Read and Gone

If San Francisco's such a great book town, how come we don't have a book festival?

Los Angeles has the L.A. Times Festival of Books, which attracted about 120,000 people last year. New York Is Book Country lures more than a quarter of a million. There are dozens of such events around the country, from Denver to Seattle to Bowling Green, Ky., not to mention numerous international literary fairs from Australia to Zimbabwe. The first National Book Festival, hosted by Laura Bush, drew around 25,000 visitors to the grounds of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 8, 2001. In San Francisco, meanwhile, we have a one-day fair focused on independent booksellers (last year's draw: 8,000), another one-day fest put on by an anarchists' collective (4,000), a defunct underground festival, and a bunch of disappointed readers.

Oh, we used to have a more comprehensive book festival. It ran fairly successfully for a decade, until 1999, when it moved from the convenient Concourse Exhibition Center to the inconvenient Fort Mason, in the process losing about half its attendees and landing its host, the Book Council, back in the debt it had just paid off. In 2000, the Book Council -- a mostly volunteer committee drawn from employees at various Bay Area publishers -- regrouped to "reinvent" the affair, but when it couldn't secure enough funding, it postponed the event indefinitely.

In the middle of last year things started looking up for the city's literary community: The newly Hearst-owned San Francisco Chroniclehired the originator of the L.A. TimesFestival of Books, Narda Zacchino, in part to create a similar event here. But San Francisco is not Los Angeles, and the Chronicle is not the L.A. Times. There was no fair last year, and Zacchino announced early this month that there won't be one this year, either. Though it seems that Hearst's intentions were good, the process was handled in a way that makes it clear Zacchino didn't know what a mess she was getting herself into. And it isa mess, full of all the political miscues, bad management, and self-righteousness of most any planning process in the city.

Fairer Days: Posters from early Book Festivals -- back 
when the event was still "absolutely free."
Posters courtesy of David Cole
Fairer Days: Posters from early Book Festivals -- back when the event was still "absolutely free."

The irony is that it didn't have to be this way. At least one local group regularly pulls off a no-frills, low-cost book festival that works. Of course, what the Chronicle has in mind is on a much bigger scale, but the sensible lesson here is that big money does not always equal a better event.

The original idea for the San Francisco Bay Area Book Festival, as conceived in 1989 by its founder, Berkeley-based writer David Cole, was all-inclusive. "My initial concept," he says, "was to engage every aspect of the community -- publishers, authors, libraries, bookstores, designers, printers, editors -- to make it as broad as possible." In the early '90s the event attracted exhibitors from every persuasion, and about 15,000 book-lovers attended each year. Then the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association pulled out, launching its own fair, Books by the Bay, in 1996. As Hut Landon, executive director of the NCIBA explains, the Book Festival was "trying to be a lot of things to a lot of people. Maybe that was one of their problems, I don't know."

Another problem was funding: The Book Council recognized the need for a big-name sponsor to cover its $400,000 in operating costs, but was unwilling, on principle, to turn to the most obvious source, chain bookstores. As Brenda Knight, acting president of the Book Council, said in a 1999 interview, "I [agreed] with people here who believed that our Book Festival should remain independent of corporations and chains of any kind." Of course, the Times had also turned to large corporations outside the book community -- specifically Target -- but the Book Council never succeeded in luring such lucrative investors, not even the major daily papers. In addition, the council didn't think to hold a fund-raiser until its last year. The city donated Hotel Tax funds, but it wasn't enough to cover what had become a hugely expensive event.

With the booksellers gone, the festival focused more on local publishers, of which there are dozens; unfortunately, such publishers don't have a lot of money. Despite the addition of an entrance fee of $3 to $5, the Book Council struggled with rising debt. The economy picked up in the late '90s, and by 1998, Knight says the council had "gotten [itself] out of a financial hole and broken even." Then, in an effort to "energize" the event in 1999, the Book Council moved the Book Festival to Fort Mason and changed the date by a few weeks, from November to October. It was a disaster.

Fort Mason was plagued with problems. The parking, in particular, stank. Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown was supposed to speak, but when he couldn't find a parking spot, he stopped in a no-parking zone; his car was in the process of being towed when his Book Council escort caught it. "It was a failure of logistics that got us down," Knight explains.

Realistically, however, the Book Festival's failure wasn't due only to problems with funding and logistics. The fair had gotten too big and too costly, trying to be all things to all people. The Book Council had lost several key members and was full of infighting about corporate support. Its volunteer members (already underpaid -- this is publishing, after all) were exhausted. In addition, the council had spread itself thin, taking on services beyond the Book Festival, including job boards and literacy programs.

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