The AJC Decatur Book Festival returns to the square this fall with some changes in store. Most importantly, the festival will have its second new executive director in two years.
Julie Wilson, who replaced festival co-founder Daren Wang at the end of 2017, announced at the end of 2019 that she would not return in 2020.
Decatur educator Joy Pope, with one year of experience as the festival’s program director (and a year as assistant program director), was named interim executive director of the 2020 festival.
Pope does not plan to name a new program director. She will handle many of the curating responsibilities, along with the job of running the whole operation.
Changes in leadership and the changing economics of publishing are among the challenges facing the festival, which draws tens of thousands of visitors to downtown Decatur every Labor Day weekend.
Board member James Diedrick said Pope has already broadened the reach and impact of the festival, searching out sponsors, organizing one-of-a-kind events, and promoting the festival’s Judy Turner Award to New York and Chicago publishers.
He added that Wilson’s departure has been anticipated since the end of last year’s event and that Wilson helped the festival organization prepare for it. “This is something we’ve been talking about for three months,” said Diedrick.
Wilson took over as executive director in 2017 when the charismatic Wang decided to pursue other projects. Wang’s first novel had just been published, to glowing reviews. “It was like a dream job that I fell into,” said Wilson, “not knowing that I wanted it.”
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Wilson said family responsibilities led to her decision to leave after two years. She has a child in middle school, an ailing mother and a busy husband. “I am smack dab in the middle of the generational sandwich,” she said.
The handoff to Pope should be easier than her own experience she added. “I stabilized it and gave it some structure. And I made the transition from the much-beloved, very-well-known founder.”
Pope, 51, has jumped into the daunting task of coordinating 700 volunteers, 600 authors, 60,000 visitors, a huge street fair, music, parades, cooking demonstrations and kids’ events. “It’s a giant cobbled-together medieval machine,” she said. “It’s brilliantly put together, but all those pieces don’t necessarily speak to one another.”
One pressing concern is money. The festival is free, and keeping it free is costly. “We are definitely underfunded,” said Pope. About half of the festival’s $500,000 budget is in-kind contributions, “and we need more of that in cash.”
Pope is exploring new kinds of sponsorships. Watching the Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” she was inspired by the intermission slide show that announced the Rat King was underwritten by Arrow Exterminating. (The festival has already experimented with author sponsors: Last year’s appearance by octogenarian jewel thief Doris Payne was sponsored by Griffin Insurance.)
She is also considering offering a paid VIP pass that would reserve seating to specific events. There were 39 sessions with standing room only last year, said Pope and the biggest complaint from patrons was being turned away from sessions.
More cash would pay for a larger staff. Last year there were only two full-time positions at the festival. “That’s not enough,” said Wilson. They’re adding an operations director this year, and aspire to one day hiring a development director to focus on shaking trees and finding more corporate sponsors, and perhaps even create an endowment. But it costs money to make money.
“The challenge we all face is in making those authors available to a community for free,” said Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Festival of the Book, “because it’s not free to produce.” The Charlottesville festival is presented by the Virginia Center for the Book, a part of the state humanities council.
An additional challenge for Decatur is that, unlike the Charlottesville festival, or larger book festivals in Miami, Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington D.C., the AJC Decatur Book Festival isn’t run by a government agency, university or a newspaper. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution provides in-kind support for the Decatur festival, along with a monetary contribution.)
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the festival is the fact that it takes place on Labor Day weekend before most publishing houses have sent their authors out on tour, and when Atlanta is already hopping with other events, including DragonCon and the NCAA Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.
Choosing Labor Day was a mistake, said Wang, because in the last week of August the publishing houses are still in summer vacation mode. “They’re not worrying about Decatur; they’re worrying about East Hampton.”
Moving the event to a different weekend is possible, but with 15 years of tradition behind that timing, a change might sacrifice momentum.
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During those 15 years, the number of book-signings hosted by chain and independent bookstores has expanded dramatically, so that big-name authors have many alternative ways to reach an audience. Decatur must compete for those writers. “What I can offer these authors is quite a lot of bodies,” said Pope, mentioning that Stacy Abrams signed books for 90 minutes at last year’s festival and sold out her supply.
In addition to a new executive director, the festival has a new president of its 12-member board, Mathwon Howard, senior associate vice president for advancement programs at Emory University.
Howard said the board is “committed to this being an amazing community and regional resource, something that’s available to the entire public.” (As in free.)
He added that though the board will begin a search for a permanent executive director, Pope is a strong candidate for the job. “We are very excited and appreciative of Joy’s leadership. We are very happy that we had someone with the enthusiasm and experience and willingness to step in at this juncture.”
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