Book Festival Notes

The 2010 AJC - Decatur Book Festival

Despite dreading the thirteen-hour drive, and last year's dismal showing (pulling in less than $200), I was looking forward to attending our second Decatur Book Festival.

Billed as "The Largest Independent Book Festival in the Nation," the DBF actually ranks sixth in size from this exhibitor's point of view (see list below).

Of course, we haven't been to the top five, yet (we were hoping to make it to Tucson this year, but Arizona tax laws are confusing, and exhibitors aren't allowed in DC), so I can't compare the DBF to the other big festivals. But, in my opinion, if you want to know how to run a book festival, come visit Decatur during Labor Day weekend.

The organizers really love their festival. It's apparent in the preparation and the presentation. And though a few of the organizers and volunteers were, at times, a little tightly wound, a gentle jest was all that was needed to break the tension. (It's okay to be stressed, but it's a festival, people. Have some fun.)

All the preparation in the world can't create the perfect festival; it also helps to have beautiful weather. The weekend was sunny, with temps in the mid-80s and a nice, but infrequent, breeze. And though the Atlanta area also hosts DragonCon on the same weekend (we even had our own little patrol of stormtroopers and Jedi knights parade by on Sunday), people packed downtown Decatur. Whereas last year, we could go an hour or more without someone stopping by the booth, we saw a healthy, continuous flow of customers this year.

Did the increased traffic translate into more cash? Yes. Was it enough? No. Do we care? Not really.

First, let's talk location. We were in the same booth as last year, what I felt was prime real estate next to the food (though the booths on Ponce de Leon did benefit from the shade trees). Our neighbors were the Jewish Believers in Jesus (again) and Agnes Scott College. Charis Bookstore and someone selling jewelry were directly across from us.

We didn't hear much from Agnes Scott on Saturday, but they got rowdy on Sunday. Don't know what the excitement was all about, but they were having fun.

The Jewish Believers in Jesus were nice. A daughter of one of the exhibitors set up a face painting table, and there was usually a line five kids deep waiting to be transformed into a butterfly or Spiderman. Although you would think the parental spillover would be good for us, it wasn't our crowd. The JBJs did a good job of making sure the parents didn't line up in front of our booth.

The crowds on Saturday were excellent, but it made it difficult for me to check on the other booths or attend any readings. I did get to walk around some, but I never had the chance to stop and chat. Robin did stop by and talk with the fine folks at Five Points literary journal, and she took the kids to see their new favorite author (Dr. Cuthbert Soup), but they didn't care to see anyone else.

Sales were brisk on Saturday. We were new for most people, but a surprisingly large number of people not only knew of us, they had submitted stories before.

To help draw people in, Robin made some earrings out of old travel Scrabble tiles and PEZ. The display did attract attention (mostly from the younger set), and she sold several pairs. But the biggest draw to our booth was Overtime 4. Inconspicuously sitting among the other Overtimes, Tyler McMahon's story "A Pocket Guide to Male Prostitution" caught the attention of more than a couple of passersby. It was, in fact, our biggest seller (one copy was even stolen by a young reader).

We closed up the booth Saturday evening, tired but happy. Though we hadn't sold as much as we hoped, we had already surpassed last year's take.


Sunday began as another beautiful day, and the crowds were out early. The festival was supposed to "open" at noon, but we had people perusing our books before we even had a chance to set everything up.

Then nothing. For a full hour, people passed by the booth, but no one stopped. I was ready to pack up and head home, but a curious thing happened. An older gentleman, carrying a funnel cake, stopped in front of our booth, looked us over, and asked Robin to explain who we were. Robin put on her salesperson smile and launched into her spiel. (My daughter once asked, "Don't you get tired of saying the same thing all day long?")

When she finished, the potential customer nodded, paused for a moment, then asked in a condescending tone if she felt electronic publishing was the biggest thing since the invention of the Gutenberg press.

That was my cue to jump in. Robin will talk to most anyone. She will listen sympathetically to beginning writers talk about their unfinished plots, and she will pin a button on a homeless man while he tells her his life story. What she doesn't tolerate are haters - holier-than-thou types who feel the need to criticize and tear down especially when they have a captured audience.

I, on the other hand, love to hate the haters, so I tagged a thankful Robin, and dove into the ring.

For the next forty-five minutes, this gentleman and I discussed everything from literature to religion to Decatur's secret societies, all while he slowly ate his funnel cake. And though I felt like I was defending my master's thesis, the conversation was interesting and genial. In the end, he bought one copy of The First Line and an Overtime. A small four-dollar victory.

Robin, while all of this was going on, managed to sell quite a bit more. Either our friend made other people feel comfortable approaching our booth, or the crowds had finally picked up. Whatever the cause, we didn't sit down for the rest of the day.


In the end, we almost made enough money to cover the cost of the booth. Not a lot, but it was more than double last year's take. Part of it is our fault. We sold a good number of books - over sixty TFLs, forty WW!s, and twenty Overtimes - we just don't charge a lot.

This has never been about making money. It's about getting good writing out there to people who wouldn't ordinarily pick up a literary magazine. It's about creating readers.

One of the oddest questions we heard was: "Who can read this?" Amazingly, we heard this several times, as if people had been told by other exhibitors they weren't allowed to read their books. Or maybe because we had a sign up that read, in part, "Literary Journals," they felt they wouldn't find anything they would enjoy or relate to.

A good friend of mine once said to me: "Literature is what you read because you have to. Fiction is what you read because you want to."

Despite what we call ourselves (or what others may call us), what we publish should be for everyone, and if we can get a few literary or fiction readers, or even 'nonreaders', to give our writers a chance, we're happy.


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Booth Costs 2010

So just how much does it cost for a booth at the top book festivals? I'm glad you asked. I happen to have the numbers right here for 2010. Some are excellent deals. These are just the costs for a booth or table. Most festivals charge $100 - $200 extra for electricity. Extra tables, chairs, corner positions, and late registration also will cost you more. (Attendee numbers are stolen from the BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona. The rankings are my own.)

