple effect from book fairs is ”huge and lasting.” In New York, Jo-Anne Ferris of Posman Books says the bookseller broke a record for sales at NYIBC last year, and has now partnered with Reader’s Digest, Prentice Hall and Random House. Meanwhile, the Texas Book Festival (in Austin on Nov. 10-12) sold more than $100,000 in books last year, and the Buckeye Book Fair, coming up on Nov. 4 in Wooster, Ohio, sold an impressive 12,000 books last year and grossed over $133,000.
Sales are so good at the LA Times Festival of Books, in fact, that Steve Wasserman, book editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, says booksellers refer to that event as ”Christmas in May.” Its success has even puzzled the area’s literati: ”Who would’ve thunk that people around here would actually get off their stairmasters and get out of their lap pools and go read a book?” Incidentally, Wasserman adds, the LA fair is nothing like NYIBC, which he somewhat disdainfully describes as ”people milling about eating falafel.”
Even when fests show only modest success, they’re still trying. In Amarillo, where the three-year-old High Plains Book Festival will be held on Sept. 28-29, book events for children are slated, with keynote speaker (and National Book Award-winning Amarillo resident) Kimberly Willis Holt leading the pack. More than 1,000 kids from all over the Texas panhandle showed up last year. Unfortunately, a third public day had to be cancelled this year due to scheduling conflicts — perhaps an unavoidable consequence of book festival popularity. As fest chair Karen McIntosh says, ”Authors are getting so busy now that if you don’t get to them a year in advance, you don’t get them.” The public day will return next year, and publisher support is welcome, to say the least. ”We haven’t built up a big enough base to get the Stephen Kings in yet,” McIntosh says, ”but if someone wants to be really nice and send him our way, we’d be thrilled.”