Book festivals are a tradition I’m thinking a lot about lately. By the end of the year I will have taken Some Kinds of Love: Stories to three of them—the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock, The Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, and the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge.
To the nearly unknown writer, or to the only-known-locally writer, these festivals have both advantages and disadvantages. If you are business-minded, as I can sometimes be, and you apply risk-and-reward analysis to your prospects in such a venture . . . I don’t think you’ll see anything like a return on investment.
All three of the festivals that I attended had to be undertaken on my own dime. In fact, aside from a top tier of elite writers, the big headline draws at the festival, no one gets paid to come to these. Surprise! Now some have publishers that will include the festival stop as part of a larger book tour. But, I think I am in the majority at these festivals, being a writer published by a small press that can pay to create a poster here and there and will gladly and capably handle the coordination of books sold through the vendors at the festival, but that is about all. I should note that in the daylight, I work at University Press of Mississippi as assistant director / marketing director, and this is how we do it as well. Though, we also buy advertisements in print venues at the festival heralding our authors when we can.
So, had there not been a surprise and timely and robust royalty check from University of Massachusetts Press, and two paying presentations (the Ozarks Studies Symposium and the Welty Symposium) I’m not so sure attendance at these three festivals would have been possible. DIY book touring has a cost, fellow travelers! And I must say, I did not go festival wild. I attended three festivals that had a regional connection to my writing—Arkansas, where for eight years I earned my MFA and worked in publishing; Louisiana, where Mississippi goes to unwind, our foreign, mad paradise next door; and, the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, where all hillbillies must once in every lifetime make the Hajj.
So why take on book festivals? And how can you measure success? As an unknown or beginning author, you need to throw two things out the window right away: 1) the number of people who show up in the room for the panel I’m on is my measure of success; 2) the number of books I sign and sell afterwards in the book tent is my measure of success. Toss that all out with the chicken’s feet.
The number of people who show up in the room to hear your panel may not matter at all. An attendee at the Louisiana Book Festival observed a huge audience packed in a room to hear a panel for an anthology which included Rick Bragg. And yet in the book tent right after, the authors from the panel just sat and waited.
At my first Louisiana Book Festival, me and author Kelby Ouchley were almost offsite in a lovely glassed in room of a faraway museum. I ended up being late, it was so hard to find. Once there it was Kelby, the moderator, David Madden, author of The Sharpshooter: A Novel of the Civil War, and Ouchley’s wife, and his sister. That was all! In the book tent no one visited, though one of my authors from University Press of Mississippi kept me good company.
Now at first I thought all that was a disaster. That’s because I’m a small-hearted, narrow-visioned Philistine from the most calculating, business-minded, margin-up region of the empire, the Missouri Ozarks.
Here’s the thing: Much of the good that happens at the Festival doesn’t happen in front of your face. David Madden, who I had always wanted to meet and who moderated with a vigor that could have handled a crowd of hundreds, reviewed Morkan’s Quarry in the Baton Rouge Advocate after the festival. There are many panels and options at a Festival, and the long-term website notice that an author was chosen to be there and the author’s name, face, and biography in printed materials about the festival, has a lasting effect. It’s like a twelve-month stamp of approval—after all, a panel of smart, hyper-literate volunteers did indeed choose me to be here and could well have said, Hell no, hillbilly!
Kelby Ouchley remembered me warmly at the 2013 festival. And who knows? UPM may find itself the proud publisher of a book by him, since he writes so well on southern natural science. The authors you run into at festivals are of great value—especially for me who cannot attend AWP and who will likely never qualify for fancy stuff like Sewanee and Breadloaf. At Southern, I finally got to meet my idol, Daniel Woodrell. And thank God it was early enough in the morning that I was able to keep a lid on my intense enthusiasm.
The authors you are empanelled with are golden to meet as well. I will never forget meeting and reading with Cliff Graubart at the Southern Festival of Books. The moment in this video below, in which he became so overwhelmed with emotion that he asked me to finish reading his story for him I count as one of the most remarkable instants of trust I will ever experience between authors. It passes in two seconds, but it felt like the world stopped. That he would trust me so told me many wondrous things. And that I could keep the presence of mind to encourage him to go on, that it was his art, he had to… I’m so glad my wife taped this, albeit on a cellphone.
As an aside, I wish every book festival or at least every author or publisher would find a way to record and keep what is presented. University Press of Mississippi has done this for years, and look at the content we have managed to capture and curate here (on just flipcams and Kodak Touch Cams, cheap as dirt!). All of this at the Louisiana Book Festival would have been lost had my wife and I not recorded three years running. Authors, festivals, publishers, get with it!
And in the book tent in at the Louisiana Book Festival in 2013, three (3) readers, among those who came up to me and Manuel Gonzales, told me they had purchased Morkan’s Quarry (Sign the stock handed to you at the festival book tent; ask how much the store wants signed, and sign it all!) told me they read the novel and loved it, and they couldn’t wait to see the short stories in Some Kinds of Love: Stories. Three (3) readers, people I had never seen before in my life, and I got to meet them!
One last aside, at the Arkansas Literary Festival, volunteers (these festivals take squadrons of volunteers who are to a person wonderful!) set up a book table in the faraway museum in which our panel performed. That was great in that the sales that were possible were captured right then after we performed.
Now the margin-up, calculating, German-Anglo-Scots-Irish at my DNA core would never call the numbers I directly experienced a triumph. But know this: You sit in front of a stranger thoroughly excited to meet you and willing to part with cash money to read what you have written next. I defy you to find a more exalted and wondrous feeling outside of your family experience. If ever that moment of talking with a stranger about my writing as I sign over and hand back a copy of my new book, if ever that gets old, then I will stop going to book festivals.