Twin Cities Book Festival foreshadows industry’s future

Attending the Twin Cities Book Festival gives an unobstructed view of an industry undergoing historic changes.

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The tenth annual Twin Cities Book Festival, organized by the nonprofit Rain Taxi Review of Books, took place Saturday, Oct. 16, at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

A standing-room crowd packed the festival’s opening panel discussion about the transformations sweeping the publishing world. “Much has changed, but in ways that call upon us as people who love books to be better, to be more innovative, to think quicker and not to be afraid,” said panel moderator Kevin Smokler, CEO of BookTour.com and editor of the anthology Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times.

The appeal of books — or good writing, more broadly — appears as vibrant as ever. In the Twin Cities Book Festival exhibition space, 77 publishers, magazines, booksellers and arts organizations exhibited on tables alongside 36 individual authors with their own displays; cradled within the exhibition space was a massive used-book jumble sale. According to Rain Taxi board member Patrick McAvey, the event has grown steadily, increasing from about 1,000 people in its first year to more than 6,000 in 2009.

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So what has changed? The panelists described the rise of independent presses, the decline of traditional gatekeepers such as major publishers and book reviewers, the advent of e-books and even the immense impact of social media such as Facebook and YouTube (because many books now have trailers, just like films).

“Here in the early decades of the 21st century, our collective problem as writers and as readers — and most of all, as book lovers — is not that the thing we love is vanishing, going away or becoming less important,” Smokler said, “but there is simply too much of it. There is too much of it to decide how to spend one’s time as a person who loves books and what to devote one’s attention to.”

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Kevin Smokler

I asked Smokler if publishers are simply publishing too many books. “I don’t think they’re over-publishing books in aggregate,” he said. “I think there are too many books that attention and care and time is not paid to. The system seems to be set up where there’s one or two big titles a season that get all the publicity dollars. So it’s a completely stacked deck. That seems, from a business standpoint, a silly way to promote books.”

Author Tim W. Brown of Chicago said the proper response to the industry’s changes is for readers to empower themselves to find good books and for authors to empower themselves to get their books into readers’ hands.

Steph Optiz, membership director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses in New York, agreed. “I think an exciting change is the ability to self-publicize and market books,” she said. “For a lot of authors, that’s really important and a great way to get their work out to a wide audience.”

Brian Landon is one such author. The murder-mystery writer from Blaine, Minn., says his publisher assists a lot with promotion, but Landon also maintains his own website and blogs through Amazon.com, in addition to attending traditional book-signings and reading events.

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Author Brian Landon likes to meet new readers at the Twin Cities Book Festival.

Author Joseph Mbele embraces online technology to self-publish his books and sell them on demand. “Publish-on-demand is a good idea because you don’t have 10,000 copies sitting in a warehouse waiting for buyers,” he said. “A book is printed only when somebody orders it. This is the future of publishing, there’s no doubt.”

Loonfeather Press in Bemidji doesn’t do print-on-demand, but it does use a digital press to produce smaller runs of books. “You don’t have to print 1,000 books right away,” said business manager Mary Lou Marchand. “You can try it out, see if it works. If you’re starting to sell, then you can get a bigger run going. I think that’s a real advantage for small presses.”

Larger presses, such as North Star Press of St Cloud, are also minding their inventories. “We’re not even printing hardcover right now, we’re only doing paperback,” explained Seal Dwyer, business manager at North Star. “And all our books are on Nook and Kindle, which is not hurting our book sales, but is adding to our total sales.”

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Julia Opoti and Leyla Warsame come to the festival to meet authors and to find rare or underappreciated books.

Amidst these various responses to so many industrial changes, author Andrew Ervin (whose debut novel Extraordinary Renditions was recently published by Coffee House Press) pointed out one immutable element. “The biggest challenge is still putting the words together,” Ervin said. “That hasn’t changed. Actually writing something that’s worth reading. Maybe this is old-fashioned, but I think you have to write a good book, too.”

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