Read and Gone

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

The book community had also changed: Publishers had consolidated. Bay Area publishing had become less of a party scene, more professional and diverse. The chains had not obliterated every independent bookstore from the face of the Earth, as had been feared. Author readings had become regular events all over the city. A new kind of festival seemed like a possibility, so the Hearst-owned Chronicle brought Narda Zacchino on board as senior editor in June 2001 to tap into those changes. But the Chronicle is a business, not a social service organization, and Zacchino stepped unwittingly into political quicksand.

Zacchino founded the hugely successful L.A. TimesFestival of Books and was its co-chair for six years, and she planned to use it as a model for what was to be the San Francisco Chronicle Festival of Books. When she came north it was too late for an event in 2001, so she launched into plans for 2002. After researching other events around the country, she began speaking to the various literary players in the city. First stop: the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

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 Independent Booksellers' Hut Landon says Zacchino made a real effort to seek out his group, but "the politics up here were different -- different than maybe anywhere, and certainly from L.A." Zacchino wanted to approach Barnes & Noble as a sponsor, as she had down south; Landon says that "caused us some pause." In addition, Hearst is a giant corporation, quite different from the NCIBA's indie image. Still, the NCIBA capitulated. "Without the Chronicle, without a chain, [the festival is] not going to happen," Landon says. "Do we want it not to happen, or do we want to work with what we've got? We were prepared to work with what we've got." Though it planned to continue Books by the Bay (which will take place on July 21 at Yerba Buena Gardens), the group moved ahead in talks with the Chron.

Zacchino also tried to draw in the folks who had hosted Litstock, a low-budget, grass-roots literary festival that ran for two years -- 1999 and 2000 -- and then died. Started by Jason Flores-Williams, then an unpublished writer living in the city, and championed by Jack Boulware, a well-connected local author (and former SF Weekly staff writer), and Jane Ganahl, a journalist with the then-Hearst-owned Examiner, it was intended to be more edgy and fun than any of the other festivals, to support the writerly community in a time of dot-com evictions. But as the Book Festival had done before it, Litstock fell victim to the funding trap -- and the Chronicle's we're-doing-it-wait!-no-we're-not act didn't help.

Earlier, Hearst's Ex had sponsored Litstock to the tune of about $1,500. As Hearst moved to buy the Chronicle, Ganahl's old friend Phil Bronstein told her, "If I'm running the show, the Chron will pick it up as an event." She and Boulware "went forward based on that assumption." But in 2000, the Chronsale went through, and although he was named the paper's head editor, Bronstein told the group the paper couldn't afford to fund Litstock. Boulware and Ganahl took the show on the road, seeking sponsors -- with no luck. Then the formerly cash-strapped Chronannounced it would do its own festival -- at the same venue (Yerba Buena Gardens) on the same date (in October) as Litstock. Needless to say, there was some grumbling. But Ganahl had moved with Hearst to the Chron, so it was natural for her to talk to her new co-worker, Narda Zacchino, about cooperating. Zacchino was interested in folding Litstock into the new festival, and brought Ganahl onto the planning committee. The group had a few meetings -- and then silence. Ganahl and Boulware, left in the lurch again, are trying to pull off a Litstock event sometime this year.

Finally, Zacchino talked to the Book Council. As the group's Brenda Knight says, it was OK to seek backing from "big honking corporations, but not big honking corporations that are controversial in our business. Getting money from Adobe or Starbucks is different from getting money from Barnes & Noble." Knight had been working with her district supervisor, Aaron Peskin, to craft a proposal that the supervisors could place on the 2001 ballot in the hope of securing taxpayer backing for the Book Festival. When Knight heard the Chronicleplanned to do its own fair, she was "a bit taken aback." But she knew she couldn't fight it: "There's the rub. Do you sell out and get support, or stay independent and always be fragile?" She arranged a meeting between the Chronicle team and Peskin.

But by then the economy had started its downhill slide, to be followed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, which not only soured the economy further but drew the Chronicle's resources elsewhere. As Zacchino explains, "It's hard to justify spending money on a book festival when you're trying not to hurt the editorial product and cover a very expensive story." Potential sponsors were hurting; exhibitors were hurting; and parts of the venue the paper had wanted to use -- the Civic Center and its environs -- had already been booked. The paper decided it'd be "better to wait until 2003." This pullback has, of course, left everyone hanging.

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