Festival Notes - 2011
from the 2011 Texas Book Festival
tried. Honestly, I did. For two years, I ignored the Sirens'
song. But this year, the call was too tempting.
know about our feelings toward the Texas Book Festival.
As readers, we think it's a fun event that often books excellent
authors and high profile political and entertainment personalities.
As a vendor, the TBF is far from perfect. Not only is the
booth fee outrageous, the layout hampers the flow of potential
customers, and it's usually held on weekends packed with
we hadn't been in two years; and we had a bunch of new books;
and the TBF finally fell on a weekend without a holiday,
a UT football game, or a fun run/marathon; and after a year
of renovation, the Capitol had reopened; and the book festival
had joined with the Austin film festival; and yes the booth
fee was still ridiculous, but you gotta spend money to make
this year, the TBF wouldn't play Lucy to our Charlie Brown
. . .
I held my nose and wrote the check--Robin refused to do
it--and I sent it in with our application.
didn't panic when we didn't hear back from the festival
or when we tried to book our hotel in July only to find
that no one knew about the festival discount codes. Nor
was I worried when a longtime organizer abruptly retired
two months before the festival and that they didn't release
their author list until after Labor Day (usually we know
who's coming to town in June).
was a little concerned when we received our exhibitor packet.
It seemed the number of exhibitors had shrunk significantly
from previous years, and I wasn't too thrilled with the
new layout. They still had those covered communal tents
that reminded me of my great uncle's industrial hen houses,
and they moved the Barnes and Noble tent and author signing
tent away from the exhibitors' tents and replaced them with
the children's activity tents. I'd rather have B&N's
overflow customers than Skippyjon Jones's castoffs. (That
damn cat seems to follow us everywhere.) Most stroller-pushing
patrons are not interested in our booth.
despite the numerous "looks" from Robin, I was
determined to have fun. And I did. Kinda . . . . Sorta .
. . .
kids had Friday and Monday off from school (another stanza
from those damn Sirens), so we arrived early Friday afternoon.
After checking into the hotel, we drove straight to Domy
bookstore. The sister store of Domy in Houston, which
hosted the second annual Houston Book Festival, Domy in
Austin is in a simple little building off Cesar Chavez Street,
a few blocks from downtown. It's a great indie store with
a fair amount of art books and zines. The guy running the
place, Russell, is extremely friendly and he agreed to start
carrying The First Line. We hung out for a few minutes,
browsing and talking, and I bought some local zines before
we said good-bye and headed uptown to our other store
is a landmark. Like Tattered Cover in Denver and Powell's
in Portland, BookPeople is a giant in the indie bookstore
industry. Two stories of shelves crammed with books and
other ephemera, BookPeople has been carrying TFL
since 2002, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the last
issue had sold out.
a quick stop at a "kick ass" record store--Waterloo
Records--for Gabe, we got something to eat and headed back
to the hotel.
to the festival . . .
planned to leave the kids in the hotel for the first half
of Saturday. They are old enough to stay by themselves,
and I didn't want them hanging around the booth, complaining
and looking bored. But we dragged them along, and they were
happy to help set up. Having them along did make unloading
and unpacking easier.
got to our tent a little after nine, an hour before the
official opening of the festival, surprised to see that
most of the booths around us were already set up and ready
for customers. Robin checked in and was disappointed they
didn't have donuts. Apparently, $725 doesn't buy you as
much as it used to.
had run a quick Internet check on our neighbors before we
came to the festival. We were placed in the second tent,
between The New York Times booth, and a one-book
author. Directly across from us was a micro press from a
small town near Austin. One of their authors was a high
school girl selling her fantasy novel (we assumed it was
a fantasy novel from the medieval garb everyone was wearing).
booths in our area included the UT School of Information,
the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Kirkus
Reviews, and Tesorps Trading Company, which sold crafts
from around the world, and where Robin spent most of our
we crammed everything onto our one table, I started getting
jumpy, as usual, and Robin sent me and Gabe to find breakfast.
