Cutting-edge book fair turning a page
By Marilyn Bowden
The Miami Book Fair International, now in its 29th year, is recognized by publishers as one of the top fairs in the country. Organizers continue to introduce new programming and tweak familiar offerings to keep locals and vendors coming back.
The fair runs Nov. 11-18 on the Wolfson Campus of Miami Dade College, 300 NE Second Ave. During that time, organizers estimate about 250,000 people will pass through it, and more than 300 authors will be giving readings.
"It's perceived in the business as one of the big national book fairs," said Johnny Temple, founder and publisher of New York-based Akashic Books. "It's definitely one of the two best, along with the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books — with Brooklyn Book Festival nipping at their ankles."
This will be Akashic's ninth consecutive year as a vendor. While they do sell a lot of books, Mr. Temple said, subtract the expense involved — shipping books, housing staff, renting cars — and that doesn't add up to much profit. Part of the attraction, he said, is the atmosphere: "it doesn't feel like a big business conference, but a real community event."
Florrie Kichler, president of Patria Press in Indiana and president of the Independent Book Publishers Association, or IBPA, said most small and independent publishers can't afford to attend consumer fairs, opting for trade shows where they can market directly to retailers — though "that model is changing, and we are considering it. Miami and Los Angeles might be good places to start."
This year's book fair will begin with the traditional "Evenings With" presentations by well-known writers, including, this season, Tom Wolfe, Junot Diaz, Adam Gopnik, Emma Donoghue and others, during the week leading up to the street fair (Nov. 17-18).
Fridays have always been given over to field trips from local schools, and this year schoolchildren will be attending Thursday as well. It's part of a re-imagining of the role the book fair plays for children, said Lissette Mendez, program coordinator at the Center for Literature and Theater @ Miami-Dade College, which produces the fair.
"We' re thinking about what we are trying to do with these programs," she said, "not just to teach children how to read, but how to think. We want to help them learn, and support the efforts of their parents and teachers. Especially as funding in public schools shrinks, the role of programs such as ours that have to do with education need to do more."
With that in mind, Ms. Mendez said, the center's staff is looking at creating a synergy among all the fair's offerings for its youngest visitors, from infants to young adults.
"We're giving each tent in Children's Alley a subject," she said, "rather than theme them around specific books."
In the art tent, for example, kids can learn about periods of art, materials, and techniques from painting to visual collage.
For the science tent, Ms. Mendez said, "We're partnering with Miami Science Museum to teach sessions. We have different activities for different age ranges."
The center is applying for grants from individuals and organizations, she said, so that each child will get a free book during weekday field trips or weekend visits to Children's Alley.
Weekdays will also feature, for the second year, author presentations by writers of books for young adults, a genre Ms. Mendez said is "exploding."
New this year during the street fair is an enlarged culinary component.
"We've always had cookbook authors," she said, "but now MDC is opening a culinary school it's easier logistically to have demonstrations. Some will include sit-down meals with a chef ticketed at a higher price. We will also have demos anyone can attend."
The center produces traditional writers' workshops throughout the year. Between Nov. 14 and 16, she said, it will run workshops of various lengths with publishers, agents and writers, some of whom have been successful in the brave new world of e-publishing.
To what extent the rapid growth of the e-book market will change the literary world is still open to question.
So far, Ms. Mendez said, it hasn't had much effect on Miami Book Fair International, "but these are transitional years. We have not yet reached a point where most books are online.
"From a programming point of view, I think people still want to come and interact with authors, but what that means for the bricks-and-mortar book fair is yet to be seen."
Ms. Kichler said Patria Press began offering its books in e-format six or seven years ago. "All our IBPA members are putting out e-editions," she said. "It's a very cost-effective way to test out a new title, and you can change the price or tweak the content whenever you want to."
What will change, she said, is how books are marketed and where the publisher will end up in the equation, "but I think there will always be space for the human connection. Even if you have an e-book, if you hear that author is going to be coming to town, of course you will go."
If anything, Mr. Temple said, e-books will help book fairs.
"There's a certain part of the population that is really excited about e-books," he said, "and the possibility of actually seeing writers and hearing them read may be new to them, whereas print books readers have been doing so for many years."
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