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Shelf Life

Can festivals save the book?

Jennifer Collins Apr 29, 2011
Shelf Life

Can festivals save the book?

Jennifer Collins Apr 29, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: This has been a worse year than usual for bookstores. Borders has gone bankrupt — it’s closing hundreds of stores. More books are being sold in their electronic editions. But here’s something else to consider. Last September, nearly 200,000 people descended on Decatur, Ga., for a book festival. In November, half a million people went to the Miami Book Fair. This weekend, 150,000 are expected to turn out here for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

Jennifer Collins reports on how it is that book festivals thrive in an age when fewer and fewer physical books are around.

Jennifer Collins: First, let’s clear up this whole “nobody reads in L.A.” thing.

Steve Wasserman: The popular myth is that the relentless sun so bakes the brains of its inhabitants and they can only think about getting a tan.

Steve Wasserman is a literary agent with Kneerim & Williams.

Wasserman: In truth, some of the most popular and literate books are to be found in the hands of people in Los Angeles, reading round the clock.

Wasserman should know. He was the L.A. Times book review editor for nine years and oversaw the festival as its attendance doubled. Now it brings in over a million dollars a year from sponsors and exhibitors. And Wasserman says — with chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble closing stores — festivals have become a big opportunity for book sellers to connect with readers.

Anna Magzanyan is in charge of the festival for the L.A. Times. She says the event also turns to Hollywood star power to attract a larger audience.

Anna Magzanyan: We like the celebrity turnout because we feel like that is a draw for some of our folks to attend.

This year, the lineup includes The Office’s Rainn Wilson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ted Danson and Patti Smith. You may remember her for this.

Patti Smith: Because the night belongs to lovers. Because the night…

She also won the National Book Award in November for her memoir “Just Kids.” The festival is moving across town this year from L.A.’s affluent west side. Magzanyan says that’ll give it more room to grow and put it closer to L.A.’s trendy young neighborhoods on the east side.

Magzanyan: We definitely want the hipsters there. It’s a desirable audience for us to engage with our brand as well for our exhibitors, sponsors, etc.

Marissa Gluck: I hate the categorization of east side hipsters.

Marissa Gluck is with Radar Research. OK, she’s a bit of a hipster herself. But she admits this is the next generation of readers.

Gluck: These are the people that really are engaged with social media and very likely to share. They’re the bloggers, the writers, the tweeters — so you know, I think that they’re probably just chasing the cool.

And one place to find it is Skylight, an independent bookstore in Los Feliz, one of L.A.’s, yes, hipster neighborhoods. Several book clubs regularly meet here.

Emily Pullen: The fricken’ fish story man. I just had this — “Ah! That is so good!”

Melissa Bolton-Klinger: There’s so much of that in this book. There’s so much regret and I didn’t make it or I didn’t fulfill myself.

Members of Coyotes book club discuss “A Visit from the Goon Squad”

Emily Pullen and Melissa Bolton-Klinger are discussing “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” the recent Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction by author Jennifer Egan. Pullen does the ordering at Skylight and says the festival and other outside events help keep her store in business.

Pullen: It puts readers and authors and bookstores all in the same place. And that’s something that no matter who cheaply online retailers sell books for, they aren’t going to put you in a room with an author who you admire.

And sometimes, the festival is referred to as Christmas in April.

Pullen: I have bookseller friends all over the country who are totally jealous of the L.A. Festival of Books.

Skylight’s booth regularly brings in a week’s worth of sales in two days.

In Los Angeles, I’m Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.

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