The Book Festival: What Makes It So Special?

Book Festival: From Autographs to Awesome Authors, a Book Festival is an Unforgettable Experience

By Thea Miller Ryan

Editor’s note: Thea is a longtime South Dakota Festival of Books volunteer/fan. In addition to running the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls, she keeps her own literature blog, Road Trips for Readers, where she chronicles her various reading-related adventures.

For a bibliophile, a book festival is quite simply the best place on the planet.

My trip last fall to Deadwood, South Dakota, for the 11th Annual South Dakota Festival of Books was as great as any book lover can imagine. Authors in abundance, piles of books everywhere, restaurants filled with people discussing books and dizzying days filled with the opportunity to soak in everything reading related.

Leaving Deadwood on their curvy mountain highway, I thought about the things that make a book festival unforgettable.

book festival

1. Seeing some authors is better than seeing movie stars. Although it’s not uncommon to see screen stars in Deadwood, it is even more exciting for an avid reader to bump into the likes of Pete Dexter, national book award winner or Ted Kooser, U.S. National Poet Laureate. Imagine seeing author C.J. Box with his cowboy hat off? Or seeing Barbara Shapiro, author of The Art Forger, a current best seller, wearing some killer shoes. Craig Wilson, columnist for USA Today, is absolutely as kind as his promotional photo’s smile conveys. I get all giddy inside and do my Midwestern thing of hiding behind my menu and pretending not to know they’re sitting at the table next to me, while folks from other parts of the country interrupt their hamburger for an autograph.

book festival

2. Authors sometimes make you angry. How could an author invoke such wrath of their fans? It’s their job. In one session, NPR’s On the Media contributor, Bob Garfield, told festival attendees media, in nearly all forms, is as good as dead. He answered my advice request regarding my daughter attending journalism school with “If you send your daughter to journalism school, it’s like raising white rats only to turn them in to a lab to be killed.” I wasn’t the only one that gasped in the room full of people. He continued with “schools offering journalism are bordering on fraud.” Every word a writer puts down on paper or screen is an invitation to evoke emotion with their readers. He was doing his job.

3. Authors can make you think. Apocalyptic literature is not a passion of mine, but nationally, books about end times are selling and abundant. Why is that? The South Dakota Festival of Books presented three authors to talk about that very question. Peter Heller, author of the bestseller, The Dog Stars, Rhiannon Frater, author of the As the World Dies zombie trilogy, and Richard VanCamp, member of the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. The authors claimed readers love for thrills, horror and other common themes create a selling point for this genre, but the most thought-provoking reason behind the popularity came from Rhiannon Frater, who said apocalypse books are the “giant reset button.” She said people long to be an explorer, discoverer or founding father, and an apocalyptic event would make everyone a pioneer again. It gave me a lot to think about on my 6-hour drive home.

4. Authors are humans, too. I had the good fortune to ride across the state with a new author – so new, a box of books had arrived on her doorstep the day before we traveled. It was her first book, a biography of one of the upper Great Plains greatest architects, W.L. Dow. She’d spent nine years researching the story of Dow alongside her husband, a documentary film maker. She had grabbed two copies of her book as she walked out the door to her home to get into the car with me. “How does it look?” I asked her. “I haven’t opened it,” she said. “I’m afraid to.” Two days later on the way home I asked again. “I can’t look,” she said. We laughed, but I realized then how these authors we sometimes put on pedestals are just as afraid as most of us to look back on their life’s work and find out they made a mistake, or wish they’d made a different decision.

5. There are just too many books to read. Visit a vendor hall at a book festival and you’ll find not only books that are available at any bookstore, but also books printed by small presses, university presses, historical society presses and especially books that are self-published, stacked in a cheerful manner in front of an eager looking author with a pen in hand. It’s hard not to buy everything – some because they look like a book I would really want to read, and some because the author looks so eager to tell you their story. Bring a lot of money. It’s like walking through a pet shelter – pleading eyes are everywhere and authors suddenly appear cuter than puppies in a box.

book festival

Book signings are a great chance to meet an author, but having 50+ authors in one location can’t be beat. Attend the South Dakota Festival of Books, Sept. 26-28, 2014 in Sioux Falls. Or any book festival near you. The book festival experience is unforgettable.

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