Book Festival Notes

Notes from the 2013 Houston Indie Book Festival

I'm always a bit nervous before attending a book festival. What will the weather be like? Where will our table be? Who else is coming? Will people show up? Did we pack everything? Do we have enough copies? Do we have too many? It can be a little nerve-racking, even when we've been coming to a particular book festival for years.

This was our fifth trip to the Houston Indie Book Festival, and I still get anxious in the days and moments leading up to the event. This was especially true for this year because there were a few major changes.

(By the way, this year is technically the sixth HIBF; however, there's no record of the 2008 festival, which, if it was smaller than the 2009 festival--our first year--it must have been in someone's garage.)

First, longtime organizer Nano Fiction took a step back and Gulf Coast took over all of the planning. Second, the cost of one table climbed to $50. That's not much in the grand scheme of things, but last year, we got two tables for $35, and the year before, we got two tables for free because we came down from Dallas. Third, the book festival joined with the Menil Community Arts to create the 2013 Menil Community Arts & Houston Indie Book Festival.

My first concern about this year's festival was the weather. Apparently, Houston is notorious for its bad weather, but our experiences have always been pleasant, and this year was no exception. The weather was perfect: sunny and 72 degrees, with a slight breeze and almost no humidity. Couldn't ask for anything better.

My second concern was table size and placement. For the past three years, the book festival has been on the grounds of the fantastic Menil Museum, and for the past two years our table has been in the sweetest spot, on the north side of the museum, near the front doors (out of the sun).

We arrived at the museum at the requested time, a little before ten, and the place was already hopping with exhibitors setting up their tables. We walked around, looking for our table, and I noticed that there were no signs. As I feared, it was first come first serve. One of the young ladies from Gulf Coast told me it was 'pretty laid back, just pick a table.' Luckily, there was one open table on the north side, and we snagged it. But Robin was pissed.

(Maybe it's just me, but I would think half the fun of organizing a festival would be arranging the exhibitors in a way that would highlight every table.)

Though we had almost a full hour before the festival opened, Robin and I set up the table in record time. It also helped that Robin was not in a chatty mood. Still fuming about the laissez-faire attitude toward setup, she ignored early morning lookie-loos and our neighbors. In fact, she was even more upset about our neighbors.

Normally, each exhibitor has one table. For some reason, the two tables surrounding us were each shared by two exhibitors: stage left was a table with two authors, one had a book about travels in India and the other had a book about immigration. The table on the other side was occupied by an author who had a book about traveling in India and a woman who made cool bookmarks.

Usually, one-book authors purchase a single table so they can spread out and show their babies. Now, there's no reason not to share a table, but these tables were small (six-foot) so each exhibitor had three feet of real estate. Not only that, but for eight hours, you are practically sitting on top of someone you may not get along with, and you have to fight with that person for customers. That's right, as much as we'd like to think book festivals are kumbaya get-togethers filled with touchy-feely book people, they are competitions. Sure it's crass, but most people come to book festivals with a set amount of cash to spend, or at least an idea, and every dollar I take away from a customer is one less dollar you get. Sharing a cramped table with the competition doesn't make sense.

Once we got the table in order, Robin relaxed a bit and moved into hostess mode. I, on the other hand, started getting jumpy. I paced in front of the table. I fiddled with the books. I bugged the kids. Finally, just before the official opening of the festival, Robin told me to go find something to do. So I decided to take Gabe to a record store.

Not only did the book festival fall on Gabe's birthday, but it was also National Record Store Day. So, Gabe and I walked down to Soundwaves, a surf/music store, to see what they had. For the first thirty minutes we were gone, Robin didn't talk to one person, but by the time we got back, the festival was in full swing.
And the kids were hungry.

This year, the food trucks were off the streets and in the Menil parking lot, out of sight of the festival. This was a brilliant move. They were close enough that everyone could get to them, but we didn't have to listen to the constant hum of their generators. And the selection was excellent. Liv got a pulled pork sandwich, which she said was like 'eating happiness.' Gabe got a Chicago dog, and Robin got a grilled peanut butter and strawberry sandwich from the Monster PB&J truck.

After lunch, the kids and I went into the Menil to see if there were any cool new collections. Unfortunately, there weren't. And some of the pieces we have enjoyed in years past were gone (either out on loan or back to their owners, I guess). It was a bit of a letdown, but the pairing of the book festival with the Menil Community Arts Festival wasn't.

The entire day was filled with fun, artsy activities, all of which were spelled out in their well-designed full-color program. The Thomas Hulten Hot Viking Dixieland Band kicked off the festival, and though I thought having a band near our table would be a problem, Robin said the music was great, not too loud, and pulled in a lot of people.

But the Dixieland Band was not as popular as Writers in the Schools. WITS, an organization that brings the love of reading and writing to students, held their annual Young Writers Reading in front of the Menil at noon, and the place was packed with kids and their parents. Young writers from all over Houston read their works. It was fantastic. The kids were inspiring, and the crowd was enthusiastic. It actually felt like a literary festival.

