Lessons from the LA Times Festival of Books

by Patrick on April 28, 2009

photo by Carolyn Kellogg

photo by Carolyn Kellogg

After a gorgeous day off yesterday (What did I do?  I went to a bookstore.  The day after the Festival of Books.  On my day off from my bookstore job.  I’m a dork, I know), I’ve had some time to process the Festival of Books and I think these were the take-away lessons for this year:

  • There are plenty of readers out there. While no official numbers have been released, it felt busier and bigger than last year’s festival.  Standing at the top of the staircase and seeing throngs (I love that word, throngs!) of people below was awesome.  So, too, was the enormous What Are You Reading wall, which asked festival-goers to scrawl the name of whatever book they happened to be reading at the time.  If there’s something wrong with the book business, it isn’t because there aren’t enough readers.  It really is incredible to see so many people turn out for a book event, and it really underscores what my colleague Emily Pullen, from Skylight Books, said on Saturday afternoon“It’s a misconception that L.A. is not a book town…It’s got an amazingly rich literary culture. New York is the home of the big publishing houses. But there are so many great, amazing and energizing authors who live in L.A.”
  • The future of bookselling lies with independent bookstores. During my panel, I said that I was preparing for a future in which the vast majority of books would be digital, with hardcover becoming a boutique industry, aimed at collectors and aficionados much as vinyl is for today’s serious audiophiles.  I thought I’d expand on this point a bit, as it isn’t nearly as cut and dry as I tried to make it sound at the panel.  My esteemed fellow panelist Richard Nash eloquently said that the future of the book business would be less about controlling content and more about monetizing the conversation about that content.  This is the strength of independent bookstores.  We nurture and support local literary communities, we listen to the marketplace (or at least we ought to), and we provide a natural place for conversation about books to take place.  As I said at the panel on Saturday, for independent bookstores, it’s never been simply about selling the books.  Rather, we aim to add value beyond the book itself.  This is why we’re constantly trying to book new and innovative events (like our Book Buses), why we’re committed to meeting our customers online as well as in our stores, and why we continue to participate in events like the Festival of Books.  Tod Goldberg pointed out that Borders and Barnes & Noble were both conspicuously missing from this year’s festival.  For Borders, this is understandable.  You wouldn’t fault a dying man for not showing up to your birthday party, right?  But the absence of both chain stores simply reinforces my point.  Selling at the Festival of Books (and other events like it) is what we do to survive.  For Barnes & Noble, it appears it’s a PR move, something done to brand themselves as part of the LA literary community (and by the way, we made money this weekend).  Moving widgets has never been the strength of the indie store.  We’d be the first to admit that we don’t scale very well, but talking about books?  We can do that.  The trick is figuring out how to make money at it.
  • The ebook tipping point is here. There were lots of conversations about ebooks this past weekend, prompted, perhaps, by a table in the green room reserved exclusively for representatives of Amazon’s Kindle ereader.  Not even Alyssa Milano had her own table.  While there was much skepticism amongst the hardcore bookish types, I was sensing a lot of excitement from festival-goers.  One person at our panel asked about the future of ebooks, noting that the electronic version of his book includes embedded audio and video.  Obviously, if “enhanced ebooks” become the norm, then not only publishing but also storytelling might get turned on its ear.  I think that moment is still a ways away, but it is approaching.  As a bookseller, I’m excited about the possibilities, and I’m hopeful that ebooks will attract new readers.  And of course, all of this makes Amazon’s purchase of Lexcycle (the makers of the popular ereader app Stanza) all the more troubling.  As indies, it’s imperative that we find a way to compete in this world (especially as Amazon has left us openings on issues like DRM, transparency and ebook affiliate programs).
  • Here comes everybody…literally. All weekend long, people were coming to the Vroman’s booth and handing us copies of their books, their CDs, pamphlets about their books and CDs, fliers about the pamphlets about their books and CDs.  My informal, totally non-scientific poll says that approximately half the people at the Festival either have published a book or are hoping to publish one.  Adding to this were the many booths occupied by iUniverse and other companies that specialize in self-publishing or print-on-demand books.  As I said in the panel, the barriers to publication have never been lower, but in many ways, the barriers between an author and his or her readership are higher than ever.  The proliferation of the author is further proof that publishers need to be playing matchmaker, as Richard Nash called it, as there are a lot of readers and a lot of writers out there.  How the two will find each other is the fundamental question in publishing for the next ten years.
  • Tod Goldberg is a funny dude. But you already knew that, right?
  • The Festival is better when it’s not so hot. This year’s weather was lovely:  warm sun and a cool ocean breeze.  More of the same next year, please.
  • Twitter was made for festivals, conferences and conventions. As with Winter Institute, I loved reading tweets from other folks at the festival.  It gave me at least some idea what was happening at the dozens of panels I didn’t make it to, and it made me feel like I was at the only event that mattered.

That’s what I got from this year’s festival.  As is always the case with these events, I didn’t get to meet everybody I had hoped to (I’m kicking myself for not dragging my exhausted, post-book bus self to Venice for the Granta party at Equator Books), but I had a lot of fun meeting so many people I knew only from the internet.  As a bookseller, the festival is exhausting, but also very rewarding.  I can’t count the number of times I overheard people saying “Oh, Vroman’s, they’re my favorite bookstore,” or something to that effect.  It was a tremendous weekend, and I extend a big “Thank You” to everybody who went to the Festival.  For those who were there, what were your favorite moments?