The Tucson Festival of Books is the book event in Southern Arizona.
Actually, I can say with some confidence it’s the book event for the whole state. Phoenix is where the money is in Arizona, but as a literary scene, it isn’t much — sadly. If you’re looking for what most regard as “culture,” you head to Tucson, and the Tucson Festival of Books.
2015 was my first year in attendance. I arrived not knowing what to expect. For each of the last six years, organizers have taken over the main quad of Tucson’s University of Arizona campus, filled it with tents and vendors, and ever-growing multitudes have gathered to do . . . well. . . everything, it seems. At this point, it’s more of a pan-cultural gathering than just a book show. I wandered from tent to tent, each filled with advocates for everything from folding bicycles to Islam to the beef industry. There was live music and dancing and science labs for the kids. Cooking demonstrations. Everything.
And as I stumbled through the acres of white tents and attended some of the talks and presentations, here were my impressions:
Average age of attendees on the day I went was likely somewhere only a little under sixty. There were a lot of older couples walking around with totes full of books from authors they had met in person. I saw a lot of creative ideas for sun-hat designs–believe me. I observed some precious moments between people who had basically merged into one over several decades — each lost without the other. Most of them seemed to be sticking with the familiar names and genres. Authors note well: These are big-time consumers of your works. And they actually buy (not just borrow or pirate) them.
There were gimmicks run by self-published authors (and ones from minor publishers) to attract attention and sell books, but a good idea still works a lot better. I turned a corner and nearly ran into a lady pirate: An attractive woman done up like Geena Davis in Cutthroat Island (a role which Ms. Davis would likely rather forget). The dread lady pirate had written a pirate-romantic epic that featured herself as a main character — and there she was, right there in the tent! I walked past a couple times. Her approach didn’t seem to be attracting much interest. However, authors with captivating ideas that they could drive home in a sentence or two were getting noticeably more play.
Fantasy, fantasy, fantasy. Plenty of stuff for readers who like dragons and faeries and talking animals and what have you. That never seems to get old. However, it seems that the vampires, zombies, werewolves, and billionaires-seducing-college-girls stuff has been played out. Thank God.
The major publishing houses (HarperCollins, Penguin, etc) had large tents and a strong presence, but they weren’t doing much to promote specific authors. The impression that comes through from them here (as well as every other place) is one of complacency.
That impression ran through the presentation I attended on “Alternative Routes to Publishing.” A panel of four authors — each disillusioned with traditional publishing — had gone off to do it on their own, with much better results. The ugly truth is that many publishers fully expect to lose money on 80% of their offerings. Most signed writers are seen as a catalog-fillers. Even attractive young authors writing in popular genres (like panelist Morgana Gallaway) don’t get much in the way of promotional support. She realized after being signed she needed to push her book on her own dime. After her disappointment with her publisher, she moved on to self-publishing and isn’t looking back. The days of traditional publishing houses being the gatekeeper to readership are nearly at an end.
However, there is still the need to sort the sheep from the goats, and a lot of self-pub authors appear to be, well, goats. Participation on the panels was limited to people who had been published by someone. Self-pub types need not apply. There are still a lot of self-pub people out there without a clue, and the imprimatur of a publishing house functions as reassurance that the writer isn’t just a weekend warrior.
Another important note to fellow authors: Facebook and Twitter are overrated for the purpose of selling books. Most panelists acknowledged the need to maintain a presence on the biggest social-media platforms, but advised authors to invest most of their time (and ad money) on sites that catered to actual readers. So most of your promo time should be going into Goodreads and book-blogs, as these have a far greater “stickiness” than Facebook or Twitter.
I hope to return to next year’s festival, hopefully with a few more titles to my credit.
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