In early March, before COVID-19 cast a pall on public gatherings, the AJC Decatur Book Festival (DBF) had 70 authors lined up for its 15th annual event scheduled to take place Labor Day weekend. By May, it was clear the pandemic was not going away anytime soon, and the decision was made to scale back and go virtual.
For festival Director Joy Pope, also interim executive director, the decision presented a challenge and an opportunity.
The upside was it provided the chance to reassess the festival and consider what mattered most.
“It’s our 15th year. Any time there’s been this amount of time devoted to something, there comes a moment when a reset or a reevaluation is a good idea,” said Pope. “COVID hit us during a process of re-imagining what the festival needed to be.”
What it needed to be, she determined, was focused on books.
“The virtual festival is a distillation of what the book festival is really supposed to be about,” said Pope. “It’s not the food trucks and the Popsicles and the beer. Instead, it’s just the author program.”
The challenge was how to reduce the breadth of the live event and still present robust programming online. As an organizing principle, Pope decided to honor the festival’s past by inviting popular authors from the previous 14 festivals — one from each year — plus one new author to represent the 15th year. Repeat authors include Roxane Gay, Barbara Brown Taylor, Kevin Young and Thomas Mullen. The newbie is Dr. David Satcher, 16th surgeon general of the United States, who will talk about his book, “My Quest for Health Equity.”
Once she secured the authors, Pope asked them each to format their live sessions however they saw fit.
“We gave each of the authors curatorial freedom to do whatever they wanted with their events. So, Ron Rash has a brand-new book. That’s easy. We’ll just focus on his book,” said Pope. “Jasmine Guillory, who represented last year for romance novels, she wanted to do a panel and talk about love and romance novels in general, so she invited four of her fellow romance novelists.”
The result is a monthlong presentation of 35 events featuring 43 authors in three tracks: the main adult literary track, the kids and teens track and the culinary track. As in the past, the festival begins the Friday before Labor Day, on Sept. 4.
Festival highlights include the keynote event with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown, who will talk about his book “The Tradition” (2:30 p.m. Sept. 4), and the endnote featuring Natasha Trethewey, also a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and a former U.S. poet laureate, who will talk about her new memoir “Memorial Drive” (4:30 p.m. Oct. 4). The kidnote pairs author Derrick Barnes and illustrator Gordon C. James of “I Am Every Good Thing” (10 a.m. Sept. 5). And new this year is a cooknote event with food journalist Toni Tipton-Martin, who talks about her cookbook “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking” (6:30 p.m. Sept. 6).
In addition to the author events, there are several special events such as the Lillian Smith Book Award presentation (2 p.m. Sept. 6), Out on Film’s interview with director Daniel Karslake (5:30 p.m. Sept. 5) and the National Book Foundation’s panel on Reckoning with Resistance with Hanif Abdurraqib and Camonghne Felix (6:30 p.m. Sept. 25).
Most of the festival’s events will be presented through Crowdcast. All events are free, but participants must register using their email addresses on the festival’s website. Ten minutes before an event, registrants will receive an email with the link for streaming. And for once, festival latecomers don’t have to worry about being locked out of overflow events. Each presentation can accommodate an unlimited number of viewers.
Percentage-wise, there are more writers of color represented this year than at past festivals. That was not a conscious goal, said Pope. But as the programming evolved that way, she embraced the idea of “flipping the demographic” of a lineup that traditionally has been about 70% white, she said.
“This whole lineup just organically happened,” said Pope. “I didn’t program it with diversity statistics. I programmed it with the heart, and it worked out for us.”
Credit: Photo: Pableaux Johnson
Credit: Photo: Pableaux Johnson
The culinary track also focuses heavily on African American writers.
“We wanted to look at using the festival platform as an opportunity to give a voice to African American writers,” said Ted Nelson, curator of the culinary track. “It was easy to do. There’s been an enormous movement in the culinary industry to acknowledge the contributions of African American chefs and African American culture to our food culture.”
Culinary track highlights include Todd Richards, author of “Soul on Grill,” who will demonstrate cooking on a Big Green Egg (6:30 p.m. Sept. 13), and several events with Tipton-Martin talking to different chefs about her book “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking.”
Transitioning the festival online has not proved to be a money-saving venture. Granted, there are no hotel rooms to book for visiting authors, no security detail, and there’s less staffing. But there’s also no income from exhibitors and an increased cost for marketing and technical support.
“A virtual festival is 100% dependent on marketing. A physical festival not necessarily,” said Pope. “People will show up even if we don’t have a professional doing our social media, but people won’t come to a virtual festival without professional marketing.”
There’s also the volunteer factor, which traditionally has played a big role in staging the live event.
“The physical festival, you can get volunteers to help. They don’t have to be high talent or specifically skilled. With a virtual festival, I have to hire professionals, so that tends to be a bit more expensive,” said Pope.
What the festival will look like in 2021 is anyone’s guess. Pope doesn’t expect it to return as a live event until there is a vaccine. Meanwhile, she takes comfort in the feedback she received from the New York publishing community when she went up for the festival’s annual author scouting trip earlier this year.
“I learned we have a really good reputation,” she said. “Authors love coming to Decatur.”
Here’s hoping they can come back soon.
VIRTUAL EVENT PREVIEW
AJC Decatur Book Festival. Sept. 4-Oct. 4. Free, registration required. Via Crowdcast. Decaturbookfestival.com
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