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.
Crosscut archive image.

The old Elliott Bay Book Co. interior.

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.

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.

Others thought it went pretty well, but had some constructive criticism for future events. The location was hard to find, the event poorly signed, the panels could have included more topical and controversial themes. Blogger Philip Weiss at Rat's Reading offered a thoughtful critique of how to turn it into an event people can love.

At Rainier Valley Post, people in the neighborhood weighed in. For many, the agenda is larger, not simply having a good book event in the city, but boosting the neighborhood. Putting the event in Columbia City is itself a risk. South Seattle is off many people's radar screen, parts of it are gentrifying and trying to get on the official map of great neighborhoods. The Bookfest was seen by some as a way to get folks to think of Columbia City differently, or at all.

My own impressions were mixed, but mostly positive. I attended for a few hours on Sunday afternoon before my 5 p.m. reading. I loved the fact that it was in Columbia City, because I think the South End is a great incubator for creative projects and that Seattle is stronger with cultural attractions dispersed throughout the city. I had intended to take light rail down, but Metro's Sunday service often sucks. I gave up waiting for the bus when two buses that would connect me with light rail never came! Anyone who thinks we're close to maximizing or perfecting bus service in Seattle never has to get anywhere on a weekend.

So we drove. I knew where the event was (I grew up down there), but the signage did suck. Having a book festival in a school turns it into a bit of a maze. Rather than a large open venue like a warehouse or an airplane hanger, it becomes a warren of little rooms off hallways that become exhibitor cul de sacs. It's fun for poking round, but it's easy to miss rooms on the end of hallways and it doesn't create a kind of overall buzz or sense of activity. Attendance seemed respectable, not huge, but with so many people in different reading venues or in classroom cubbyholes, it was hard to get an overall picture.

I attended Robert Ferrigno's reading from the latest in his Assassin Trilogy, and it was classic Ferrigno (who I've known for years). In the short excerpt he read, there were three killings and a hand-job. Definitely violent, adult material, but it was really great and so was the author Q&A. I've got another trilogy to read now. One piece of news: Ferrigno said his next book (coming out in 2010) is set in Seattle and features three hapless eco-terrorists. It sounds like it combines noir with humor, a la Donald Westlake.

Afterward, I had a chance to browse the booths and buy some books. I picked up three titles: Charles LeWarne's new history of the Love Israel family, the infamous Seattle commune; Janet Ore's The Seattle Bungalow: People and Houses 1900-1940; and A Different Shade of Blue by Adam Eisenberg, a book about the experiences of Seattle's police women (foreword by Ann Rule). Did you know Seattle was one of the first cities to hire police women, in 1912? I did not.

Some complained that readings were not well attended. That was not the case with mine. I was a bit worried because I was reading from Pugetopolis at the end of the last day of the fest, but it was a full house with some surprise attendees (Frank Chopp!). After, I met up with some friends at Lottie's on Rainier Avenue for drinks. The restaurants and bars were bustling, and the combination of books and beer on a rainy fall Sunday in a thriving neighborhood in the part of Seattle where I grew up: Well, I just can't say the event was a flop. I don't think it was.

I like the Seattle Bookfest's neighborhood orientation and feel, I liked its smaller scale, but also its ambition (more than 100 authors). It seemed like a great first effort that could be much better, and I hope it has a chance to spread its wings in better economic times. I also don't think Seattle needs to re-create one, large uber-fest. In fact, I'd rather see a dozen smaller fests bloom.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.