Booth Cost
1. Miami Book Festival International
Early (returning vendors): $500 for a 12'x12' booth with 3 tables | $300 for half a booth with 2 tables
Normal: $650 for a 12'x12' booth with 3 tables
$400 for half a booth with 2 tables
2. Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
$1,150 for a 10'x10' covered space with 1 table
$2,300 for a 10'x20' covered space with 2 tables
3. National Book Festival
130,000 (1 day)
No exhibitors allowed (shouldn't really be ranked)
4. Chicago's Printers Row
$300 for 1 8'x30" uncovered table
$500 for 2 8'x30" uncovered tables
$800 ¼ 20'x20' tent with 2 tables
$1350 ½ 20'x20' tent with 4 tables
$2300 full 20'x20' tent with 8 tables
5. Tucson Festival of Books
Early: $400 for a 10'x10' booth with 1 table
Normal: $500 for a 10'x10' booth with 1 table
6. AJC Decatur Book Festival
$450 for a 10'x10' booth with 1 table
7. Brooklyn Heights Book Festival
(1 day)
$300 for 1 uncovered table
$400 for a 10'x10' covered space with 1 table
8. Texas Book Festival
Early: $600 for a 10'x10' booth with 1 table
Normal: $725 for a 10'x10' booth with 1 table
9. Philadelphia Book Festival
$400 for a 10'x10' covered space with 1 table
10. Louisiana Book Festival
(1 day)
2010 festival canceled (no state funds)


The 2010 Texas Book Festival Update - June 1

Well, we missed the deadline for early registration for the Texas Book Festival. Not by choice, mind you.

The standard fee for a table at the TBF is an outrageous $725. However, if you get your application in by June 1, the price goes down to an only absurd $600. We couldn't scrape together the fee by the first, and we knew we would never be able to come up with the "standard" fee, so we contacted the organizers to see if we could work something out. Our idea wasn't radical, and it could have made more money for the festival.

We never heard from them.

Now, I'm sure we'll receive an e-mail in Oct "reminding" us of the great opportunity exhibiting at the TBF is (we did last year because their numbers were down), but I'm not paying the surreal $875 late fee.

I can't figure out this festival. I believe they want to include small presses, especially those from their own state, yet they make it difficult to participate. I talked to several publishers at the Houston festival who would love to show up in Austin but can't afford the fee.

They do offer a pretty good fee for nonprofit organizations ($375), but that just means more historical societies and pet shelters can grab booths. Small presses that can't get, or don't want to be hampered by, nonprofit status, are left out of the tent.

The TBF is mostly a corporate bookstore sponsored event. You can only buy participating authors' books in the B&N tents. There needs to be a fairer fee for small presses who can't get their books in the B&N tents, but still have something to offer to the literary landscape.

You would think Texas is big enough for all of us.


The 2010 Houston Indie Book Festival

If you follow our adventures on the book festival circuit, you know how much we enjoyed last year's Houston Indie Book Festival (and if you don't, just scroll down a bit and give it a read).

This year, the festival moved to The Menil Collection, a fantastic art museum tucked away in a quaint neighborhood near the University of St. Thomas. The festival was, again, sponsored/hosted by NANO Fiction and Gulf Coast, and they couldn't have done a better job.

Last year, maybe twenty small presses and bookstores from the Houston area showed up. This year, over forty publishers, magazines, and bookstores were on hand. It was the first year they charged a fee for exhibitors -- $15 -- but, if you traveled more than three hours to the event, your table was free.

We were all excited about returning to Houston, but it wouldn't be a book festival if I didn't obsessively worry about something. And this time it was the CLMP $2 Table.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love the CLMP. The lit fair they hold for Housing Works in NY is laudable. Publishers from all over the country send the CLMP journals that they then sell for two bucks a pop, with all of the proceeds going to Housing Works -- a nonprofit that works with homeless people who have AIDS. Nice, right?

The $2 table is a fantastic idea (one that we've participated in and have shamelessly borrowed). However, I didn't like the idea of having to compete against that table at a book festival. It's like inviting Wal-Mart to set up shop on Main Street. Sure, it may bring customers, but if everyone is spending money at their table, there's nothing left for the rest of us.

(Full disclosure: We are not members of the CLMP. They rejected our application for membership when we were first starting out. I won't go into the reason(s) here, but you would think their mission would be to help new, small publications succeed. Twelve years later, we're doing fine. I could reapply, but there's really not much they can offer us that would justify their annual fee. I'm not bitter. Really. [Why do I sound like a jilted lover? We didn't even sleep together.])

That was my only concern -- losing money to the CLMP. Usually I worry about no one showing up (or those who do, passing by with turned-up noses). But I've been around enough to let the crowds, or lack thereof, go, and with a free table, a great location, and the prospects of a sunny day hanging out with like-minded people, I was still looking forward to the trip.

We arrived at the museum early Saturday morning, and a good crowd of exhibitors were already setting up. Most of the tables were placed on the east side of the museum, facing a small neighborhood park. The sun was already beating down on us, but in a few hours, it disappeared behind the museum.

We found we'd been given two tables, and our location was fantastic. We were on a corner that allowed traffic to pass freely around us. Our neighbors consisted of a self-published author on one side (it wasn't really his crowd, and he bugged out a few hours into the festival), and across a makeshift walkway was the Light of Islam Bookstore, which we found wonderfully poetic (see the Decatur Book Festival write-up, below). Facing us was a small bookstore from the Woodlands, the local chapter of Sisters in Crime, and Glass Mountain, the undergraduate lit journal from the University of Houston.

We had only planned for one table, so our usual M.A.S.H.-like setup routine was thrown off. But the extra space was perfect. We used it to spread out enough so Robin could help people pick out books without having to reach over the tops of the racks. We also used the space to hold our new credit card machine (I'll get to that in a minute).

The weather was beautiful (save for the floating clouds of pollen -- seriously, it was like we were in some bad sci-fi movie) and the crowds were surprising.

