Book Festival Notes

Notes from the 2014 Indie Book Festival at MenilFest
(nee, Houston Indie Book Festival)

Last fall, about the time the organizers of the Houston Indie Book Festival usually start sending out notices for the upcoming event, I went out to their website to see if there was any news. Much to my despair, the website was gone. The domain name expired and someone picked it up to use for a blog.

So, I went to the HIBF Facebook page, which was rarely updated, and sure enough, it had been silent for months. There was one post asking if anyone knew any information about the 2014 book festival, but no replies.

I should have known. Last year, Kirby Johnson, the true force behind the HIBF, had moved on to the University of Alabama's MFA program, and Gulf Coast had not impressed us with their ability to organize the festival. What we initially thought was a good idea, folding the book festival into the Menil Community Arts Festival to create the Menil Community Arts & Houston Indie Book Festival, turned out to be a bit of a letdown.

I was sure we had seen the last of the HIBF.

Then, in February, we received a note from Gulf Coast. The HIBF had officially been consumed by the new MenilFest, and the event would be held on the first Saturday in May.

I went to register and found it was $70 for a standard table ($50 for nonprofit and $25 for CLMP members). It was still a good deal, though at the rate the cost is increasing, I expect next year's table to be $100, which is a little overpriced, especially if people don't show up.

A list of vendors was sent out a few days before the festival; over 70 would be in attendance, which is almost how many show up for the Texas Book Festival. Unfortunately, there is not enough room for all those tables at the Menil. Until they open up all four sides of the museum, there will be people jammed on the east and south sides of the building, as they have to double up the tables on both sides of the walkway, making it hard for people to pass through.

And there were other issues. In the email with the list of vendors, we learned that though the original registration form stated we needed to staff the tables from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., there was a problem with the table delivery and they wouldn't arrive until 10. We were asked that we not start setting up our tables until 10:30, but if we wanted to come earlier to grab a spot, we could.

Oh, and one more thing, the Menil's parking lot was undergoing construction, so we had to find a spot on the street to park. I've mentioned before that the worst part of this festival is the parking. The museum is in a neighborhood, and on-street parking is limited. The parking lot is small and always packed. I'm sure many people who wanted to attend the festival drove around, couldn't find a spot to park, and simply left.

Well, this year it was worse because the few spots that were available on the street were taken up by exhibitors and organizers.

And, of course, there's the inane 'first come first serve' setup policy. The great thing about this festival is that it attracts an eclectic group of publishers and publications. Without a grasp on who is coming and where they will set up, you have no idea if some racier material will be on a table right next to a children's author. Or maybe several nonprofits get tables in choice locations that should go to vendors who paid more and actually have stuff to sell. A good festival organizer knows how to set up an area to maximize flow and to highlight all of the tables.

Despite the suggested arrival time, we showed up at nine and camped out on our spot on the north side of the museum. The tables arrived earlier than expected, but no one was around to direct traffic, so we just took our tables and started setting up. As we worked, vendors would come up to us and ask what they needed to do. We just pointed in the direction of the CLMP table and told them to check in there.

Though the festival officially opened at 11, it really kicked off at noon with the Young Writers Reading, presented by Writers in the School. As with last year, this event brought in hundreds of people. But the crowds disappeared right after the readings and they never returned.

This year, we were in charge of two tables. Matthew Limpede of Carve was offered a chance to speak at a writers' conference in Dallas, which fell on the same weekend as MenilFest. Because he already registered for the table in Houston, we told him we would gladly be his proxy.

So I was in charge of his table, setting up the information and talking up the journal to festivalgoers. Not that I did much talking. A few people stopped at the table to talk about Carve, and four actually bought an issue. Less than twenty people registered for their free one-year subscription giveaway.

Festival organizers explained that budget cuts forced them to refrain from placing print ads, and no one created a cool poster for the show. I don't know if that would have brought in any more people, but it wouldn't have hurt. Few people showed up. For the first time ever, there were long stretches of just sitting and staring out at the empty grass in front of us. We gave away 65 postcards. Two years ago, we gave away over 300.

In another telling sign of how bad the turnout was, the CLMP tables, which are stacked high with wonderful literary journals and books were having a hard time selling their wares. When I walked by early in the day, there were a few people pawing over the $2 journals and $4 books, but by three o'clock, the tables looked virtually untouched and they had cut their prices in half. Already a deal (that I hate because it steals money from other small presses that actually attend the festival), $1 for a $15 journal or $2 for a $20 book is too hard to pass up. And yet they weren't exactly flying off the tables. Maybe the lower prices helped at the end of the day and they were able to unload a lot of books. But I don't know who was buying them. By four o'clock, the place was almost dead.

A little before five, Annika Chambers & The House Rules Band set up near our table and played a nice set to maybe a dozen people; it was good music to listen to as we packed up our wares. We were in the car by six.

