Book Review - Words to live by

Putting the ‘festival’ into the AJC Decatur Book Festival

When Joshilyn Jackson promoted her book, Between, Georgia, in 2006, she attended more than a dozen book fairs. When she returned to Georgia for her next stop, she landed on something that felt like a lot more than your typical book festival.

“It’s like when you go to a party and it’s really crowded,” Jackson says of the AJC Decatur Book Festival. “It’s bursting at the seams.”

Festival organizers realize that, with what feels like a steady growth of similar events across the country, there’s a need to innovate. So unlike more traditional events such as the Miami Book Fair International, the DBF – which enters its second year this weekend – tries to appeal to a broader range of the literary crowd. There are singer/songwriters – including some with their own writings to promote – performing music on the downtown square or at Eddie’s Attic. There are rock-star-level keynote speakers (Kinky Friedman, anyone?) and cooking demonstrations, folk artists and children’s events. And plenty of food, beer and wine to keep other appetites satiated. There’s even a parade thrown in for good measure.

These and other options provide a wider spectrum of opportunities for a literary audience with diverse interests. The result last year was a crowd of about 50,000 and national recognition. And festival organizers, along with authors, publicists and publishers, couldn’t be happier. DBF co-founder and Executive Director Daren Wang said part of the inspiration for the festival came on a car ride back from Columbia, S.C. The state capital and college town had a large, professionally run book festival; Atlanta didn’t, he realized.

“Obviously there was an untapped need in Atlanta,” says Wang, a public-radio veteran and publisher/editor of the audio literary journal Verb.

Last year’s festival was such a success that organizers started hearing from others around the country who wanted to start their own book festivals. That’s good news for book publishers, who, constrained by shrinking publicity budgets, also have to get creative in providing an audience for their authors. Sharyn Rosenblum, publicist for Morrow/HarperCollins, doesn’t necessarily dwell on book sales, but emphasizes the importance of exposure. Rosenblum explains that although not everyone at a festival will buy a book, many see the author, tell friends and affect future sales to an immeasurable degree.

“It’s not necessarily one or the other. A book festival might be one stop on a tour. It’s all about exposure,” Rosenblum says.

Marietta author and journalist Melissa Fay Greene should get plenty of exposure for her recent work, There Is No Me Without You: One Woman’s Odyssey to Rescue Her Country’s Children (Bloomsbury USA). But she also sees festivals such as DBF as a tremendous morale booster in a profession where isolation is the rule rather than the exception. The camaraderie of fellow authors draws Greene out of that solitude: “It’s like being on a minicampus of the best college in the country.” While Greene can’t remember doing more than a few fairs with her first book, 1991’s Praying for Sheetrock, she’s scheduled at least half a dozen for her latest release.

Greene and other authors have found that each festival cultivates its own identity. The weeklong Miami Book Fair International, held in November and estimated as the nation’s largest, demonstrates multiculturalism with African-American and Caribbean authors and programs in Spanish. Miami doesn’t incorporate many alternative artistic media such as visual arts or music, preferring instead to “keep it all about the literature,” according to director and co-founder Mitch Kaplan.

DBF organizers admit they borrowed ideas from Miami’s festival, including the 2007 field-trip day that brings area schools into the square, and the Promenade of the Book Krewes, a parade of dressed-up book clubs. But because of Decatur’s unique civic flavor, the DBF leaves a different taste in fair-goers’ mouths.

“I’ve been to festivals where I don’t feel like I can pull up a chair and plop down at a dinner table,” Green says. “Southerners are so welcoming and chatty, anyway.”

Twice-published author Wesley Stace also performs as his singer/songwriter alter ego John Wesley Harding, and so the DBF, with all its Southern hospitality, is welcoming twice over. While Stace the author will promote his latest novel, by George (Little, Brown), John Wesley Harding the singer/songwriter can perform songs from such critically acclaimed albums as Adam’s Apple and Confessions of St. Ace at Eddie’s Attic.

So if there is a gap between lyrics and literature, Stace notes, “Georgia is a handy place for that gap to be bridged.”

Stace admires festivals that stand strictly for literature, but the musician in him adds that all the readings in the world won’t fill the same space as a Britney Spears concert. Perhaps that’s why Shawn Mullins will wrap up the festivities Sunday night.

Mullins’ performance replaces last year’s closing fireworks. When Wang ended up on a roof watching those logistically nightmarish fireworks last year, he told a colleague, “That’s the sound of just a tiny little shift in the literary landscape of America. Nobody felt it but us.”