From the moment we set up, until about 4:30, the place was packed. The walkway between the rows of tables was a little cramped, giving the festival a nice outdoor market feel. It also made it seem like more people were there than may have actually shown up. We usually gauge crowd size by the amount of postcards we pass out. We brought 400 to the event, and we ran out before three. Those are great numbers for a small festival. (Those are great numbers for a mid-sized festival, to be honest.)

Another gauge is book sales. Using last year's numbers, I calculated how many books, journals, and t-shirts to bring. I was overly conservative, and that may have hurt us. We had sold most of our copies of Workers Write! and Overtime by two, and the newer TFLs were gone by three. This year, we released a CD with all thirty episodes of TFL on Tape. I brought five to the festival, thinking one or two might sell. All five copies were gone by noon. (Though the t-shirts received several kind comments, not one was sold, but I only brought a few. Yea. Score one for me.)

There was a great, laid-back atmosphere to this festival. The crowd was young and friendly. Lots of people hung out at the park or under the trees listening to local authors read from their works. Last year, the readings were a little distracting, from an exhibitor's point of view. But this year, the reading area was behind us, which made it easy to talk to the people who came by our table, and still allowed us to listen in between customers.

I really wanted to go around this year and chat it up with some of the smaller presses, but our kids and the crowds made it difficult.

Olivia is still at the age where she would like to be entertained (maybe that's just a girl thing?), but Gabe was content sitting in the shade listening to his music. Olivia and I walked around the museum a couple of times. She loved it, and though I had a great time, I was itching to get back to help Robin or just walk around and visit with people.

When the kids were occupied with themselves, the crowds were so large, I didn't want to bug other exhibitors and get in the way of potentially paying customers. There was really no downtime. (I did get a chance to talk with Chuck Taylor from Slough Press. A professor at Texas A&M who started a small press almost forty years ago, Dr. Taylor had submitted some writing to us over the past year. It was nice to finally meet him and share stories.)

With each book festival, we try to shake things up to help sales. We kept it simple for this festival; however, we did finally spring for a credit card machine. It was actually easier than I thought -- cheaper, too, because we didn't buy the machine, we just rented it. And, because electricity wasn't available, we sprung for a portable battery, which worked perfectly. (Most book festivals charge between $100 and $150 extra, if you would like electricity in your booth. The battery was eighty bucks, and we should be able to use it for a few years.)

Robin was so happy to have the machine -- she didn't have to turn away anyone (well, except for the guy who asked her to break a hundred dollar bill), and the machine paid for itself.

So, how did we do? We did so well, we made enough money to cover all of our expenses, with a little left over for some desert at the House of Pies. We made more money in one day at a "small" festival, than we've ever made at any two-day "major" book festival.

From top to bottom, this is a great book festival. Even if we hadn't made a dime, I would come every year just for the atmosphere. Houston has a wonderfully vibrant literary community, and even as this festival grows, I don't see it losing its indie roots. We need more book festivals like this one.

By the way, I did buy a few $2 journals from the CLMP table. I shop at Wal-Mart sometimes, too.

We're finalizing plans to attend the Texas Book Festival this year. Much to our surprise, the festival was moved up two weeks (Oct 16 - 17), which fits perfectly with our schedule. (It is, after all, all about us.) We are also trying, again, to participate in the festival other than just as an exhibitor. The summer issue of TFL is our 50th, and we wanted to celebrate that accomplishment with the book festival. We've put in our application for a session, but our track record hasn't been that good. We will keep you up to date.


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See more pictures at the offical site.



The 2009 AJC - Decatur Book Festival

Running a small press while raising young children is a fun but challenging task. It seems the older the kids get, the harder it is to just "flit away" to a weekend book festival. We're fortunate to live close to several mid-sized festivals, but traveling to LA or Miami, or even DC -- as much as we would love to -- is becoming more and more difficult.

Atlanta, on the other hand, is just a day's drive, and with the Decatur Book Festival falling on Labor Day Weekend, an affordable booth fee, and a babysitter and a free place to stay (thanks, sis!), we had another one of those 'Why not?' moments.


After a long day's drive on Friday, David and I got up early Saturday morning and headed over to Decatur. We arrived two hours before the festival's official opening, and the organizers get high marks for having volunteers on hand to help unload our boxes and carry them to our tent. However, when we arrived at our tent, we found only one table, and we had ordered two.

We checked in at the exhibitor welcome tent to pick up our information packet, and the volunteers were very apologetic about the missing table.

We starting setting up, but after an hour, we still looked half moved in. Finally, a pickup truck carrying the missing tables appeared, and we were up and running with minutes to spare.

Of the festivals we've attended, the DBF has been the best in terms of layout. Decatur is a quaint Southern town, complete with a courthouse on the square surrounded by shops, restaurants, and the ever-present Starbucks. There's even a band-sized gazebo that was used for readings during the festival.

The exhibitors' tents were set up so that no matter which way you approached the festival, you would encounter booksellers. Unlike some festivals, where exhibitors are packed together in one place, everyone had their own tent. Having your own tent is great. You can make it a more intimate setting, allowing people to walk in and browse through your books. You can talk to people without the overwhelming noise of the festival, but you could still chat with your fellow exhibitors during the down times.

Our tent was in an excellent location, right next to the courthouse, and a few feet from the food. However, our placement also left us wondering about the festival organizers' sense of humor. On our left were the Jewish Believers in Jesus, on the right was an author who wrote a book about how his Jewish mother hid from the Nazis during WWII by playing piano for them, and directly across from us was the Buddhist tent, covered in Tibetan prayer flags. (Muslims for the Messiah were down a different road.)

The festival kicked off at 10:00 with a small parade that marched right by our tent, and then it promptly started to rain -- sort of. (I overheard some say, 'It's just a spranklin.') It spit on and off for about thirty minutes, but that didn't stop the crowds from coming.

For the first few hours, a steady stream of people passed by our tent, most of them families with young children. We made a couple of sales, and though the crowds picked up a bit after lunch, not many people stopped to check us out.