We always manage to have fun at book festivals, and this year's MenilFest wasn't an exception to the rule. Though we had to spend a lot of our time behind the tables, there were so many lulls in traffic that Liv and I were able to revisit the Menil Museum, one of our favorites. They had a new, fantastic exhibit of René Magritte's early works that we enjoyed. I also was able to wander around and check out the other tables. I got some great zines from Geoff Sebesta, who also publishes the new Rocksalt Magazine, a free comics newspaper, out of Austin.

I attended a festival-sponsored reading in the afternoon, which was pretty good. Too bad the reading area was poorly placed. In the past, a tent provided shade for both presenters and audience. This year, a small stage crammed between vendor tables faced an empty grassy area, and the few people who showed up had to crowd under the shade of one of the trees off to the side.

The one bright thing about the festival was their handout. It was a professionally printed fan-folded sheet of heavy stock paper that told you everything you needed to know about the festival and events held throughout the day. It was excellent.

This was the first time we lost money at this event, and not just a little. The press sold just enough books to cover the cost of the table and the gas down. If it hadn't been for Robin's repurposed Little Golden Books journals, it would have been a depressing sales day.

I hate to say we won't be coming back to Houston next year, but if the festival continues its steady decline, we may not have a choice. We'll just have to wait and see.

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Notes from the 2014 Alabama Book Festival

For the past several years, we've debated attending the Alabama Book Festival. This one-day event takes place in the spring in Montgomery. Unfortunately, it usually falls on or around the weekend of the Houston Indie Book Festival, and travelling four hours to a book festival is more appealing than a ten-hour trip, even if it is back home.

And there's the whole 'the kids can't miss too many school days' issue. Our weekends are starting to fill up with project deadlines, play rehearsals, and college admission tests.

Luckily, this year, the book festival fell on Easter weekend, so it was a responsibility-free break, and since the kids would be out of school for Good Friday, we had an extra day to play with. And, we had places to stay, with friends and family, so we would save on hotel expenses. And the Houston festival wasn't until later in May.

My only lingering concern was football.

The ABF usually falls on the third Saturday in April and recently has been scheduled on the same weekend as the University of Alabama's A-Day, or spring practice, game. I'm not going to try and explain the significance of football in the state of Alabama. Just know that my friends from the Heart of Dixie would gladly give up the Bill of Rights as long as they got to keep their college football.

Back in my day, maybe a handful of people showed up for the spring scrimmage between the Red and White teams. In the past five years, tens of thousands of people have descended on Tuscaloosa to watch this meaningless game. And the same can be said for the 'Cow College' on The Plains (see, I can't even bring myself to mention that other team, and I was just a visitor to that state), which happens to hold their spring practice game on the same day.

With all of the people going to the games and everyone else watching them on TV, I was afraid there weren't nobody comin' to this book festival.

And I was right, but we really didn't care.

We got to Birmingham on Friday afternoon, where we stayed with friends, then drove down to Montgomery the next morning. We left at 7:15, and, with light traffic and a good tailwind, made it to Montgomery with plenty of time to set up the table before "doors" opened at 9:00. Although we could have been late. No one was around.

It did take us a few minutes to find the vendor tent, which was located away from the rest of the festival tents, and the only thing we were given was a sheet of paper with numbered boxes on it and a star next to box 30 - our booth. Not the best vendor packet we've received, but still better than some (I'm looking at you, Houston).

The ABF is held on the grounds of Old Alabama Town, just a few blocks away from the capitol, in downtown Montgomery. Old Alabama Town is a collection of restored 19th and early 20th century structures, including a church, grocery store, barn, schoolhouse, and homes. The vendor and reading tents were set up in various spots among the buildings, integrating almost seamlessly into the town. It is a perfect place for a book festival.

As we hauled our boxes from the car to our booth, we passed by the food trucks that were already starting to fire up the ovens. I don't think there is any better smell than barbeque on a crisp Alabama morning. Talk about a flashback to fond memories...

Anyway, we found our spot and started to unload our wares.

While we were setting up, Kirby Johnson came over to say hi. Those of you who have been following along with our adventures know that Kirby is the editor of NANO Fiction. In our eyes, she's also the reason there was ever a Houston Indie Book Festival. Last year, Kirby was accepted to the graduate program at Alabama, where she took on the duties of managing editor of the Black Warrior Review. She brought BWR and NANO down to the festival from Tuscaloosa.

It was great to catch up with Kirby. We talked about Bama; her being homesick for Houston, especially the food; and what a cluster f#-- the HIBF has become (more on that later).