Our one issue was with the music at the end of the day. Around three o'clock, a U-Haul truck started unloading drum cases on the lawn in front of the museum doors. An hour and a half later, line upon line percussion began playing Hugues DuFourt's Erewhon.

This was an impressive setup: six guys playing various bangable instruments for over an hour. But it was six guys hitting things for over an hour. At points, it was difficult to talk to each other, much less the people who wanted to learn more about us.

Otherwise, the day was a success. There was always a steady stream of people, many who were happy to see us again, and lots who were happy to see us for the first time.

There was one particularly memorable festivalgoer. I was in charge of the table while Robin and Liv walked around, and a spry young lady approached and asked about The First Line. Her eyes lit up when I explained what we did and she said, "We used to do that all the time in school." She went on to explain that her teachers would pull phrases from a popular book of the time and have the students write stories that started with those phrases (she thought it was called Farthingale Books, back in the 1920s and 30s).

She remembers one particular writing assignment in the fourth grade. Her teacher wrote on the board "Little dog laughed." It was a reference to the famous poem "Hey Diddle Diddle," but she didn't get the reference, and while most of her classmates wrote a story about a laughing dog, she wrote a story about an Indian boy named Little Dog and why he laughed.

I loved it. That's what The First Line is about. Our favorite stories are the ones where someone sees something unexpected in the first line and runs with it. It's those moments, talking about writing with people, that make book festivals fun for me.

I also had fun checking out the other exhibitors. The press has been doing well this year, so I decided to take some of our profits (ha!) and pump them back into the community. I started with the CLMP table, but I noticed it wasn't as stocked as it had been in previous years. Sure, they had two tables full of literary journals for $2 and $3 each, but the selection was limited to several issues of a few bigger-named journals. I don't know if it's because smaller journals are dying out or because they realize sending free samples for the CLMP to sell doesn't really do much for their publications.

I was happy to see a brand new indie journal, Houston & Nomadic Voices. This was their first issue, so I snagged a copy. I also bought a copy of the Houston Zine Fest publication (and left them a copy of Bookstores and Baseball). I bought some zines from Encyclopedia Destructica. Jasdeep Khaira, a book artist based out of Pittsburgh, runs the press, and she came down for the festival.

Some of the presses and journals that were here last year didn't come back, and Domy books, which has always been a mainstay at this festival, was absent, though we were told they are going through some changes (including closing down their Austin store).

We did get to meet the editor of the other indie literary journal in Dallas, Carve. Matthew Limpede came down for the festival to sell some issues of the print edition of his magazine. We didn't get a chance to talk until we were packing up, but among the things we discussed was setting up something like this in Dallas. Maybe someday.

So, how did we do? We did well, thanks to everyone who came out. After expenses (gas, hotel, and food), we came out seventy-five dollars ahead. Of course, if you count the money spent on the press stuff (book printing, author royalties, and advertising), we lost a few dollars. But that's why we don't count that stuff. It helps us feel better about our choices in life.


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Notes from the 2012 Houston Indie Book Festival

As another Houston Indie Book Festival came to a close, I commented to Robin that we might not be back for a few years. You see, there comes a time in every book festival adventure when you realize you may have overstayed your welcome, when you've been so many times, you are no longer new and interesting. Everybody knows your name and sales plummet. We've seen it happen at the Decatur Book Festival and our own "hometown" Texas Book Festival. But I always thought the HIBF would be a yearly fixture for us, until we started packing up, and I realized it might be time to take a break.

But let's begin at the beginning . . .

We were happy to learn that this year's HIBF fell on a weekend that wasn't crowded with events (for one, we were able to get a hotel close to the Menil). Also, I was excited to see the organizers (NANO Fiction and Gulf Coast) expand the festival. This year, they included some children's activities and writers' panels, and I was invited to participate in a discussion of self-publishing.

We arrived at the Menil an hour before the festival's planned opening time, and people were already set up. We found our tables in the same spot as last year - north side of the museum near the front doors - though this year we were bookended by Houston Poets and the Houston Public Library. Other tables on our side of the museum included a few children's book authors, the CLMP table, a tea vendor, and a crepe maker.

There was small children's tent set up on the lawn near the CLMP table, and throughout the day, one of the volunteers would come by the table and ask Olivia if she would like to participate in the activities. Olivia felt she was a little too old for the tent, so she politely declined the invitations.

We took our time setting up the tables, and then Olivia and I abandoned Gabe and Robin for the museum. Always a joy to visit, the Menil has some excellent permanent pieces, and it usually has a new collection or two that's fun to explore. (The room of Danny Lyon photos was excellent, but the Richard Serra drawing retrospective was discouragingly dull.)