In the hopes of drawing people in, we ran a first line contest. We asked festival-goers to bring us their original first lines, and we would pick our favorite to be the first line for the Spring 2010 issue. After the first day, we had just a few entries. We also had free postcards that explained who we were, and of the 1,000 we brought with us, less than 100 had been handed out. As for sales, they were weak, to put it kindly.


David was in a foul mood on Sunday, and I kicked him out of the tent several times because he was pacing. He spent most of the day wandering around the festival, checking out other booths, and listening to children's authors, and I put him in charge of getting books signed for friends, so that kept him occupied.

The crowds were surprisingly heavy on Sunday; however, I noticed many familiar faces. Unfortunately, none of those repeat festival-goers stopped by our booth. We did get more entries for our contest, and sales picked up a little.

We were told to pack up at 6:00 so the streets could be reopened by 6:30. We boxed up our books and were in the car by 6:15. Although we had to go find them, it was nice to have volunteers help carry everything out for us. We had hoped to leave with fewer boxes, but we were only down by one when all was said and done.


The DBF touts themselves as "the largest independent book festival in the country," drawing an estimated 40,000 people. I was very impressed with the crowds, especially since Atlanta was hosting several large events over the weekend (DragonCon, the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic, NASCAR, and Black Gay Pride).

I'm afraid we lost the younger crowd to DragonCon, but it was nice to see football fans wandering the festival in their school colors before the big game (if being back in the South wasn't bad enough, all that Alabama crimson and white made me even more homesick).

The main demographic of this festival, though, seemed to be young stroller-pushing couples. I will say the festival had an excellent turnout of children's authors like John Scieska, Judy Schachner, Jarrett Krosoczka, and Kate Di Camillo. And the kid's reading tent was always packed. With the children's bookstore, Little Shop of Stories, right there on the square, and the bookseller for the children's area, this festival could easily turn its focus to children only, and I don't think the crowds would shrink much.

As for the rest of the authors in attendance, we never ventured to the young adult tent, but if you were a vampire-loving book reader, you probably had a good time. The adult lineup was okay, and David went to a few readings, which he enjoyed.


In the end, we figured a little over 150 people stopped by the tent, about half were interested in learning more about us, and half of those people actually bought a book or journal. We didn't make enough money to cover the cost of the table, but we did receive over fifty entries to the first line contest.

The dearth of interested people was discouraging, but we are beginning to realize that our press, which focuses on writers (I mean, it says it right there in our tagline: 'Supporting writers trapped in the daily grind'), may not be cut out for mainstream book festivals. Sure, we attract wannabe writers like flies at these events, but most of those people have books they are trying to peddle. As for the average book lover, they are satisfied with the used book tents, and few read anything new or outside their comfort zones.

With five of these under our belts, I knew what to expect, but David was still hopeful (at least on Saturday). Despite the monetary loss, I was glad we came. We're in only one store in the Deep South (Criminal Records in Atlanta), so this was a chance to at least spread the word about the press. It was also the perfect excuse to go home and visit family and old friends.


One last note: Exhibitors, in general, are the stepchildren of book festivals. We are tolerated, looked upon as a necessary evil. Sponsors bring in authors, authors bring in the crowds, and crowds bring in money. The money we bring in barely covers the expense of housing and security. We are rarely, if ever, thanked for participating.

During most festivals, volunteers come by to see if we need water and usually check in once during the weekend to see how things are going. However, exhibitors are the last to find out if and when there are changes in the schedule, and we are sometimes left to our own devices when it comes to setting up and closing down.

But I would like to say this about the Decatur Book Festival: In the months leading up to the event, the organizers were very helpful, went out of their way to make sure we had everything in order, communicated with us frequently, and even spread the word about our contest. They had volunteers on hand to help unload and load our boxes, and after we got home, they sent out a survey, asking questions about how to improve the exhibitor experience. That was an excellent touch, one that more festivals should adopt.

Overall, they did a great job, and for that, they have our thanks.

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The 2009 Houston Indie Book Festival

I was looking forward to going home for this year's Alabama Book Festival, but a confluence of personal and professional obligations kept us away.

I'll admit, I was a little disappointed. As much as I complain about the suck on finances that is the Book Festival, I do enjoy getting out of town, spreading the word about the press, and meeting like-minded fools. Then I received an e-mail from the CLMP about a one-day book festival down in Houston - free for exhibitors.

I contacted Sean, managing editor of Gulf Coast literary journal, who, along with Domy Books and NANO Fiction, was sponsoring the 2nd Annual Houston Indie Book Festival on Mother's Day.

They were expecting five to eight presses, as well as five to eight bookstores. Tables were free, and Sean suggested we mark down our books to help encourage sales. We're already a bargain, so we didn't need to cut prices. We sold TFL at its regular price ($3), and we usually sell WW! for five bucks at book festivals. This year, we wanted to feature Overtime, but I decided to sell them for two dollars instead of the low low price of a dollar a pop (we should have gone with the dollar deal).

A few days before the festival, I contacted Sean, just to see if it was still a go. Houston was in the grip of the recent flu scare, and I wondered how the city was reacting. No sense making the trip, if everyone was staying home. Sean told me the festival was on, and that they were now expecting twenty-five exhibitors. Impressive.

We got to Domy Books a little before ten, Sunday morning. Domy reminds me of Atomic Books in Maryland - very cool, very indie. It's in a cute neighborhood surrounded by quaint houses, tattoo shops, clothing resale stores, and food marts. Next door to Domy is Brasil, a wonderful restaurant.

Because we were one of the first exhibitors to arrive, Robin, in all her redheaded splendor, was able to negotiate a table in the shade. At first, I was a little upset about her choice, but then I was already a little upset at the overall setup.

The three sponsors of the event got prime tables in the front yard of the bookstore. The rest of us were behind the store. We occupied tables that surrounded the patio where customers from Brasil dined on banana walnut waffles and iced coffees. Robin snagged us a table on the far side of the patio. That meant we were the last table festival goers would pass, if they made it back that far.