When we returned, I was struck by the lack of crowds. It
was still early, the festival had only been open for an
hour, but I seemed to remember bigger crowds in past years.
guy at The New York Times booth and I chatted it
up about book festivals. He was from San Antonio and traveled
all over the area to festivals and conferences, trying to
sell subscriptions. We compared notes, and he didn't have
nice things to say about Austinites. He was a hard-nosed
salesman, asking everyone who walked by if they subscribed
to The Times. He reminded me of the gentleman we
were next to in Arkansas. I believe he had to sell forty
subscriptions a day, and much to my surprise, he did.
we ate, the kids and I decided that Robin could fend for
herself, so we went over to the beautiful Paramount Theatre
to listen to Alton Brown. Mr. Brown is the geeky-looking
commentator on Iron Chef America and host of Good
Eats (a favorite show of mine). The theater was packed--people
had lined up two hours before the doors opened--but we found
good seats. Mr. Brown didn't read from any of his books,
he just talked for a few minutes then took questions. It
was the best stand-up act I've seen in years. Funny dude.
kids then went to explore the Capitol, while I helped Robin
out at the table. Later in the afternoon, I used the kids
as an excuse to get into the Children's Entertainment tent
so I could see Lisa Loeb. She has a new children's sing-along
book out, which didn't thrill me (or the kids), but the
chance to see Ms. Loeb did. Sure she's getting old (who
isn't), but she's still cute. And she can still sing, even
if it is for the toddler set now.
spent the next few hours helping Robin, then we closed up
shop and headed back to the hotel. I would have loved to
have attended some of the after hours lit crawl events the
festival was sponsoring (the lit crawl through the cemetery
sounded fascinating), but we were tired and hungry and the
Alabama football game was on TV. I have my priorities.
the way, Robin had a great day at the table. She said there
was a steady stream of customers. There were small breaks
in the action, but she felt she made quite a few sales.
Everyone was extremely nice, and a lot of people remembered
us. She even admitted that she had fun.
festival goers, Sunday was a bust for me and the kids. There
were some appealing panels but nothing that grabbed me.
I was interested in one reading, but the line to get into
the room was at least two hundred people long. I wasn't
that interested. Other than the few minutes we spent watching
a magician in the kids' tent, we hung out with Robin at
were more "down" times on Sunday, which was to
be expected. Several times, Robin and the kids would go
off exploring, leaving me to fend for myself. I like standing
behind the table, chatting it up with readers and writers.
It's especially exciting when one of our writers drops by
to say hello, which happened twice.
problem is, I am a terrible salesman. The trick I learned
from Robin is to let people soak us in on their own before
I overwhelm them with information; but whereas Robin is
charming and quick to answer a question, I just smile like
an idiot. I'm sure if I were a little more aggressive, I
would make more sales, but the more I talk, the more trouble
I get in.
one point, Robin took a break. She was only gone for ten
minutes, but during that time, I sold three books to a young
man for an extremely discounted price. Apparently, that
happens a lot when I'm left by myself. Thankfully, Robin
came back before I was able to further damage our bottom
there was still a steady trickle of festival goers passing
through the tents at 4:30, I was itching to leave. Most
of the smaller exhibitors in our tent had already begun
packing up. The Times guy was still at it, but the
small press across from us and the one-book author were
calling it a day, and the School of Information was already
gone. Robin told me to relax, there was no rush to get home,
and she made me wait until five before I could go get the
was just as easy as setup, and by 5:30, we were on the road
back to Dallas. Another book festival under our belts.
