In its sixth year, the Decatur (Ga.) Book Festival is bigger than ever, but also running more smoothly than ever—at least, that's how it seems just days ahead of the September 2 keynote address that kicks off two very full days of readings, signings, panels, performances, and even parades. Sitting in Decatur's Brick Store Pub, executive director/cofounder Daren Wang and program director Terra McVoy were relaxed but animated about this year's DBF, which has quickly become one of the largest book festivals in the country.
"In the past," Wang said, "there was often one person covering the jobs of two or three." This year, there are 25 people on the planning committee and 500 volunteers in all. "It's maturing as an organization," said McVoy. Wang also credits another powerful change: McVoy herself, who just took over this year for former program director Tom Bell. "It's been fantastic," Wang said of working with McVoy, an author and former bookstore manager who has been with the organization since its very first breakfast meeting in 2005.
This year's keynote speakers, the married pair of debut YA novelist Colin Meloy and illustrator Carson Ellis, are not quite as big as last year's speaker, Jonathan Franzen, but the DBF sold tickets almost as quickly—even though it is, for the first time, charging for keynote tickets—$5, "basically to prevent hoarding," quipped McVoy. Also for the first time, the keynote is drawing whole families. "There weren't many kids out there reading Freedom," McVoy said. The keynote event may also draw a contingent of indie-rock fans familiar with Meloy through his day job, front man for the Decemberists, a band known in part for its ingenious lyrics.
Though the keynote and several other events will be aimed at the children's and YA audience, events aimed at adults far outnumber any other. The Children's Stage will still be located at the heart of the festival, and the proceedings on Saturday and Sunday will still start with a children's parade, but 14 more stages will provide grown booklovers with an overwhelming number of choices. Authors of national interest include Tom Perrotta, Robert Olen Butler, Howard Wasdin, Karen Russell, Cheryl Tan, and Joshilyn Jackson, but the list of authors is about 300-strong, spanning all genres.
This year's crowd will likely surpass last year's attendance of 70,000, which was up 10% over 2009. Since visitors are coming from as far away as Australia, the organizers want to make sure they can get the most out of the weekend. To help fairgoers plan their days, the DBF is continuing to provide themed "tracks," handy schedules of like-minded panels and performances falling into categories like Business, Cooking, Romance, Poetry, Spirituality/Religion, and the ATL Queer Lit Fest; this year, they'll be introducing Science and Sports tracks into the mix.
Also new is the author auction, an idea Wang took from Wanda Jewel of the Southern Independent Booksellers Association. Bidders will be competing for a drink with their favorite author on the Brick Store's sidewalk patio, located conveniently in the middle of the festivities. In addition, more local arts organizations than ever will be previewing or kicking off their own season at the DBF, including the Center for Puppetry Arts and the Atlanta Opera. A game show for writers called Write Club will also add a new element, a "high-velocity competitive reading" event in which authors produce new material to win money for charities.
Wang credits much of the DBF's success to the community of Decatur, a small city on the edge of Atlanta that prides itself on smalltown spirit as well as cutting-edge cultural and dining sites. The DBF has also had the financial support of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the DeKalb Medical Center since its early days and has added other sponsors. Because of that support, Wang isn't sure if the success of the DBF is reproducible; on the other hand, at the time it was conceived there were no literary events of any kind in Atlanta: "I was heading back from the South Carolina Book Festival with Marc Fitten, a local author, and I was saying ‘Why is there this great book festival in Columbia, and nothing in Atlanta?' As soon as we got back we called Tom and Terra, and, well, that was it," explained Wang, who is the editor of the audio literary magazine Verb and devotes about half of his time to DBF.
The DBF still maintains strong ties with the South Carolina Book Festival (held in May), and Wang has helped advise the organizers of the Savannah Book Festival, evidence of the strong ties within the book festival community. "We steal as many good ideas as we can from Mitch Kaplan," says Wang, referring to the cofounder of the Miami Book Festival International, DBF's main competitor for the title of "Largest Independent Book Festival in the South." Despite the rivalry, Wang thinks it's "fair to say" that Kaplan "is a pretty willing victim."