Turns out, it was one of the best spots. Most everyone else, especially those sitting at the tables out front, spent the day melting under the sun. With temps in the low 90s, those folks cooked. Several exhibitors spent most of the time standing in the shade across from their tables. We were hot, but we didn't have to contend with the sun.

We also were in the perfect spot for the entertainment. At the top of every hour, local poets and writers regaled us with their words. As an attendee, I would have liked to hear readings every half hour; as a bookseller, the readings put a crimp on sales because everyone politely stopped chatting and handing over the cash while people were on stage.

I did have one complaint about our placement. As much as I loved having the book festival near a popular restaurant, I was a bit annoyed with the birds, the flies, and the cigarette smoke. Plates weren't cleaned off tables as quickly as they should have been, and the crows and flies became tiresome.

The festival lasted from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., though we started packing up a little after four, and were on the road by five (it is a four-hour trip home, and the kids had school the next day).

I had a great time. I spent most of the festival behind the table. I had fun talking to the students from Rice's undergrad lit journal, and I enjoyed meeting the people who were attracted to this festival. I felt like we were in our element.

This really wasn't a book festival to drag the kids to, but they had fun shopping in the second-hand clothes stores, and they spent a good amount of time in Brasil, eating and people watching.

So how did we do? Despite the fact that it was Mother's Day and that there were so many other things to do in Houston - the Rockets were in town for game four of their playoff series with LA, the Astros were in the middle of a home series with San Diego, and America's Got Talent was holding auditions downtown - there was a nice size crowd for this little-advertised event. If I had to guess, I'd say about 200 people passed by our table. (We ran out of writers' guidelines around three p.m., but we only brought 150.) Two hundred people came by in six and a half hours, and we made $160.

I was pleasantly surprised. Consider this: We made $160 dollars in two days at Arkansas. And the Houston table was free.

Next year, there's talk of a venue change, and we may have to pay a few bucks for our table. That's perfectly fine. This is a good festival, and, given some time, it could become a great festival. I'd love to be around to see that.


Side note: We received an exhibitor packet for the 2009 Miami Book Fair. For the base price of $650 dollars, exhibitors get their own 12' by 12' tent with three tables (it's only $500 if you are a returning exhibitor), and you can expect "hundreds of thousands of booklovers" to pass by your tent.

In comparison, the Texas Book Festival is still charging $600 dollars ($725 after June 1) for a 10' by 10' booth with one table. You can hope thousands of people pass by your booth in Austin.

Not everything is bigger in Texas.

Oh yeah, to participate in the Miami festival, you have to be a bookseller, sell book-related products, or promote a literacy program. No travel agencies, news radio stations, or animal shelters. Nice.

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The 2008 Texas Book Festival

It was no secret around the water cooler (and by water cooler, I mean the Pur water filter attached to our kitchen sink), that I was not looking forward to this year's Texas Book Festival. Dreading would be the appropriate word.

Put aside my usual complaints (high table cost, low return, away game football weekend), this year we were dealing with a global recession, a contentious and historic national election, and a striking lack of literary stars on the festival's lineup. No one was paying attention, no one was going to come, and the few who would show up wouldn't have any money to spend.

Why bother?

Well, first of all, we already paid for the booth. In fact, in order to get the 'discount' rate, we had to buy our booth by June 1st, almost half a year before the festival, months before the author lineup was announced. Waiting until September would have cost us an extra $275 dollars. Not cool.

Second, Robin loves the festival atmosphere. She enjoys standing behind a table for eight hours in a sweltering tent, talking to writers, readers, and other publishers. She really does have fun.

As for the kids, any excuse to get out of town for the weekend gets them excited. They don't care much about the book biz, but they love to explore (more on that later).

As usual, I was out voted; so, I sucked it up, and we headed for Austin.


We tried something new this year. Instead of coming in on Friday night, we decided to get up early Saturday morning, drive the three and a half hours from our house, and set up right before the tents opened to the crowds.

We did this for several reasons: it saved us $150 dollars for an extra hotel night, and, more importantly, the night before the festival was Halloween. Halloween is still a big deal around our house. Dress up and free candy? Come on.

Also, I wasn't worried about needing extra time to set up our table. We've been to enough book festivals now that we can get in, set up, and be ready to sell in under ten minutes. We're like a MASH unit.

So, we got up Saturday morning and headed south, making it to the festival with time to spare.

After we unloaded the boxes, the kids and I left Robin to put out the journals while we headed to the hospitality tent to get our badges and some Krispy Kremes. It was a partly cloudy morning, the temperature hovering in the sixties, on its way to the low eighties for the afternoon. Both days, in fact, were perfect. You couldn't ask for better weather.

As for our tent and table location, I was pleasantly surprised. We were right across from KLRU-TV, Austin's public television station. On our right was the Austin Dog Alliance, and to our left was the Texas State Library & Archives Commission. Two tables down on the left was Hank the Cowdog, and two tables to our right was the University of Texas Press. By chance or by design, the organizers did an excellent job placing selling booths next to information booths, allowing some of the smaller presses the chance to been seen and not get lost in the larger presses' shadows.

Other booths in our tent included: Texas Tech University Press, Book Woman (an independent bookstore), Book TV on C-SPAN2, and Cinco Puntos Press.

(Side note: By my count, the festival was down 20 booths this year, one full tent. At $600 dollars a booth, that's a shortage of $12,000. Was this a reflection of the shrinking economy, the lack of literary stars, or a statement on the high booth cost? Does this mean it's going to cost even more to rent a both next year?)

A quick note about one of the presses. As we were setting up, Robin struck up a conversation with Lee Byrd, co-publisher and senior editor of Cinco Puntos Press. Lee started the press, which publishes "literature (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and books for kids) from the U.S./Mexico border, Mexico and the American Southwest," with her husband in 1985. Back in the early days, they dragged their children to book festivals and conferences. Now, their son, John, is the marketing director and CFO of the press. Lee remarked that seeing us was like looking at her past. We can only hope to be around as long as Cinco Puntos.

