At just five years old, the Savannah Book Festival, in the genteel coastal city of Savannah, Ga., is carving a space for itself among the book festival big leagues, boasting not one but two of the nation’s current #1 bestselling authors: Stephen King (for 11/22/63) and Walter Isaacson (Steve Jobs). Despite the city’s modest size (just over 130,000 residents), relative proximity to Atlanta (which has its own book festival in the fall), and the festival’s lack of major corporate sponsors or full-time staff, the SBF has made Savannah a President’s Day weekend destination. This year, in addition to local and regional authors, bold-faced literary names like Geraldine Brooks, Brad Thor, Pat Conroy, Jeffery Deaver, Irshad Manji, and Hillary Jordan will be attending.
Savannah Book Festival president Stephanie Duttenhaver told PW that those behind SBF have stepped up the push for “marquee authors,” hoping they will “attract not just the local community and the donors,” but also readers from further away. A big part of that strategy has been developed and supported by former Simon & Schuster president and CEO Jack Romanos, who got involved with SBF shortly after retiring from S&S in 2007. (Romanos is also a logical fit since he lives in Savannah eight months out of the year.) After the fest’s first year, Romanos offered his services as a consultant, discussing with founder Madison Parks Prickett how to combine the best of a regional show with elements of a national book festival. Soon enough, he was a full member of the volunteer board of directors. “Now,” Romanos said, “you’ll see everything from superstars to local cookbook authors. And I think that’s what our audience wanted, the best of both [worlds].”
It was Romanos’s name that got the attention of King, a longtime S&S author who, according to his personal assistant Marsha DeFilippo, gets a dozen or more festival invitations a year, but typically attends just one event, if any. This year that one festival is SBF.
The festival remains free and open to the public thanks to individual donors and what Duttenhaver calls “the goodwill of the people in the community.” Romanos said, “Because we have no foundation sponsorship, every year we really have to go out and raise the money [from scratch].” Besides the financial support of the city of Savannah, the festival also depends on 115 on-the-ground volunteers and a single part-time employee to get the three-day, 40-author event planned and executed. To celebrate its fifth year, this February the event will run five days, from Wednesday through Sunday, February 15–19. Attendance is expected to exceed last year’s almost 6,000.
What separates the Savannah Book Festival from others, Duttenhaver believes, is its one-author, one-audience format as well as its intimate size and beautiful setting. As Duttenhaver explained: “Authors really respond well to having the whole 45 minutes to themselves. They don’t have to compete with other authors, and we’re not telling them what they need to speak about. The spotlight is theirs.”
Looking at possible growth opportunities, Romanos speculates that a writers’ conference would make an “exciting” addition to the festival. “I noticed that a lot of the people who attend are writers, and I think that we could possibly collaborate with one of the local colleges on it. It would be an exciting way to give back something to the community, particularly the creative community.” Perhaps remembering that the festival is still in its relative infancy, the former CEO added, “But that’s really up to the people who do the heavy lifting.”