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.

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.

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.

One group Zacchino never talked to was Bound Together, the anarchists' collective that puts on the Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair (at Kezar Pavilion on March 30). Perhaps such a conversation would have been instructive.

The Anarchist Bookfair keeps its costs low. It draws its 60 exhibitors from a national mix of bookstores, distributors, publishers, and activists -- many of them the same folks who exhibited at Litstock -- charging each a tiny exhibitor fee ($40 to $60, as opposed to $350 to $500 for the Book Festival). It houses the event in a low-cost venue. Finally, the festival doesn't pay or house its speakers, and it doesn't take out ads.

The group also keeps its funding close to home. It hosts various benefits as well as a raffle with prizes donated by exhibitors to raise money. And it doesn't look for sponsors. Explains Ramsey Kanaan, a member of the collective, "Part of our success is that we're not beholden to huge financial burdens, but we're also not trying to do necessarily more extravagant things that could backfire." Like the early Book Festival, the Anarchist Bookfair is free.

Perhaps, as Litstock's Jack Boulware suggests, the whole concept of a big book festival is absurd. After all, enjoying a book is "solitary, internal, personal," while your average fair is a "screaming bazaar" of people, "alien to the concept of reading." Even so, it seems ironic that three groups that longed to stay independent -- the NCIBA, the Litstock planners, and the Book Council -- may be folded into a festival sponsored by a major conglomerate and funded by chains. In one telling encounter, the Book Council's Brenda Knight met the Chronicle's book columnist, David Kipen, at a party. She asked him, "What was your role in the San Francisco Chroniclesaving the Book Festival?" His response, according to Knight: "Don't you mean, the San Francisco Chroniclestealing the Book Festival?"

Knight is still hopeful, but her comments belie a feistiness that may be incompatible with cooperation, and the Book Council remains in disarray; it has no Web site, no upcoming meetings, and few in the publishing industry know it still exists. Meanwhile, Narda Zacchino continues to talk about a SoCal-style festival. "San Francisco is such a wonderfully literate community," she says, "I really think if we did that same kind of event as L.A., it'd be even more successful." You'd think that six months of frantic negotiating -- topped with the personal and professional hell of canceling the proposed Chroniclebook fair -- would have taught her the absurdity of that remark. But hell is paved with good intentions.

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