By ZACH POWERS
Local book lovers know to block off Presidents Day weekend on their calendars. That’s when the Savannah Book Festival brings in dozens of authors, from international bestsellers to local and regional favorites, for a four-day celebration of the written word.
Eight years in, the Book Fest has expanded from an ambitious event in Telfair Square attended mostly by locals to a three-square, 40-author event that’s nationally known. And now it’s expanding again.
Starting on Tuesday with a release party for Mary Kay Andrews’ new book, the aptly named “Save the Date,” the Book Festival will kick off a year-round schedule of events, featuring high-profile authors from around the nation.
Book Fest board chairman Jack Romanos explains: “We feel that we succeeded with the main festival. In fact, we know we have because we’re at the point where authors are asking us, agents and publishers are asking us if we’ll take authors at the festival, where at the beginning we were almost begging somebody. So having succeeded with the main event, we really feel that phase two is to bring authors to Savannah on a regular basis, as an extension of the weekend event into a year-round event.”
Romanos comes to Savannah after a career in publishing, culminating with his position as CEO of print powerhouse Simon & Schuster. His experience in that often cutthroat industry has proved invaluable in shaping the literary scene here.
“In the beginning,” he says, “one of our strategies was to put Savannah on the map as it relates to the New York publishing community. I say New York because that’s primarily where the center of publishing is. But, from my previous experience, I can tell you that Savannah didn’t exist when it came to promoting or publicizing an author. So our primary goal was to put Savannah on the map as a place that had a solid reading audience, where nationally known authors could actually promote their book.”
In addition to Mary Kay Andrews this summer, the Book Fest will also host Lee Child, bestselling author of the Jack Reacher novels, for an event in the fall. Besides giving the local audience offerings throughout the year, opening up the calendar allows the festival to bring in authors who, like Child, are unavailable in February.
Robin Gold, the festival’s executive director, notes that it’s a bit of a coup to land an author the caliber of Child, who hasn’t visited Georgia in more than four years.
“Lee Child doesn’t do a lot of these types of presentations,” she says, “and he’s not in the South very often. So this is a pretty big deal that he’s coming to Savannah.”
Gold also agrees with Romanos about the value of the event for local readers.
She says, “The goal is just to be able to keep everybody involved. The people that come to the festival love it so much that they want more, so it’s become apparent that having these special events is the way to do that. It’s just being able to support our supporters, and giving them more year-round.”
Ann Higbee serves as the festival’s president, and comes to the board not from publishing like Romanos, but from a public relations background. She focuses much of her energy on making Savannah an appealing city for the authors the festival hopes to attract.
“We do a really, really good job with hospitality befitting the city that they come to,” she says. “We do a wonderful job when it comes to the ambiance of the festival. We do a very good job of engaging interested readers. On average, about 10,000 people participate over President’s Day Weekend, and they’re people who care about reading.”
The uniqueness of the setting and the quality of the attendees has authors and publishers paying attention when they look for an appropriate venue.
“There are two metrics they use to determine that,” says Higbee. “One is not only the number of people who are interested but the quality of those people, in the sense that they engage. So the authors get really good rubbin’ shoulder time.
“That’s part of what their psychic return needs to be. The other metric is do the people come to buy books. From the author and publisher’s points of view, that’s what they want. They want eager fans, and they want book sales. We do that.”
It’s interesting to note that putting on the annual festival is not technically the goal of the organization. While the activities over Presidents Day weekend are the most obvious manifestation of that goal, the goal’s broader terms give the festival license to reach beyond their signature event.
“Our goal really is to support the love of reading and civil conversation and to promote the joy of the written word,” Gold says. “To do that, the festival is not planning on growing in size, we’re just planning on growing in scope with what we offer and just maturing and just continuing to bring these fabulous events to Savannah.”
Higbee elaborates, “There are lots of wonderful festivals. Most of them that we know about are very large, and much less up close and personal. There’s more of a distance between the participant and the author. We’re not interested in that model. We do not see in our future tampering with the combination of historic buildings and historic squares, all in the very heart of what makes Savannah appealing. I think our model is a little bit different, and maybe what we define as better is a little bit different.”
The authors the Book Festival brings to Savannah will appear elsewhere over the course of a book tour, and the readers who come in from out of town are likely to visit other readings and book signings, but all of them will leave here with memories of Telfair Square and historic venues and that certain something that keeps the sidewalks downtown full of tourists. There’s no other place that can replicate that.
“This is our eighth year,” says Gold, “and when it started out eight years ago, it was really a completely local audience, but it has emerged and evolved now to the point where people are coming into Savannah for the Book Festival from out of town. It’s becoming nationally recognized, which is great for the city of Savannah. We love having local followers, but we also love having the regional aspect and the national aspect. Anyone who loves books is who we want to have here.”
At the end of our interview, Ann Higbee asks me to remind everyone that the Savannah Book Festival is a nonprofit, and as such relies on the support of the Savannah community. That support can come in the form of donations of time or money. So if you’re a fan of the written word, celebrate it year-round with the Savannah Book Festival, and get involved to get even more out of the experience.