After Kirby left, Liv and I went exploring. Gabe had already disappeared. The festival fell on his birthday weekend, and we had given him a new camera with instructions to take pictures of the event. Instead, he headed a few blocks down the road to the Biscuits' baseball stadium and snuck in to take pictures there. (He did get a few shots of the festival - see below.)

Liv and I checked out the other vendors and some of the old buildings. I was impressed with the number and variety of vendors. There were lots of single-book authors, but there were also a few university presses and two high school literary journals. The booths around us were mostly informational: stage left was the Central Alabama Literacy Council. On our other side were The Southern Lit Trail and the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. There was also a gentleman selling paintings, a poetry house, another literacy council, and a man selling alternative religious writings from Ryuho Okawa of Happy Science fame. (No Buddhists or Jews for Jesus, but it made me smile, just the same.)

There was only one empty booth in our row, actually a double booth. It was supposed to be for a husband and wife team - a couple of motivational speakers known for weight loss and Chicken Soup for the Soul books, but they never showed up. I saw them give a "reading" first thing in the morning, but their audience was anemic, so they must have decided to bail on the rest of the event. Or maybe something came up. Whatever the reason, empty tables never look good at a festival.

When we returned to our table, Robin was in the middle of her first sale of the day, and Gabe had found his way back, excited about his little adventure. About this time, the festival coordinator dropped by to give us our sales permit and collect some money.

The table was $150, which is a pretty good deal. What they don't tell you up front is that if you are an out-of-state vendor, you have to pay an extra $45 on the day of the festival for the sales tax permits. It's understandable - though several states don't charge extra for the permits - it's just a little misleading. However, the festival organizers did an excellent job of communicating with us and made the permit application process painless.

Of course, we still had to pay city and county taxes on what we earned. Not that we made much money, barely $125, but we weren't there for the cash or the exposure, we were there to have fun.

And we did.

Robin and Gabe actually had a plan for the day. Before lunch, they went to a reading of a memoir written by the 86-year-old publisher and editor of The Anniston Star (Robin's hometown daily paper). They had a

and spent several minutes talking to the author and getting a signed copy of his book.

Liv and I were content with sitting at the booth, watching episodes of The Office on her phone. We were rarely interrupted by festivalgoers. I think I sold two TFLs and a Workers Write!.

When Gabe and Robin got back, Liv and I went to get some BBQ . . . damn, it was good . . . then, since Robin had spent almost the entire morning away from the booth, I told her I would take Gabe to the capitol.

That's when the rain started.

It had been a beautiful day up to that point, sunny and mid-70s. But the clouds came up fast, and Gabe and I got caught on the steps of the capitol in a downpour.
Thankfully, it didn't last long, and the tents kept everyone dry. When we emerged from the tour (which, by the way, was hands down the best state capitol tour we've been on . . . but that's for Gabe to write about for the next issue of Bookstores and Baseball), it was sticky and hot - but the rain was gone. We got back to the festival with just a few hours left in the day.

Robin made two sales while we were gone, but she made more friends. She got to know everyone in our row, even the gentleman from the literary council booth who is writing a book about the history of the baseball bat. Some of the people returning from last year were surprised how few festivalgoers there were. Last year, they claimed, the place was packed. Most blamed the poor showing on it being Easter weekend.

The festival was scheduled to end at 4:30, but the organizers said we could start packing up at 3:45. Most people were gone by 4:00, but we stayed a few extra minutes. Not that anyone was around looking to buy our books, we just weren't in a hurry to leave.

Like I mentioned earlier, we made very little money, and we only gave away thirty postcards, but we didn't care. We went into this event with no expectations and had a great day.

We may even go back some day.

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About This Page

Book festival musings from a small publisher's point of view.


In 2006, we attended our first book festival as exhibitors. Being newbies, we had no idea what to expect, so before we plunked down the cash for a table, we contacted several exhibitors who had attended the festival the previous year, hoping to find out if it was worth the time and money.

We received only one response, a short e-mail from another small publisher who said they thought it was worth it; so, we took the plunge. Like most virgin-ending experiences, it was a little overwhelming and we lost money on the deal - but we did have fun.

We went back the next year, and we lost even more money, but we were hooked. Now, we are on a quest to drag our children to every book festival in the country.


Our reflections represent an unfiltered view of what it is like to exhibit at a book festival as an independent press. Nonprofit organizations, single-book authors, and indie bookstores also exhibit at book festivals, and their experiences differ greatly from ours (we know, we've sat next to them). Just because we are, at times, critical of a process or an event, doesn't mean we aren't thankful.

Any state, city, or library that hosts a book festival needs to be praised simply for the attempt. Writers and publishers are waging a losing battle to grab people's attention, and book festivals are quickly becoming our last, best attempts to put our books in front of the public. Organizations willing to dedicate their time and money to promote all things literary deserve our undying thanks.

Copyright 2013 Blue Cubicle Press, LLC