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versus Little Rock
states, twelve hundred miles, and two book festivals on
back-to-back weekends. We are living the dream.
start with Houston . . .
got off to a bad start. I'm not talking about the day of
the festival; I'm talking about last winter, when we found
out the date of the festival. We immediately called our
favorite downtown hotel, but they were booked solid. We
hopped online to do a search of available hotel rooms, and
we hit similar roadblocks. Something was happening in Houston
that weekend because all the hotel rooms were booked. Was
it people coming to the book festival? I wish. Was it a
convention? Worse. The NCAA Final Four and the Shell Houston
Open were in town.
wasn't worried that these huge sporting events would take
away from the actual festival (college football games and
NASCAR did nothing to diminish numbers in Decatur). I was
worried we'd find a decent, and close, place to stay. After
a few days of searching, we finally found a hotel thirty
miles north of town. It was a cool eco-friendly place where
the rooms looked like small IKEA apartments.
that far north of the city didn't concern me. The festival
was set to begin at 11 am this year, an hour later than
last year, so we didn't need to be there until 10.
We woke Saturday morning to fog. We were expecting a sunny
and hot day. Instead, the ground was wet, and the humidity
was in the high eighties. It was so sticky that by the end
of the day, several of our book covers had curled due to
the moist air. Thankfully, it never rained.
festival was held at The Menil Collection again, and it
was sponsored/hosted by NANO
Fiction and Gulf
Coast. There were about twenty more vendors than last
year, and instead of being crowded around one side of the
museum, the organizers stretched the tables around the front,
side, and back. We had a fantastic spot near the front doors
and across from the museum bookstore and the parking lot.
Our table was next to the Light
of Islam bookstore--our neighbors from last year--and
City Review. Domy
Books was a few tables down from us, and several tables
next to BCR were empty because of no-shows.
were in the perfect spot. We were in plain view of most
of the foot traffic, and we were far enough away from the
readings that we didn't have to compete with the authors.
My only complaint was the food truck across the street.
They kept their generator running all day, and it was annoying.
It didn't bother Robin, but several times I had to ask people
to repeat themselves because the motor was so loud. (Robin
said it had nothing to do with the generator - I'm just
I loved the location, the parking was terrible. The Menil
is located in a neighborhood with limited street parking,
and the museum parking lot is too small to accommodate all
of the vendors and visitors. I didn't want to leave for
lunch, but the kids weren't interested in the street food,
so I had to give up my spot. Coming back from lunch, it
took me forty-five minutes to find a place to park, and
even then, I parked illegally. I'm pretty sure, the lack
of parking turned some people away. As I was driving around,
I saw people trying to find a spot in the lot, then just
give up and drive away.
crowds were lighter than last year. A lot of people still
showed up, and we were busy all day, but the crowd I was
counting on didn't materialize. I later found out why. In
conjunction with the Final Four, the NCAA hosted The Big
Dance, a weekend-long party downtown at Discovery Green.
Over 140,000 people showed up for the activities and food
and to listen to the bands. From the pictures I saw, the
place was packed. Not that everyone who attended the Kings
of Leon concert would have come to the book festival, but
I do think it took away from our crowds. Last year, the
park across from the Menil was packed with students hanging
out and enjoying the Saturday sun. This year, the park was
the book lovers who did drop by were fantastic. People were
happy to see us. Most everyone was interested in the press.
We had a drawing for five free subscriptions to The First
Line, and people packed the fishbowl with over 70 entries.
We even had two return customers who dropped by to purchase
some books they had bought last year and loaned to friends
but never got back.
We met Cassandra, who runs the Indie Reader Houston blog.
The week before the festival, she profiled some of the presses.
She had some great things to say about us that you can read
prereleased Workers Write! Tales from the Courtroom
for the festival, and one of the authors included in the
collection stopped by the table. Originally from Houston,
he had just gotten back from Istanbul and was on his way
to the airport to catch a flight to France (apparently the
hostels in Houston aren't that great). I always enjoy meeting
our writers face to face.
such an underground, laid-back feel, this is a well-run
festival. Kirby, from Nano Fiction did an excellent job
in keeping us up-to-date on setup and what to expect in
the months and weeks before the festival, and she walked
around all day, checking on the vendors, making sure everything
was running smoothly.
in the afternoon, after he guy from BCR left, a local comic
book artist took over the empty table. Kirby
came by and asked if the young man had registered for the
event. The squatter sheepishly said no. Kirby said she wasn't
mad, and she asked him if he would like to attend next year's
festival. He said yes, and she got his information. She
even let him stay for the rest of the day.
how did we do? Though I think there were less people than
last year, we sold a ton of books and made almost the same
amount of money--enough to cover our expenses, with enough
left over to spring for a whole chocolate cream pie from
the House of Pies. Couldn't ask for anything more.
