Book Festival Notes - 2011

Notes from the 2011 Texas Book Festival

I tried. Honestly, I did. For two years, I ignored the Sirens' song. But this year, the call was too tempting.

Most 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 conflicting events.

But 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 money, right?

Surely, this year, the TBF wouldn't play Lucy to our Charlie Brown . . .

So, I held my nose and wrote the check--Robin refused to do it--and I sent it in with our application.

I 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).

I 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.

But despite the numerous "looks" from Robin, I was determined to have fun. And I did. Kinda . . . . Sorta . . . .

The 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

BookPeople 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.

After a quick stop at a "kick ass" record store--Waterloo Records--for Gabe, we got something to eat and headed back to the hotel.

On to the festival . . .

I 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.

We 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.

We 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).

Other 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 earnings.

After 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.

The 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.

After 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.

The 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.

We 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.

By 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.


As 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 the booth.

There 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.

The 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.

At 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 line.

Though 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 car.

Packup was just as easy as setup, and by 5:30, we were on the road back to Dallas. Another book festival under our belts.


  • The weather was fantastic: upper 70s and sunny. The tents got a little warm in the afternoon, but we were able to lift some of the flaps to help create a breeze.
  • I was happy that the festival started at 11 on Sunday (instead of noon), but I don't understand why it closes at 5 p.m. on Saturday. It's still light out, people are still showing up at the festival--there's no reason we can't keep the booths open until six or seven. A few years ago, there was an impromptu concert on the Capitol steps, and the festival organizers asked us if we could stay open an extra hour. They should always book a concert or an outdoor reading in the evening and extend the exhibitor time. Most of us wouldn't mind the extra opportunity to sell our wares.
  • For the past several festivals, we've carried around a credit card machine. It never really helped us make more money, the number of people who use plastic just about paid for the cost of the fees; however, we liked being able to offer the credit card option to our customers. It turns out, before this festival, the cost to use a credit card machine skyrocketed, so we didn't bring one. We did set up our laptop so customers could use PayPal, but that was inconvenient. Thankfully, the festival had brought portable ATMs--a brilliant idea.
  • Not as many people stopped by the table as Robin thought. We handed out a little over two hundred postcards with our 2012 sentences on them--about the same amount we handed out in Houston (which pulls in a tenth of the crowd). This year, we also brought catalogs with us. We printed out little booklets that described the press and listed all of the books and journals we had for sale. It was an easy way to tell people about the press, and it also helped them pick certain issues of the literary journals that they were interested in. We brought 100 and came home with about fifteen. In the back of the booklets, we had an order form with discounted prices. However, more than a month has passed and no one has ordered anything using the form. We may not worry about bringing these next time.
  • Will there be a next time? I never say never, but it really isn't fiscally prudent to return. We made six more dollars in two days in Austin than we did in one day in Houston. Six dollars for six more hours of table time. And we still fell two hundred dollars short of paying for the table. Counting hotel, gas, and food, and we lost enough money to pay the production costs for two new books or the postage for one issue of The First Line. Yes, electricity and overnight watchmen cost money, but some of us don't need power and we'd pack up every night, if we could get the cost down to at least be able to pay for the table. Until then, we probably won't be back.

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Houston versus Little Rock

Two states, twelve hundred miles, and two book festivals on back-to-back weekends. We are living the dream.

Let's start with Houston . . .

We 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.

I 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.

Being 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.

The 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 Bat City Review. Domy Books was a few tables down from us, and several tables next to BCR were empty because of no-shows.

We 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 old.)

Though 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.

The 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 practically empty.

Yet, 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 here.

We 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.

For 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.

Later 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.

So 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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Six days later, we were on our way to Little Rock . . .

I 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.

It 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.

The 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.

Whereas 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.

Robin 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.'

We 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.

We 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.'

Saturday 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 other vendors.

Across 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Unfortunately, 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.

Where 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 away.

Frustrated, 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.

Robin 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.

By 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.

Several 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 have it.

I 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.

When 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 remained.

After 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.

Seven 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.

Robin 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 of The Toad Suck Review, the newish lit journal out of the University of Central Arkansas (nice guy), and we had two great moments involving readers.

The 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.

Later 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.

But 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 this weekend.

Not 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 back.

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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 2012 Blue Cubicle Press, LLC