The free festival also became a prestigious launching pad for writers, drawing such national figures as Pat Conroy, Natasha Trethewey, Jonathan Franzen, Roxane Gay, Billy Collins and Joyce Carol Oates.
COVID-19 changed everything. The pandemic turned the 2020 festival into a virtual gathering, and the festivals in 2021 and 2022 were reduced to a few events on a single day.
Today sponsorships have dropped off, the festival lacks an executive director and full-time staff has dwindled to zero. Treasurer Adam Rosenkoetter said it will take a year to regenerate sponsorship support and to build the staff back. The festival board is using that year to regroup.
Former executive director Julie Wilson, who left her post after the 2019 festival, said the lack of a festival this year is “a profound loss,” but she added that “I can’t say that I’m surprised.”
Securing sponsorships and handling the expanding crowds were problems even before the pandemic, she said. “I don’t know whether (the hiatus) is going to be forever or just this year, but (the festival) is really hard to put on.”
“It breaks my heart,” said Avondale Estates resident Kathy Trocheck, New York Times bestselling author of 30 novels, 20 of them under the pen name Mary Kay Andrews, including last year’s “The Homewreckers.”
Trocheck has been a steady presence at the festival from near the beginning, giving presentations, meeting readers and seeing it as a great time to hobnob with her fellow novelists. “I think it has put Decatur on the map as a cultural hot spot,” she said, “and it was great for businesses around the square.”
The festival comes with built-in challenges. It takes over the city, with tents and stages throughout the downtown. Hundreds of authors are flown in, housed, fed and feted, at the festival’s expense. The city provides venues and security, but the festival pays for clean-up.
One city official estimates it should cost $500,000 to stage the event, though Rosenkoetter said the group’s budget has been as low as $150,000, with the difference made up by volunteer labor and in-kind contributions.
Executive director Joy Pope resigned after the 2020 festival (though she stayed on to help with the 2021 mini-festival), and that post has been empty since then. Overtaxed volunteers have handled organizing, staging and fund-raising.
“The festival has been struggling for a while,” said Leslie Wingate, vice president of the Decatur Book Festival board. “It was struggling when Daren was at the helm.”
Daren Wang, formerly a public radio producer, created the festival in 2006 with co-founder Thomas Bell. Wang retired after the 2017 fest, when his own novel, “The Hidden Light of Northern Fires,” made its debut.
Wang said the challenges of producing a large public event on city-owned property are even greater these days due to concerns about safety. “I have to say if I were still running the festival I would have a lot of concerns about the same matters that the music festivals are facing,” said Wang.
He referred to Music Midtown, which canceled its enormous festival last year. Billboard magazine quoted industry sources suggesting that the decision was at least partly because the Midtown Music policy prohibiting weapons at the festival was unenforceable, due to Georgia’s 2014 Safe Carry Protection Act.
A court ruled in 2019 that while organizations and businesses with long-term leases on state-owned land could ban firearms from public events, short-term leases, such as Music Midtown’s lease on Piedmont Park, offered no such option.
Last month the producers of the Sweetwater 420 Fest announced their outdoor music event would move from Centennial Olympic Park to the Sweetwater Brewery, citing concerns about public safety.
Wang said that safety questions make staging the Decatur Book Festival even more complicated. “The idea of having an open public forum to discuss different ideas, sometimes controversial ideas, in the heart of Decatur, sounds overwhelmingly dangerous to me now,” he said.
Rosenkoetter said that such worries have already cost the festival. “We had an author (at the 2022 event) who was very concerned about it,” said Rosenkoetter. The board hired additional security to provide backup for the Decatur police already on the scene.
While financial concerns have bedeviled the festival, the pandemic was a game-changer. Festival organizers agree that the coronavirus has forced them to reset their expectations. Do they want a large street festival with multiple vendors? Or something else?
“We need to take a pause, regroup, and think about the future of the festival,” said Wingate. “It’s hard to do strategic planning when your time is occupied creating the festival and running the festival.”
Festival organizers said the group has money in the bank and potential supporters already lined up. “We’re in good financial shape, maybe the best we’ve ever been in,” said Wingate.
The past two festivals have been moved from Labor Day weekend to the first weekend in October. The city of Decatur has promised to reserve the October weekend in 2024 for the book festival, according to Linda Harris, assistant city manager for community and economic development.
Harris said she is encouraged that the festival’s organizers are taking time to reframe the event. “I applaud them for saying we’re going to regroup.”
Rosenkoetter was optimistic that renewed sponsorships would allow the board to hire a new executive director by the beginning of next year and build the staff back to pre-pandemic levels.
“We have a big enough following that a pause year isn’t going to hurt us going into 2024,” he said.