Over this past President’s Day weekend in Georgia, more than 10,000 people gathered in Telfair Square to celebrate the Savannah Book Festival (SBF). Savannah is a natural draw to writers and readers. Local author Mark Murphy said of the city’s mystique and lure, “Savannah is a beautiful city with dirty knickers. The city is elegant and ancient, like a dowager queen, but also youthful and vibrant, like a young Goth punk trying to make her mark. Savannah tells her own tales--but she keeps a few secrets, as well.”
The best-kept secret of this year’s festival was revealed during a ticketed author event, co-presented by Bobby Deen and Kimberly Schlegel Whitman. Paula Deen and her eldest son Jamie joined Bobby during the Q&A section, surprising a delighted crowd. Staples of Savannah, the Deen’s turned the presentation into a mini family reunion, all three happily answering questions. Big name authors were part of the draw to this mid-sized festival. The lineup featured New York Times Bestsellers, Nobel Peace, and Pulitzer Prize Winners. James Patterson served as Friday night’s keynote.
Patterson strongly believes in book festivals as a supporter of today’s evolving literary landscape. “Bookstores are having a tough time, and it’s a damn shame. They give readers an all-important physical connection with a new book that you can’t get any other way, and the stories in those books shape and bring meaning to our lives. Book festivals are this experience - on steroids,” Patterson said. During his keynote, Patterson emphasized the importance of getting books into the hands of young readers – a driving force behind his decision to venture in writing children’s books.
It was evident SBF agreed that children’s books, in particular YA, are a vibrant part of the publishing industry. 2013 marked the first year SBF showcased YA authors. Of the YA addition to their roster, Robin Gold, executive director of Savannah Book Festival, said, “The Festival board is very supportive of encouraging young people to read and this development was a natural extension of our successful and long standing SBF@Schools initiative which takes authors into our local schools the day before the Festival.”
Attendance at this year’s festival was up 15-20% from 2012, and one thing is certain, the Savannah Book Festival shows no sign of staying small. Each event Saturday was devoted to a single author, with 36 authors speaking in six locations off the square. Some growing pains were evident as free events quickly reached capacity, and attendees were turned away. Paula McLain, whose first ever author signing garnered a single individual, packed the 200-seat room at Neises Auditorium. Gold explained, “These free events do have limited seating (550 people in the Trinity United Methodist Church where C-Span BookTV filmed our authors) and between 100-300 seats in the other venues. We believe that a third of events surpassed their room’s limitations.” Al Gore, B.A. Shapiro, and Hoda Kotb were among the authors whose attendees surpassed expected numbers.
While the festival’s story is evolving from cozy to expansive, its allure didn’t diminish. Savannah is known for its hospitality, and the festival proved an extension of this charisma - regardless of size. The festival focused on getting books into the hands of readers and leaving them with a smile, from Leopold’s author-inspired ice cream to the intimate setting of individual author sessions and signings. As multitudes of attendees confirmed, the overwhelming takeaway of visiting the Savannah Book Festival can be summed up in a single word: charm.