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days later, we were on our way to Little Rock . . .
was excited about returning to Little Rock for their literary
festival. Because it was held the weekend after the HIBF,
everything was already packed, my sales pitch was warmed
up, and I was raring to go.
had been three years since our first, and only, trip to
"The Rock." Last time was a bit of a disaster.
It was cold and quiet. However, I heard that after the Central
Arkansas Library System took over, it was growing into a
semi-decent festival. Also, the headliner this year was
David Sedaris. Not a bad catch.
table cost was decent ($225), and though the Sunday hours
seemed a little ridiculous (1 - 5 p.m.), I figured we could
make enough money on Saturday to cover the cost of the table.
I was hoping we could make enough money during the four
hours on Sunday to cover gas and food. I knew we were going
to have to eat the hotel cost.
Kirby was all about keeping us informed, we never heard
word one from the ALF organizers. If I hadn't already known
they had cashed our check, I'd have been worried they didn't
know we were coming.
sent them an email the Monday after we returned from Houston,
asking if it was possible to get a second table, though
it was more a poke to see what was going on. She received
a quick reply. No luck on the table, but they said they
would send us a map of vendors' row and our table location
the next day. It wasn't until Thursday that we heard from
them again, and all we received was an email telling us
where vendors' row was located and when we could set up
on Saturday. They said they would email us our table location
on Friday, but that email was never sent. That got me my
first 'I told you so.'
arrived in town Friday afternoon, and after a nice dinner,
we walked over to vendors' row to see where our table was.
Last year, the vendors were placed in the parking lot in
front of the library. This year, the tents lined the walkway
from the Cox Creative Center, which houses Bookends, the
library's bookstore, and the Arkansas Studies Institute,
a building they had just started constructing the last time
we were in town.
were relieved to find our name taped to one of the tables,
but discouraged by the location and arrangement. We were
in the middle of a line of tables, crammed together under
one red tent. There was a tent pole in front of our table,
but that was just an annoyance considering the view of the
tent was blocked by cars. They set up the tents on a sidewalk
that was two feet below a parking lot, car bumpers just
steps from the tables. We were almost completely hidden
from view. That elicited the second 'I told you so.'
morning, we rolled our books from the hotel to the tent
around 9:15, and though we were early, most of the other
vendors had already set up. We were surprised to find that
the tables had been rearranged. We didn't know by whom,
but we had been moved from the middle of the pack to a more
open spot right next to the back door of the CCC. Unfortunately,
we were facing sideways, not straight on, like most of the
the parking lot, Radio Disney was blaring music so loudly,
several vendors went over to complain. We found out later
that the organizers thought the music would bring in the
crowds. Only four kids stopped by to listen, and Radio Disney
was gone by 10 a.m.
setup was odd. Five feet across the walkway from us was
another small press (though she was more a one-author press
trying to expand into the world of self-help books), and
right behind us was a one-author table - an older gentleman
who has written a few books.
older gentleman was a great salesman. He sold three books
before we set up our table and sold another seven by noon--that
may not sound impressive, but only a dozen or so people
walked by during the first two hours. He had the same line,
spoken in a hypnotic drawl: "Do you like a good mystery
story--one you can't put down? Well, that's what I write:
good murder mysteries." He was even able to sell a
book to a person who told him she didn't like mysteries.
