More than 130,000 people wound their way around the UCLA campus this weekend for the 29th Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in an atmosphere to make Disney envious. This is an event that makes you believe in publishing. It’s democratic and populist with something for everyone: children, literary snobs, mystery fans, environmentalists, history buffs, current affairs junkies, celebrity hounds, people trying to get published, flog their own books, touch flesh with the famous, but ultimately everyone is there because of books.
For the two days, writers and editors and publishers filled panels whose titles alone caused endless discussion: Intimate Strangers, The Big Picture, The Writer’s Ear, Borderlines, and while there was plenty of writerly pretension, there was also a lot of humor. Jane Smiley told a story about sitting next to a woman on a plane who was reading Moo. “That’s my book,” Jane told her. “No, it’s not. It’s mine,’ the woman said. “I bought it!”
The usual festival suspects appeared on stage: James Wambaugh, James Ellroy, who has a book coming out in the fall. T.C. Boyle, who always has a book coming out, was introduced by his venerable agent Georges Borchardt. There was buzz around Ray Bradbury and Gore Vidal, but also the special treat of Marilynne Robinson, who had won an L.A. Times Book Award for Home the night before, sitting quietly alone by a window in the Green Room, self assuming and gracious, and the huge smile of Uwem Akpan in his Jesuit collar, the author of the heart-breaking Say You’re One of Them.
Hollywood invaded with Michael J. Fox, Alyssa Milano, Diahann Carroll, Marlee Maitlin, Brooke Shields and Tori Spelling because they, too, have written books and obviously sell a lot of them. And there were book signings, from the self-published AuthorHouse writer giving away his books for free to the long lines of fans waiting for Lisa Scottoline to sign a copy of Look Again.
The excess was down if the crowds were not. The W Hotel, usually the scene for out of town festival attendees, walking distance to the UCLA campus, was abandoned this year for less expensive watering holes, and the overall feeling was distinctly West Coast.
As for book business, “It’s been as busy for us this year as it was in 2008,” Esowon Books owner James Fugate said. Financial setbacks forced the African-American bookstore in South L.A. to cut back to one booth from its previous three at the Festival, but that didn’t impact weekend sales. “It’s almost mystical, how we select which titles to bring here, but it’s good to see the books you pick are selling. The Black Girl Next Door by Jennifer Baszile (Touchstone) is doing very well, and so is Thembisa Mshaka’s Put Your Dreams First (Business Plus).” Both authors were in the Esowon booth signing their books.
“It’s always enlightening, fun and vaguely terrifying to meet your fans,” said Jerry Stahl, author of Pain Killers (Morrow), sitting at the Mystery Bookstore booth with writers Tim Maleeny and Mark Haskell Smith, where there was a steady flow of book-buying customers.
The weather assisted admirably for Festivalgoers on a glorious cool and clear weekend. Temperatures close to 100 degrees at last year’s event made for a mostly miserable experience, but there was none of that this time. Paddy Calistro of Angel City Press noted, “We’re really busy, and I’m very pleased. The fact that we’re having such great weather has added to that. I also think that people in L.A. have come to think of this as the community event of the year. We’ve had excellent sales, and because we’re a local press we have the advantage of people wanting to read about their home town.”
When asked how this year’s Festival compared to that of 2008, Book Soup’s Tyson Cornell said, “For one, it’s not a hundred degrees! Second, we can’t keep books on the shelves, we’re selling out at panels left and right, there are more people here and they’re buying more books. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were up 30%this year for Festival sales.” Adrian Newell, acting president of the store, remarked that the absence of Barnes & Noble and Borders at this year’s event helped all of the indies considerably.
The lines were long at the Simon & Schuster Children’s booth, where several authors were in attendance to meet fans. While music blared from the nearby Target Children’s Area stage, S&S sales rep Kelly Stidham gave the Festival a glowing review. “Overall, the turnout here is great. Parents may not be buying for themselves, but they still see books as a great value for their kids. This is a great opportunity for families to come all day long to hear and see their favorite authors, and to buy their books too."