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Resurrecting Seattle's book festival

It's been a tough year for books and words, but one bright spot was the effort to bring back a Seattle book festival. Some saw the event as a great first effort, others as a fiasco.
The old Elliott Bay Book Co. interior.

The old Elliott Bay Book Co. interior. Flickr

This year has been tough all over for lovers of words on paper. In Seattle, venerable Elliott Bay Book Company totters on the brink, Capitol Hill mainstay Bailey/Coy has announced it's closing, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer print edition is kaput. It's been a tough year for publishers, booksellers, newspapers, writers, and authors.

It hasn't been bad for everyone (see Amazon), but the combination of recession, technology, and changing habits is shaking up the business model for the print world, a world where many people do stuff not because it makes big money, but because they love what they do or can't imagine doing anything else. That's always been the weakness of the literary life (the pay and profits are usually low), and its strength (writers and illustrators are resilient).

One bright spot was the revival of a book festival in Seattle. The Seattle Bookfest took place in Columbia City Oct. 24-25. Organized by Paul Doyle and Molly Horne-Brine, it was a chance to breathe some life into a gasping publishing scene.

The Bookfest was organized in a short span of time (a few months) and many people never heard of it. Rather than being at a central location (like the downtown waterfront) it was in a school in Columbia City. There were no big media sponsors driving attendance (The Seattle Times took a big role in promoting the old Northwest Book Festival). The weekend was rainy, you'd think a perfect time for indoor activities, and the event was free, with a modest $5 donation requested at the door. If nothing else, it offered an excuse to try the new Link Light Rail line and explore an up-and-coming neighborhood in South Seattle.

Was it successful? The reviews were mixed.

Paul Constant at The Stranger hated it, pronouncing it a "travesty" and a "disaster" for the exhibitors. Many publishers had tables at the event and attendees wandered the school's hallways from room to room browsing their wares. Many felt attendance (pegged at around 3,000) was low and some exhibitors didn't make back their costs in sales. Writes Constant: "The organizers of this Bookfest were downright irresponsible. In 2009, of all years, to ask bookstores to lay out money and extra employee hours for an event and then to produce the terrible attendance of this Bookfest is a goddamn travesty." A poorly promoted Bookfest was simply adding insult to injury in downtimes.

Stranger snark aside, some exhibitors were disappointed in attendance and did less than a brisk business, but that wasn't universal (in fact, it's fairly typical for festival exhibitors). Some folks liked it a lot and thought the festival worked extremely well, especially for a first-time, all-volunteer neighborhood effort. Some people loved the venue, others the networking they could do (writer, meet publisher). Yet others offered some very constructive criticism to help improve on the next one.

Dave Jacobson at Chin Music Press, an exhibitor, said that contrary to Constant's impression, they did extremely well at the festival and that Bookfest is on a positive track compared with some other regional book fairs:

[I]t was our best event financially this year (and we had a presence at Portland's Wordstock, Chicago's Assoc. of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, and indirectly, via our friends at Two Dollar Radio, at the Brooklyn Book Festival and elsewhere)....

Book Fest organizers tell us that some 3,000 people attended and contributed $6,400. Not bad for a first attempt, in my reckoning. San Francisco's Litquake, which, as I've argued here, is a good model for Seattle as it is more local-oriented than national, attracted only 400 people its first year, 1999, at the pinnacle of the Internet boom, when it was a single-day event known as Litstock. This year, it was nine days long and attracted more than 10,000 people....

By contrast, Portland's Wordstock was already attracting 10 to 12,000 people in 2007, its third year of operation, according to Executive Director Greg Netzer. Netzer, who took over management of the festival that year, said that the organizers had no attendance data from the previous two years. Some 13-15,000 attended in both 2008 and 2009.


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Comments:

Posted Sat, Nov 7, 9:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Your first two paragraphs are a perfect summation of what it's been like working in this business recently, and why we keep at it nevertheless.

Posted Tue, Nov 10, 12:41 p.m. Inappropriate

I attended Saturday with my girlfriend plus mom and sister visiting from out of town. We drove and found the place easily though it took a while to find a parking spot. Had some great BBQ at Roy's on Rainier before the fest. Walked out with half a dozen books or so (including Pugetoplis). We had a good time.

Yes, it needs to be better promoted and the venue layout is not ideal, which may have contributed to some vendors not making money. I hope they try again next year.

sully

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