The guy was impressive.
every person who bought one of his books skipped right past
our booth without a glance. By noon, we had sold one subscription
(to another vendor) and two TFLs. No one was walking by,
and the people at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette table were
so upset, they packed up and left. You know it's bad when
the city's major daily jumps ship. Twenty minutes later,
a one-book author who was originally left out in the sun,
grabbed the empty table.
were the crowds? The weather was beautiful. It was sunny
and in the high 70s. Yes, there was a bit of a breeze, so
bad at times that our sign was blown down and our books
were tossed around, but not strong enough to blow people
I took the kids over to the River Market area to see if
there was anything happening there. Turns out, half of Little
Rock was down by the river, participating in a walk for
MS. The place was packed. Masses of brightly colored T-shirts
were streaming away from the park and away from the book
festival. I don't know where they were going or how long
the walk was, but I knew we were in trouble. Some of those
people may have known about the book festival, but they
would never find us, even if they wanted to.
took the kids to lunch. In the hour and a half they were
gone, I sold one $10 grab bag. It was so quiet, I watched
the older gentleman's table for thirty minutes while he
went across the street to get something to eat.
the time the kids got back (and they had a terrible time
trying to find a place to eat, having been turned away from
several restaurants that didn't allow anyone under 18 and
then fighting for a table in a place that was filled with
hordes of Southern Baptist youths), an uprising was brewing.
vendors were upset about the lack of people, including one
woman who had driven from Indiana. She came last year and
did really well. But that was when the tents were in the
library parking lot. She was so pissed, she found one of
the organizers, and she and several other vendors let him
missed the excitement because I took Gabe to the capitol
and an old baseball field, but Robin said the organizers
thought this would be a perfect place. They were wrong,
but they didn't offer to help.
Gabe and I returned at 2:30, three other vendors had left,
including the older gentleman behind us. Sales had slowed
for even him. The tent no longer protected him from the
sun, and he was tired of having to pick up his signs every
time the wind blew. By three, only a handful of vendors
our friend left, we turned our table around to face out.
Not that it did any good, but it made us feel better. We
stayed until 4:45, and then we packed up and headed back
to the hotel.
hours and we didn't make enough money to cover half the
cost of the table. (That got me the third 'I told you so.')
Only four people entered our chance to win a free subscription
to The First Line. Four. That's how bad it was. Since we
were giving away five subscriptions, everyone was a winner.
was disappointed. I wasn't expecting much to begin with,
so I wasn't really upset. I had a nice day. I had a great
conversation with the older gentleman. I met the editor
Toad Suck Review, the newish lit journal out of the
University of Central Arkansas (nice guy), and we had two
great moments involving readers.
first was meeting a young teacher from Memphis who drove
over with a couple of her students to visit the festival.
She had signed up for a two-year subscription earlier in
the week and dropped by the table to say hi and to thank
us for doing what we do. She walked away with several free
TFLs for her classes.
in the day, right before we decided to pack up, another
woman showed up at the table, and I recognized her immediately.
She was the customer who visited our table twice the last
time we were in town. (That's how small the crowds were
. . . Not that she wasn't memorable in her own way.) She
bought a couple more issues of TFL and we talked about how
the lines had inspired her. It was a great conversation.
great conversations don't pay the bills. We weighed all
of our options that night. The lack of sales, the long trip
home, the chance of storms, and after talking to several
vendors who said they were not coming back, we decided to
cut our losses and head home Sunday morning. Four more hours
of sitting in an empty parking lot was not going to save
every festival goes well. Bad timing and poor planning can
certainly hurt turnouts, but sometimes people don't come
even if you do build it. It didn't help matters that Sedaris
was in town on Thursday night. He technically was part of
the festival, but we needed him on Saturday to draw the
crowds. Also, this festival is really a one-day event. There's
no need to extend this to Sunday, when there are only a
few readings and no family events. This festival may have
changed hands, but it certainly hasn't gotten better. And
that's too bad. I like Little Rock, but we won't be going
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