As the festival got under way, the kids and I left Robin at the table and went to the capitol building to do some exploring. We had a blast. We took a walking tour of the capitol; spent two hours in the Capitol Visitors Center, housed in the restored General Land Office building; and took silly pictures of each other with the monuments.

After lunch, Robin took the kids to see Laurie Keller, author of The Scrambled State of America. In the three years we've been to this festival, this was the first time Robin stepped away from the table to go hear an author speak. She missed Mo Willems last year (I won the coin flip), but she wasn't going to miss Laurie. The Scrambled State of America and Open Wide, Tooth School Inside, are two of our favorite books.

It was my turn at the table, and I was immediately impressed by the crowds. Last year, we could go thirty minutes without someone dropping by the booth. This year, the tents were packed with people. At times, the aisles were so crowded, no one moved. Unfortunately, many people never turned their heads or stopped to look at any of the booths. They simply shuffled along, eyes straight ahead, as if the tents just happened to be in the way of their Saturday afternoon walk.

But people did stop, and some remembered us from last year. And some talked about what they were writing, and some actually bought a few journals.

Halfway through table duties, though, I learned my first lesson of the trip: I'm too old to get up at 3:30 in the morning, drive three and a half hours, and man a booth at a book festival. By 2:00, I hit the wall. I was exhausted. My legs were killing me from walking around with the kids, but I was afraid if I sat down, I'd fall asleep. I tried my hardest to be 'shopkeeper pleasant,' but I felt terrible.

Luckily, Robin and the kids returned before I collapsed, and I took the kids to check into the hotel. I was able to get some rest before we returned to get Robin at the end of the day.


I felt much better on Sunday (having an extra hour to sleep because of the time change didn't hurt), and after a few more donuts, the kids and I went to explore downtown Austin and ended up at the Texas State Museum. Though not a native Texan (only Olivia can make that claim), I was impressed with the museum. Three floors of interactive history kept me and the kids busy for several hours. (Yes, we are a family of history geeks.)

Robin had fun at the booth, as usual. The crowd wasn't as large as Saturday's, but it was still respectable. The day passed quickly, and we were packed and on the road home by five thirty.


A couple of quick observations:

The festival volunteers did an excellent job this year coming around with water and cookies and just to check on us to see if everything was all right. That said, the festival organizers misspelled our name on our sign, which we luckily realized before the festival started (see photo below).

I love book festival posters, but I'm beginning to think the Texas Book Festival prides itself on creating posters that have little to do with books. Last year's poster, a picture of cowboys crossing a river, was a nod to Lonesome Dove, I think. But this year's poster was an abstract painting of flowers. I missed the significance of that. (Though I will admit their t-shirts were much better this year.)

The crowd was, for the most part, pleasant. Fortunately, there was a lack of grumpy old men this year. Usually, we can count on three or four retired professor types who, unsatisfied with their lot in life, feel the need to tear down other people. It is no fun standing idly by while these characters make all types of barnyard noises as they leaf through the pages of our journal. This is why I am no good behind the table. In these situations, Robin remains disarmingly pleasant and charming, while I have a hard time stifling the urge to hop the table and beat them about the head and shoulders with our cash box.

But what we lacked in ivory tower pomp, we more than made up for with young punk ignorance. Too often, during my short stints at the table, I observed college students pick up literary journals they had never heard of and immediately flip to the back or straight to the contributors page to see if they recognized any of writers. One person actually remarked to a friend: "I've never heard of any of these people," before putting the journal back down. Never mind the fact that the journal has been around for thirty years, this guy - a kid whose reading level is a just few years removed from Hop on Pop - didn't recognize any of the writers, so he dismissed the entire collection as unworthy of his time. Brilliant.

Okay, enough of the rants. Let's get to the big questions:

Was this worth it? Monetarily: No. Last year, we put everything on sale. Few people showed up, but they bought more journals. This year, we decided that we would keep everything priced as is (which, to be honest, is still very cheap). We didn't sell as many journals as the year before, but we made the same amount of money, which was discouraging because, as I noted earlier, more people came through the tents this year. The only reason we didn't lose as much money as the year before was because we only stayed one night in town.

Did we have fun? The kids and I had a great time - away from the festival. Robin enjoyed working the booth, but she is weird that way.

Will we go back? Probably not for a few years. I'm looking forward to heading home to Alabama for their book festival in April, and I'm trying to convince the family to head out to Georgia for the Decatur Book Festival next fall. With family and friends in both places, we should be able to save money on lodging, and added together, booths at both festivals still cost less than one booth in Austin.

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The 2008 Arkansas Literary Festival

When we told people we were going to the Arkansas Literary Festival, the most common response was: "Why?"

When we explained why - a chance to spread the word, sell some books, meet some new people - the next question we heard was: "Yeah, but why Arkansas?"

Why not?

One: It's close. Little Rock is only five hours away. Two: It's reasonably priced. The cost for a table was $170. With hotel, food, and gas, we were looking at spending six to seven hundred dollars (that's the cost of just the table at our own book festival). We could make that back. Right?


We got to Little Rock Friday evening, around five. It was too late to set up our table (inexplicably, hours for setup were between 2:00 and 4:00), but we had plenty of time to set up in the morning.

The exhibitors were located in an outdoor pavilion behind the River Market, which normally has a great view of the river and North Little Rock, but they had to keep the canvas walls up because it was windy and so brutally cold.

The actual table itself was a little beat up. The festival didn't provide covers, and we thought about bringing one, but I told Robin we would be fine. We cover most of our table with books anyway.

However, I didn't know the table would be so old. When one of the event organizers said, "Oh, you didn't bring a cover?" Robin responded (a little briskly, she's quick to admit), "We though the tables would be from this century." Luckily, we had a piece of blue fabric and our sign to help make our table look presentable.

In addition to our normal display of books, journals, and t-shirts, we added a newish feature to our table for this festival.