After we came out of the museum, we took a walk through the festival. There were about two dozen exhibitors set up on the east and south sides of the museum. Interestingly, the tables were set facing each other, like they were two years ago. It put a lot of people in the sun for the first few hours of the day, and it made the walkway between the exhibitors a little difficult to navigate during the height of the afternoon. I know there's a reason the museum doesn't allow the festival to ring the building with tables, I just can't remember what it is, but it would be nice to allow the festival to spread out to the other half of the building. The west side of the museum is shaded by some nice trees, so the afternoon sun wouldn't be an issue.

Speaking of the weather, it was another perfect day for a festival: partly sunny and not too hot. It was a little windy in the early afternoon, and I know that caused some problems for exhibitors on the south and east sides of the building, but us northerners were protected from the wind and sun.

Olivia and I got back to the table in time to get something for lunch. Last year, I spent over forty-five minutes trying to find a parking space after lunch. This year, I warned the kids that we were not leaving the festival. We brought snacks and drinks, but luckily, everyone was able to find something from the food trucks: the girls had some fantastic pocket pies and Gabe had an Asian-inspired hot dog. I don't eat before presenting in front of a live audience, so I just watered up and headed over to the panel/reading tent.

Ryan Call was the moderator of our discussion. For thirty minutes, an indie author (Missy Jane), a writer and small press publisher (Brian Allen Carr), and I talked about what it's like to publish with a small press. I was afraid no one would show up, but a few minutes into the talk, the tent was almost full.

I think it went well. It was interesting to hear similar stories from the other panelists, and there were some good questions from the audience. (I'll admit I was nervous; at one point I didn't hold the microphone close enough to my mouth and I was talking to myself, but Olivia said I did okay after that.) Overall, it was a great experience and a nice addition to the festival.

After the panel discussion, I spotted Robin for thirty minutes at the table while she took a break and walked around the festival. It usually takes me a bit to warm up when I'm behind the table. Robin slides into salesperson/hostess mode so easily, and as I've said before, I just want to give everything away, so my seeming aloofness is just my internal struggle to not succumb to my desire to hand out free books. But after Robin left, a guy was walking by the table with his friend and he stopped and said: "Hey! The First Line. I know you guys. I saw a display of your books in a bookstore in Boise this summer."

"Hyde Park Books," I said, excited by the connection. We proceeded to talk for a few minutes about Boise (his girlfriend is going to the school I escaped from, but that's another story).

After Robin returned, I bugged out to talk to some exhibitors. Earlier in the day, I had introduced myself to David Duhr. David (with Justine Tal Goldberg) runs Austin's Write By Night, and he and I had shared book review space in the Dallas Morning News the week before. I also went by to trade journals with the editor of Unstuck, the new literary journal out of Austin, and I dropped by Slough Press to say hey to Dr. Taylor.

Later in the afternoon, I went to hear a panel (also moderated by Ryan) of several lit mag editors discussing the submission process. After the panel, I headed back to the table and hung out with the kids for the last hour of the day.

Around 4:30, people started packing up. We were in no rush to get anywhere, so even though the crowd had thinned considerably, we stuck around until the bitter end.

Robin filled me in on the rest of her day. She told me how easy our new credit card swiper was. Before we came to the festival, we learned that our bank had started charging a hefty fee to rent credit card machines. We found a credit card reader that attaches to your phone and doesn't have any monthly fees. I saw several exhibitors using phone swipers this year. Robin said it was perfect.

She also told me about the interesting and creative people she met, like the girls with henna tattoos and hula hoops and Lee Steiner from Domestic Papers. She told me about the couple who came by last year and purchased a copy of our Bookstores and Baseball zine to give to their son. A Mets' fan living in LA, he used our zine as a travel guide while he drove from California to NY to see the Mets play. They showed up to the festival this year and were excited to find we had two new issues of the zine out and bought them for their son. She also told me about how much Literary Bling she sold. She had a great day.

But as we were packing up, I noticed something was wrong - there were a lot of books left on the racks. Normally, at this event, we can count on running out of several issues of TFL and WW!, and though we did leave with less than what we brought, it wasn't much less.

We didn't make as much money as we usually do; in fact, if it weren't for Robin's jewelry, we would have done significantly worse. I was sure we had overstayed our welcome.

But Robin was quick to point out that it just didn't feel like a lot of people came out today. She had time to sit down and talk to Gabe. She never felt like she was ignoring one person while she was helping another. And for the first time since the first year we showed up, she even had a few moments to eat lunch.

I counted our postcards, and we handed out a little more than 100, less than half of what we handed out last year, and a third of what we handed out the year before that. And then I looked through Olivia's pictures. She snapped some shots of the festival throughout the day. Other than the early afternoon, there didn't seem to be an overwhelming number of people at this year's festival, at least through Olivia's lens.

Maybe it wasn't us. Maybe it was just an off day. We'll just have to go back next year and see.

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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