Frustrated by the lack of minority authors at Washington, D.C.'s annual National Book Festival, Kwame Alexander, a poet and independent producer of literary programs, launched Capital BookFest, a book fair focused on creating festival venues for top African-American authors. The first Capital BookFest, held in Largo, Md., in October 2005, was sponsored by the Washington Post and drew about 1,700 people. "I thought those numbers were kind of low, then I realized that the area has seven book festivals in 30 days," Alexander said. This year Alexander expects 10,000 people at the October 2 event.
The success in Largo has encouraged Alexander to expand Capital BookFest to nearby cities: Harrisburg, Pa., where, as of press time, 2,000 visitors were expected on September 18, and Charleston, S.C., where Alexander anticipates 5,000 to 10,000 on November 6. The shows will feature nearly 300 authors altogether, among them Wes Moore, chef Nathalie Dupree, Tananarive Due, and Roscoe Orman. About 60% of the attending authors are "from the community that we are serving," Alexander said. Self-published authors and presses are encouraged to participate, with up to 80 exhibiting at each festival. Fees for individual exhibitors are relatively low, just under $200, and Largo has had many repeat exhibitors.
While the fairs often showcase African-American authors, Alexander said he strives for diversity. "In Prince George's County, Maryland, which has a largely black population, the authors are primarily African-American. Whereas, in Charleston, where there is more of a cultural hodgepodge, the festival programming reflects that multiformity," he said. The one-day book festivals offer readings, signings, panel discussions, and more.
Alexander gives credit for his business model to his parents, who were intellectuals involved in the Black Arts movement of the 1960s. His father, Dr. E. Curtis Alexander, launched his own publishing house, ECA Associates, in order to publish his dissertation and organized his own book fairs in Harlem. "He was a really awesome business manager," Alexander told PW. "As far back as I can remember, I was licking stamps to put on catalogues, or going to ABA, ALA, or the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books in London." These days Dr. Alexander exhibits at his son's book fairs.
Next year's festival schedule will expand again to include Richmond, Va.; New Orleans; and an as yet undetermined city in the Caribbean. Alexander's goal is to have festivals in 15 to 20 cities in the next five years. "We are targeting cities that do not have a proper book festival, and have a strong or emerging arts/literary scene," he said, emphasizing, "This is a community-based effort, and we are bringing our expertise. So we build it from the community up; it's not us telling them what to do."
Capital BookFest attracts major sponsorships from national corporations, such as Amazon.com's CreateSpace, Hilton, and Marriott as well as from local businesses. Although he does not seek out major publishers as sponsors, Alexander maintains good relations with the large houses, which send high-profile authors to his festivals each year. Each festival has two official booksellers—one chain, one local independent—with authors autographing at the bookseller's autographing station. And to generate income throughout the year, Alexander said, "We also produce smaller events such as poetry slams, and we do consulting—for example, for a local library that wants to put on an event."
As part of the festival's theme of "Strengthening Families Through Reading," CBF self-publishes at least one book each year to give away to the first 1,000 visitors. This year's giveaways include Cooking Up South, a 100-page, full-color cookbook (produced using CreateSpace). Alexander is also the founder of Book-in-a-Day, a high school/grade school literacy program in which students write poetry and create a book all in one day; each festival features authors from that program. This year's special guest is former program participant Noni Carter, now a Harvard sophomore, whose historical novel, Good Fortune, was published by Simon & Schuster in June.
"A big part of our mission is to introduce new, talented, and diverse authors to new markets," Alexander said, "and to do it in an authentic way."