When we went to the Texas Book Festival last fall, I brought a box of literary journals I had collected over the years. I put the box out with a sign advertising them for three bucks a piece, and almost all of them sold. The box did exactly what I hoped. It pulled in the casual viewer, who, after seeing the great price, would buy a copy or two, and then, oftentimes, pick up a copy of The First Line.

For Arkansas, I wanted to do it up right, so I contacted about thirty editors of my favorite journals (independent presses only), and asked them if they would be interested in donating extra copies. I told them I would sell them for two dollars a piece, and the proceeds would go to the Arkansas Literacy Foundation. Lit(erature) for Lit(eracy), we called it. (Cheesy, sure, but effective.)

(By the way, yes, I stole the idea from a certain organization, a 'council,' if you will. However, I didn't charge any of the journal editors ten to thirty dollars for the privilege of sitting on our table.)

Anyway, the response from the editors was better than I expected. We received over 100 issues of some excellent journals. It just goes to prove my assumption that if we could, most editors would give our publications away for free (just ask Fence magazine).

Lit(erature) for Lit(eracy) did pretty good, considering the crowd was so light. Most people who stopped by to look already knew about many of the journals on display, and I had fun selling some of the lesser-known publications.

In the first hour of the festival, only a few people entered the pavilion, and I sold only two literary journals. After that, Robin took over while I took the kids to one of the featured children's writer's reading.

Unfortunately for the exhibitors, the reading venues were held in several different locations (the historical museum, the main library, and a book store) several blocks away from the River Market pavilion. A few of the authors came by our booth on their time off, but if you didn't look at a schedule, you wouldn't have known there were readings.

For the rest of the day, Robin and I alternated working the booth - the morning was really slow, but the afternoon picked up. We weren't sure if it was the weather, the location, or the lack of local enthusiasm. I heard that last year, the festival coincided with the opening of the Farmer's Market, and there were people standing in line to get into the book festival pavilion. There seemed to be a smaller version of the Farmer's Market on Saturday morning, but no one was waiting to get into the book festival.

As usual, we scared some people. We got more than a few puzzled looks followed by my favorite question: "What's this about?" It's fun to watch the faces go from skeptical to pleasantly surprised after I do our spiel, and it's even better when we make a sale. Every once in a while, someone would come by and say, "I know you guys," and I'll admit it, that's a bit of a thrill.

Our neighbors on the right and left were an author self-promoting her book and a local writer's group, respectively. A couple across the aisle from us created personalized children's books, and next to them, an elderly couple sold used books for a community center. Directly behind us was another writer selling his book. He shared with us that he wasn't selling much either, and he decided not to come back on Sunday. In fact, several exhibitors didn't return on Sunday, and one - a book publisher - left after two hours.

It was great to see Oxford Magazine at the table behind us. They seemed to be doing okay - they were offering back issues at three for ten dollars, which was a great deal - and we talked with the people from the University of Arkansas Press for a bit, but I don't know how well they did.

In the end, we made a little over one hundred dollars on Saturday, which I thought was great for such a slow day.


One last note about Saturday: We wanted to attend Pub or Perish on Saturday night - it was billed as a reading of festival authors with some open mic time. Robin planned to read a short story from the spring issue, but the venue changed. Instead of taking place in the Peabody hotel, it was moved to Sticky Fingerz, a restaurant/bar next to our hotel. Known for their chicken fingers, the kids and I were excited, until we stopped by to check it out and learned that no one under 21 was allowed because of the smoking ordinance. Robin called the person in charge of the event, asked the manager at Sticky Fingers, and even asked the head honchos at the festival, only to be told that they hadn't really thought about the ordinance. In the end, they all apologized but said: no dice for anyone under 21. For such an fun event, it seemed like very poor planning.


To say Sunday was slow would imply there was some movement. We sold thirty dollars worth of merchandise in four and a half hours - and six dollars of that was from a return customer (a young lady who came back to buy a couple of past issues).

It wasn't as cold as Saturday, but I think the lack of events (only a few author-led groups and NO children's activities or author readings), and the fact that the few events they did have were several blocks away, kept people away.

I spent the entire time at the booth, which allowed Robin to take the kids to the Clinton Museum and go on a tour of old town Little Rock. They actually had a great time.

The highlight of my day was when John Vanderslice dropped by. John is an assistant professor of writing at the University of Central Arkansas. We've published two of his stories, including "Proof," which was included in our current anthology. John came down to moderate one of the Sunday events, and he dropped by the table. It was nice to meet one of our writers.

We were supposed to stay until five, but by four, half the exhibitors had started to pack up. We joined them at four thirty, and we were in the car, heading back to Texas by five.


Did we have fun? I had a great time at Kimberly Willis Holt's reading; although, I would have liked to have seen another children's author or two. The festival organizers were very friendly and helpful, our fellow exhibitors were nice and fun to talk with, and it was great to get out of the state, even for just a weekend.

Was it worth it? We spent a little over six hundred dollars on this festival. We ended up selling $160 dollars worth of merchandise, which included the fifteen Lit(erature) for Lit(eracy) journals we sold. That put a hurt on the old bank account.

Will we go back? There was a rumor floating around that the next year's festival will be run by the library. It would be interesting to see the differences, but I'd like to give them a year to iron out the kinks before we come back. Besides, several other states hold their book festivals in April. So, next year, we'll probably drag the kids somewhere else.

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The 2007 Texas Book Festival

Well, we survived our second Texas Book Festival. I don't mean that to sound bad, but as I've mention before, I was hesitant to spend the time, effort, and especially money on an enterprise that seemed to be light on return. Sure, we did our part to raise money for Texas libraries and the kids and I really enjoyed attending the free readings and activities, but as an exhibitor, let's just say, there were flaws.

An Attendee's Point of View (David and the kids)

But let's start with the positives. As festival attendees, there was very little to complain about. Sure, there weren't as many big names as in the past (Obama and Amy Sedaris last year, Clinton and Daniel Handler - Lemony Snicket - two years before), but there were plenty of authors to suit differing tastes, and the children's author selection was outstanding.

