Writer's block? Naaw: Ten years for VABook

In the telescoped life of book festivals, a 10th anniversary constitutes more than a coming of age. A quick survey of 180 literary jamborees across the country (average age: eight years) puts the Virginia Festival of the Book in the elder statesman category – even if, compared to the longest-running American book fairs (New York - 25 years, Miami - 20 years) VABook! is technically due for a mid-life crisis.

"Every year has its different challenges," says Nancy Damon [See HotSeat, page 19], who has directed the Festival with her associate, Kevin McFadden, for the last four years. "I have finally come to the conclusion that it's an illusion to think it will ever be easy."

Underwritten by the city, county, and numerous corporate and private sponsors, the VFB each spring presents an array of panels, forums, and readings that has earned the festival a reputation of excellence.

"Wow. You said the Charlottesville Book Festival, right?" says Julia Dickinson when reached by The Hook recently. "I know that website really well."

Dickinson is director of the Ann Arbor Book Festival set to debut next month. With a budget of $20,000 or so, the Michigan event is about as well-endowed as the VFB. Ann Arbor is home to the University of Michigan as well as headquarters of Borders Books, but Dickinson says it's crucial to retain a wide array of sponsors.

"The Northwest Book Festival [in Seattle] is just barely surviving," she notes. "They had only one major sponsor, and it backed out."

You wouldn't know it to read reviews of last year's event. The Seattle Times reports that despite significantly diminished attendance because of the Festival's decision to charge admission, the 2003 Northwest Bookfest (also in its 10th year) was nothing short of "an embarrassment of riches."

Diane Patrick, a researcher for Publishers Weekly who tracks book festivals, says that if the Seattle festival is on the brink, "They're among the few. Most book festivals are thriving."

One exception is the Rocky Mountain Book Festival which folded its tents last year. Attendance had dropped from 40,000 to 4,000 over five years, despite high profile lineups that had included George Plimpton, Kent Haruf, and Gary Hart. Observers blamed organizational woes, but a spokesperson put the blame squarely on the economy, promising the festival would return in 2005.

Damon agrees that any non-profit festival is vulnerable to budget cuts, particularly when it eschews the "book expo" model with cavernous convention centers filled with industry booths.

The VFB's paucity of commercial elements is notable. A smattering of tables in the Omni Hotel for publishers to hawk their wares is the only evidence of retailing and happens only on Friday, when publishing panels dominate. The revenue generated by vendors' rent is minimal.

"It covers the price of the coffee," says Damon. And she isn't being sarcastic ­ last year the VFB spent over $1,000 on Omni coffee.

Glenn Geffken, project manager of the LA Times Book Festival (in its 9th year, hosting 120,000 attendees and 400 authors), says festivals that don't take advantage of retail opportunities are "short-changing themselves."

"Profitability is not an object for us," says Geffken, noting that as a division of the Los Angeles Times, the book festival does not have non-profit status. "But that's not to say that we don't recoup the lion's share of the cost through exhibitor fees." Geffken says that up to 85 precent of LA Times attendees come to browse the book stalls, which represent over 350 companies.

Of course, one thing Los Angeles can depend on is flawless sunny skies, which cuts down on the costs of all-weather tents. Damon notes that the prospect of inclement weather discourages suggestions to move booksellers onto the Downtown Mall and points to the hapless Baltimore Festival which had to cancel its weekend festival last year in the wake of Hurricane Isabel.

Sharing a 10th anniversary with us is the Border Book festival, held annually in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Founder and director Denise Chavez says her mission is to cater to the needs of the immediate transnational bilingual community. Other well-known "niche" literary festivals include the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans (18 years), and the NYC-based Small Press Book Fair (16 years).

But Damon vows to produce a festival that offers something for everyone. As in years past, the 2004 program includes panels on biography, history, science, cooking, and gardening (multiple ones, at that). Most of the VFB's regional peers (South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, and West Virginia) are predominantly celebrations of fiction and poetry, with a heavy emphasis on Southern writers. Many other festivals celebrate only local authors, or their folksy cousins, the "storytellers." Indeed storytelling festivals nearly outnumber book fairs across the country.

Damon says that in addition to variety, intimacy is one of the VFB's hallmarks. She strives to maintain a healthy ratio of guests and authors. In 2003, 17,000 guests were on hand to meet 350 panelists.

"If people come to a reading, they can actually meet the authors. There's a lot of interaction," Damon says.

Still, to reach the solidity of middle age in this business, you need more than crowd control and subsidized coffee. Without a second thought, Chavez sums up the key ingredients:

"Be kind to your volunteers, and have a sense of humor."

[For a Festival schedule, turn to the center spread, and for journalist Elizabeth Kiem's sneak preview, check out page 28.– editor]

Nancy Damon