The jury is in, and the verdict is favorable for everyone involved: YA book festivals and literary conferences benefit authors, booksellers, and teen readers—and the parents, librarians, and teachers who are invested in nurturing their interest in reading. PW touched base with owners or staffers at a handful of bookstores that—in collaboration with local schools and libraries—happily tackle the task of orchestrating annual gatherings that pull together these bookcentric factions. And it appears that the number of such events, which receive financial support from many publishers, is growing, as is author and reader attendance.
All the booksellers we surveyed underscored the community-building benefits of teen book festivals and noted the extensive coordination involved in planning them. Meghan Dietsche Goel, children’s and young adult buyer at BookPeople in Austin, Tex., is program director for the Texas Teen Book Festival. First held in 2009, this annual event was the brainchild of Heather Schubert, a middle school librarian, who passed the torch on to Cynthia Bartek and Shawn Mauser, cochairs of the 2015 festival. That event featured 32 YA authors and drew close to 4,000 attendees.
“School librarians are at the helm of our festival, which represents a strong community partnership among booksellers, librarians, teachers, and other local champions of books and literacy,” Goel says. “It’s really a community event with a high level of celebratory energy.”
Underwritten by the larger Texas Book Festival, the teen event also relies on the support of nearby St. Edward’s University, the site of the festival, whose professors pitched in to hold writing workshops for this year’s attendees. Delacorte Press sponsored a writing contest, judged by a panel of booksellers, librarians, and YA authors, which garnered 55 submissions, and three winners were selected to receive professional editorial evaluations of their work.
Beyond the Bottom Line
Though the financial rewards of spearheading teen book festivals are difficult for booksellers to quantify, all agree that these events—with their staple author autographing sessions—boost sales, yet they insist that there are longer-lasting positive repercussions as well. Valerie Koehler is owner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, which has been handling book sales for the Greater Houston Teen Book Convention since
its 2009 inception. She notes that the 2015 event hosted 29 authors and attracted 2,000 young readers from more than 30 school districts, including those from other states.
“The festival is very rewarding, because we sell a lot of books,” Koehler says. “But perhaps more importantly, our involvement and the press we get puts us on the map for so many people—for teachers in districts we might not have worked with, for publishers, and for new customers who sign up to be on our mailing list. It’s a great way to get the store’s name out there.”
In Charleston, S.C., Blue Bicycle Books owner Jonathan Sanchez is preparing for November’s YALLFest, hosted by his store, at which 67 authors are scheduled to participate. He, too, downplays the importance of sales at the annual two-day event, launched in 2011 and held in the store’s courtyard, a next-door parking lot, and several local theaters. “We obviously have a rush of sales during the festival, and do a lot of online pre-orders, but honestly, it’s not about the sales for us,” he says.
Rather, Sanchez is gratified that YALLFest has become such a magnet for young readers from far and wide. He anticipates that the 2015 event will attract 8,000 people, more than 70% of whom are likely to be out-of-towners. “We get a lot of teens and young women in their early 20s from small towns throughout the South,” he notes. “To see so many people so pumped up about reading and meeting authors is really inspiring—to me and to all the others from our city who help with the festival.”
The Main Attraction
One of the key advantages of book festivals, to organizers as well as attendees, is the opportunities they provide for author-reader interaction. Famously well connected to their readership through social media outreach, YA authors soar to rock-star status when they meet their fans at these events, to the point, says Becky Anderson, that “the excitement truly is palpable”—and, according to several booksellers, is frequently conveyed via readers’ shrieks.
Anderson, owner of Anderson’s Bookshops in Naperville, Ill., has often witnessed this full-throttle enthusiasm firsthand. Her store just hosted its 12th annual Young Adult Literary Conference, which began with a day of programs for educators, featuring 38 authors, followed by a YA Fandom Frenzy Day, attended by the authors and some 250 young readers. In its third year, the kid-focused segment of the conference includes activities that bring authors and fans face-to-face, including speed-dating sessions and a joint trivia contest.
“The kids really have a chance to get to know the authors, and vice-versa,” Anderson says. “We count on our festivals to reach not just kids who are voracious readers, but those who aren’t. Meeting the people behind the books and discovering that authors are very cool people may just be the hook that gets those kids reading. We know that if kids are reading as teens, we’ve got them for life, and we try to do whatever we can to make that happen.”
In some cases, booksellers have yet another chance to join forces with those whose books they sell, when YA authors become involved in organizing book festivals’ programming. In fact, it was an author—Ted Goeglein—who proposed launching the Chicago Young Adult Fest, which held its inaugural session in May at the city’s Sulver Library.
“Ted is one of our local authors, and he approached me about working together on an event,” recalls Suzy Takacs, owner of the Book Cellar in Chicago, which hosted a reception and book signing for the 19 attending authors. “Ted helped choose the topics for the six panels, and took part in one, and contacted authors he knows about participating. And their outreach, in turn, helped stir up interest in the event.”
Similarly, Sanchez relied on the help of two YA authors who are participating in Charleston’s YALLFest—Melissa de la Cruz and Margaret Stohl—to pull together the programming for the event. “Melissa and Margaret picked authors to take part in the various events, and did a terrific job,” he says. “The YA author community is so close, and they know which authors click with each other and kids, so having them in charge of the program committee was enormous.”
Room to Grow
Each bookseller queried who has spearheaded teen book festivals in past years reports that 2015 brought burgeoning numbers in both author and reader attendance. Though none cites evidence of a significant number of adult YA reader attendees, several booksellers are making moves to accommodate the upcoming devotees of the genre: middle-grade readers.
YALLFest has always included middle-grade authors on its roster of events, but this year “will be our strongest yet for middle grade,” Sanchez says. “In many ways, for me there’s not a big delineation between middle grade and YA—though now that I have children, I obviously know that John Green’s novels aren’t for middle-grade readers! But we’re excited this year to host R.L. Stine and Lemony Snicket, as well as Pseudonymous Bosch, who’s on the festival board and comes every year.”
And earlier this month, Koehler at Blue Willow teamed up with Houston-area librarians to organize the fifth annual Tween Reads Fest (an offshoot of the Greater Houston Teen Book Convention), which offered fifth to eighth graders the chance to meet and interact with 25 middle-grade authors.
“There are quite a few YA book festivals now, but I don’t know of many similar tween-targeted events,” Koehler says. “It’s important to get schools and parents excited about festivals like this, given the importance of hooking kids on reading as early as possible. It makes me so happy to see how excited kids are at these book festivals. That is, after all, why so many of us got into this business in the first place.”