The weather was incredible. Mid-70s on Saturday, and I think it made it to the 80s on Sunday, with a light breeze. People were out on the grounds of the Capital, lounging in the grass, listening to the bands, reading books, and eating corn dogs - it was a gorgeous weekend.

Gabe, Olivia, and I got to meet several authors:

  • Kristin Gore (Author of Sammy's Hill, Futurama writer - She's a smart funny writer and is hot? Sorry Tina Fey, you just moved down a spot on my list.)
  • Jeff Kinney (Author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid - Gabe read the book waiting to get it signed and couldn't stop laughing.)
  • Mo Willems (Author of Knuffle Bunny and Knuffle Bunny Too - Best reading of the festival. Seriously, I've got the tape to prove it.)
  • Sally Cook (Author of Hey Batter, Batter Swing! - She called Gabe a "crank." He was touched.)
  • Rob Kidd (Author of the Young Jack Sparrow young adult novel series - Gabe and I were interested, Olivia wanted to abandon ship.)

We made crafts in the children's activities tent, learned some magic tricks, ate junk food, and played football on the Capital grounds.

Overall, I was impressed with how the festival was run. The volunteers were courteous and prepared. We had a great time.

An Exhibitor's Point of View (Robin)

Okay, first of all, who plans a book festival on the same weekend as the Komen Race for the Cure? But we'll get to that in a minute.

We arrived Friday afternoon to set up and were pleasantly surprised with our location. We were in tent 400, right next to the Texas A&M Press tent, near the Entertainment tent, with easy access to the street. Our booth was between a one-book author and the Texas General Land Office.

We arrived early Saturday morning to finish setting up, and then we waited for the crowds to show. Last year, we were so busy, I didn't get a chance to sit down for the first four hours, and we brought a friend along to help. In fact, I was so swamped with inquiring minds last year, I didn't have a chance to relax the entire festival.

This year, the tent was noticeably empty. People wandered in and out, but very few stopped by any of the booths Saturday morning; we didn't sell anything until 10:30. (Last year, our first sale was at 8:30 - thirty minutes before we we were technically open.)

Early estimates from the organizers put the festival's attendance at 40,000 - about the same as last year. Maybe, but 40,000 people didn't come through the exhibitors' tents.

Those who did were, for the most part, supportive and kind. We still got a lot of double takes, not as many as last year, but the most oft spoken comment we heard after we were asked to give our spiel was: "How cool."

We had writers, readers, booksellers, and editors drop by and say hi. We even had an author drop by and visit who we had rejected but who was able to sell the story to another magazine. I had a great time talking to everyone. Even David, who, as a general rule, doesn't like people, admitted to having fun during the twenty minutes he was in charge of the booth.

Our neighbors were nice. On Saturday, one of the men at the Texas General Land Office booth bought a copy of The First Line to read during the lulls. He liked it so much, he bought several more issues on Sunday. That right there made the entire weekend worth it.

Were we satisfied with the festival organizers? For the most part, yes. We enjoyed the donuts and cookies. Communication could have been better. The tents were supposed to be closed at 5:00 on Saturday, but the festival organizers decided to keep them open until 6:00 because of a concert on the Capital steps. We weren't told. At least not anyone at our end of the tent - and we were right next to the organizers' tent. We heard about it from another exhibitor, but they thought it was a rumor. I had to go ask the organizers if it was true. Someone should have sent a volunteer around to tell us.

Why did the festival start so late on Sunday (11 instead of 10 the year before)? Was it because the Komen Race for the Cure? It was cool to watch the race wind through the city streets from our hotel room Sunday morning; it was a nightmare to try to get to our booth with most of the streets surrounding the festival closed off. We had to break several traffic laws and cross a couple of barriers just to get to the festival in time to set up. Terrible planning.

(By the way, Austin is a football town. Why is this not in the spring?)

Fall in Texas is a great time to have an outdoor book festival. However, you don't expect it to be in the high 70s / low 80s. By 4:00, the inside of the tent was stifling. It didn't help that there were huge lights in our tent, adding more heat to the mix.

Sure, the organizers can't control the weather, but they can try to make the tents more comfortable. By Sunday afternoon, it got so hot, some exhibitors were pulling out fans and raising the sides of the tent to let in air. We did appreciate that the volunteers came by every once and a while with cold water. That was nice.

Did we make money? No. This is an expensive book festival for a small press to attend, especially in relation to the costs and number of people who attend the bigger festivals (LA, Miami, and Chicago). Last year we sold enough to cover half our costs. This year, the festival costs rose, but we made only half last year's number. (Was attendance down or was it that the same people showed up as last year, and they already had our books?)

But compared to most of our neighbors, we did great. We had a small but steady stream of people file by. Some of our neighbors went thirty minutes without anyone stopping just to chat. (Surprisingly, the Texas General Land Office, which sold maps, seemed to do great business. I was amazed at the number of people who bought maps.)

It's just my two cents, but they need a better - fairer - pricing structure. I know some festivals charge lower rates for small presses and individual authors, and some charge lower rates across the board, but ask for ten percent of the sales. True exhibitors, like the Texas Folklore Society and one-book authors, shouldn't have to pay as much as a small press, and a small press shouldn't have to pay as much as a university press or an independent bookstore. At least this year, the festival allowed people to share a booth.

Apparently, Barnes and Noble's book sales are the measuring stick for the success of the festival, but that's only because they have a monopoly on selling the attending authors' books. How much do they pay for their tents? Do they get a discount because they give a percentage of their sales to the festival? What is that percentage? And where was Austin's own Book People? Or Borders? Even faux indie Intellectual Property made it to the party. (In truth, we don't expect or want special treatment. We thrive on trying to survive in a time when books seem to be losing their luster.)

Will we come back? Ever year we can. We love that there is a book festival in Texas. I love meeting new people, talking to authors and readers, and the whole experience is worth it. Even if only one kid gets to go to college.

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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