It has been a watershed year for the AJC Decatur Book Festival as it approaches its 13th annual outing this Labor Day weekend.
With founding executive director Daren Wang no longer at the helm, programming director Julie Wilson took charge, juggling both jobs and a budget that wasn’t as robust as she would have liked.
“It has not always been well known how fluid the finances have been for this festival,” Wilson said. “Managing a budget for an event like this has been a challenge when you have such a small team. I knew it would be a hard year.”
The book festival is a nonprofit organization that receives funding and in-kind donations from the city of Decatur, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Emory University, Mail Chimp and other educational institutions and media outlets. The annual operating budget is about $500,000.
Budget constraints required Wilson to continue managing the programming duties this year while taking over Wang’s role as executive director. But also, Wilson said, “I love programming, so the idea of handing that off to someone was also hard because I loved what I was doing, and I didn’t necessarily know everything that was going to happen in this new role.”
Wilson began her career with the festival as an assistant programming director in 2015 and served under Wang as programming director for the past two years before taking over his role. Her prior experience was in marketing communications for the American Cancer Society and Ketchum public relations firm.
Administrative changes aside, the festival appears to have successfully weathered the transition.
Wilson credits “the great relationships Daren and (street fair manager) Mike Miller have forged” with sponsors, booksellers and partners over the years. “A lot of things just happened because they always happened,” she said.
For the most part, the three-day festival is business as usual. Festivities kick off with a keynote event Aug. 31 with Tony Award-winning director and memoirist Kenny Leon. And on Sept. 1-2, an estimated 430 authors will appear on 17 stages throughout downtown Decatur. The lineup includes big-name authors like Armistead Maupin, Tayari Jones, Karin Slaughter, Charles Frazier, Rick Bragg, Melissa Fay Greene and Joshilyn Jackson, as well as plenty of emerging authors. Street fair festivities will begin with a children’s parade both days, and the saute pans will be sizzling at the culinary stage.
Mail Chimp sponsors another Author Select programming track, this time featuring Shea Serrano, author of “Basketball (and Other Things),” which President Barack Obama described as one of his favorite books of 2017. Serrano brings in several authors, including Ijeoma Oluo, author of “So You Want to Talk About Race,” and YA author Mary H.K. Choi, who wrote “Emergency Contact.”
New this year are partnerships with Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ film festival that helped bring in Maupin, and GPB, who brought in Jason Reynolds, middle school author of “Ghost” and “Sunny,” for “The Great American Read.”
Wilson credits those partnerships for helping create “one of the most diverse lineups we’ve ever had,” she said. “It’s a blend of familiar voices, new voices and voices that educate and inform us.”
This year’s lineup also features a lot of debut authors.
“I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” said Wilson. “My goal is to make most authors more accessible and that doesn’t eliminate the strong literary works, but it does move into the mass market and topics that don’t just speak to certain groups.”
Among the authors Wilson is personally excited about seeing are “Hope and Other Superpowers” author John Pavlovitz, whom she describes as “a very loud voice in progressive Christianity,” and Bernice McFadden, author of “Praise Song for the Butterflies.”
“Her book was based in Ghana, so it talked about a life and a culture that I’m not familiar with, but it was about familiar themes,” said Wilson, “of family, of tragedy, of perseverance and forgiveness.”
When the festival is over, Wilson plans to pursue some R&R on a Disney cruise with her husband and son. “I’ll be where no one can reach me and people will bring things to me in my deck chair,” she said. “We will be off the grid for four days.”
Then she’ll be back at it, planning festival number 14. One of her top priorities will be to closely assess all the festival’s many moving parts.
“Part of the challenge of having the founder run the event for 12 years is that a lot of things that were done to get it started were still being done 10 years later when needs were different,” said Wilson. “It’s important to have a new eye on everything as we move toward the future.”
And she has a pretty good idea of what she wants that future to look like.
“We are a festival that happens to be a nonprofit,” she said. “I want us to be a strong nonprofit that runs a phenomenal festival.”
AJC Decatur Book Festival. Aug. 31-Sept. 2. Free. Various venues. decaturbookfestival.com.
Keynote: Kenny Leon. 8 p.m. Aug. 31. Sold out. Schwartz Center at Emory University, 1700 N. Decatur Road, Atlanta.
Kidnote: Harry Potter celebration. 5 p.m. Aug. 31. Free but ticket required. Presser Hall at Agnes Scott College, 141 E. College Ave., Decatur.
Street Festival: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sept. 1, noon-6 p.m. Sept. 2, downtown Decatur.
MORE 2018 AJC DECATUR BOOK FESTIVAL STORIES
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