Brooklyn Book Festival Expands as Reputation of Small Presses Grows

The Brooklyn Book Festival takes over Downtown Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Borough Hall Plaza in an annual celebration of literature. In 2011, pictured above, 40,000 people attended. Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Book Festival.

Brooklyn has been a literary hothouse since the days of Walt Whitman. In this century, the tree-lined streets of Brooklyn Heights inspired the likes of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, Boerum Hill-born Jonathan Lethem made his borough the setting of his bestsellers, and transplant Martin Amis recently settled into Cobble Hill. While writers and Brooklyn have gotten along famously for some time, the Brooklyn Book Festival is only in its seventh year.

The fact that the borough is chock-full of writers likely has something to do with the popularity of the festival (40,000 attended in 2011), which this year has extended to seven days and features more than 280 authors and 104 panels where fans can hear authors read and ad lib for free and aspiring writers might get advice from editors either during a post-talk Q&A or across a book sales table.

There’s a certain scrappiness and desperation and thirst and hunger that leads to the most exciting books.

But there’s another reason why the fest is booming: the Brooklyn Book Festival specializes in showcasing small, independent presses, and the interest in those publishing houses, those bastions of creativity that publish because of their deep love of the written word, is growing. Both nationally and internationally, the books of the U.S. indie press are in high demand.

“There’s never been a better time to be an independent publisher,” said Johnny Temple, founder of the independent publisher Akashic Books, the chair of the Brooklyn Borough President’s Literary Council and the de facto leader of the Brooklyn Book Festival.

When Temple first wanted to start a book festival in Brooklyn he found an interested party in Borough President Marty Markowitz, whose office presents the festival. The publisher said they had no idea that the festival, which celebrates international publishers and authors in addition to those from Brooklyn and the city as a whole, would catch on as it has.

“We said, ‘Yeah we sure did have a good idea!'” said Temple.

The Brooklyn Book Festival kicks off Monday, September 17, and runs through Sunday the 23rd. Highlights include a panel of literary heavyweights Walter Mosley, Edwidge Danticat and Dennis Lehane discussing character creation; editors Lorin Stein (The Paris Review), Rob Spillman (Tin House) and John Freeman (Granta) extolling the importance of literary magazines in contemporary culture; and the culminating day-long book expo on September 23 held outside of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, where hundreds of publishers line up farmers’ market style to tempt readers with their latest books and backlists.


The author Pete Hamill, 2012 festival honoree and Park Slope native, describes the rich inspiration Brooklyn provides writers. Video courtesy of the Brooklyn Book Festival.

While the festival does include some of the big publishers, the spirit of  the week  is largely independent and progressive. Temple said the festival  strives to  fully represent Brooklyn, which is, according to Temple, “hip, smart and diverse.”

“There isn’t a festival out there that does more careful curating than we do,” he said. “Other big festivals might have an equally impressive group of authors, but can feel thrown together.”

For example,  a panel in which authors discuss violence in their work and how they handle it combines first-time novelist Amelia Gray, who wrote the thriller “Threats,” Dennis Lehane whose ninth novel “Moonlight Mile” follows the investigators and victim he first wrote of in Gone Baby, Gone, and Sapphire, whose second novel “The Kid,” examines what happens to the son of the protagonist Precious, who was the center of her novel-turned-Oscar-winning film,  “Push.”

Last year at the Brooklyn Book Festival, a newspaper was available with the schedule of events. This year, there will also be an app for your smart phone. Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Book Festival.

Small Presses Get Big Respect from Literary World

For independent publishers, the festival is a chance to present their work to an interested and intrigued audience, but also to hobnob with like-minded people. It’s a see-and-be-seen event, where even the fans can hear their favorite authors speak, and sometimes meet them.

“It’s really a comfortable love fest!” said Dennis Johnson, co-founder of Melville House Books, an independent publisher in Brooklyn. “It’s everyone we know. It’s a very knowledgeable audience.”

Melville House was founded in 2001, in order to publish what has turned out to be a very popular work, “Poetry After 9/11.” They also publish work from two Nobel prize winners. Johnson said another reason why the Brooklyn Book Festival is great for indie publishers is because “people come with their wallets.”

“It’s the clearest way people can show you they love you,” he said.

The Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest trade book fair in the world, is also taking notice. At this year’s fair in October, Anna Moschavakis of Brooklyn’s Ugly Duckling Presse and Temple will participate in a panel discussion called “How Independent Literary Publishers are Successfully Reaching Their Audience.

“America’s independent literary publishers seem to have figured out exactly who their readers are and how to reach them,” the event description reads.

Riky Stock, Director of the German Book Office of the Frankfurt Book Fair, located within the Goethe-Institute in SoHO, said she was seeing an increased interest in independent U.S. publishers from German publishers and that Frankfurt was hosting events with them in order to amplify the work they were doing.

“In Europe, everyone thinks of the U.S. as everything that’s extra large: publishing houses, blockbusters. What people forget is that there is a marginal scene as well,” she said. These small presses are the ones that “discover important American writers.”

Johnson, understandably, feels the same way.

“It’s really the indies where new kinds of fiction is happening,” he said.

The economic crisis didn’t hit indie publishers as hard either, said Temple.

“We’re always in an economic crisis,” he said. “There’s a certain scrappiness and desperation and thirst and hunger that leads to the most exciting books.”

Stock said that while the big publishers “look for the bestsellers,” independent publishers can  look for what has “literary merit.”

“The small publishers are doing this because they believe in the authors,” she said.

Believing in the authors and in the work itself is certainly what drives the staff at Ugly Duckling Presse, which operates out of the formerly functioning factory in Gowanus appropriately called the Old American Can Factory. All but one of the staff members of the press, which has been publishing for at least 12 years, are unpaid.

Brooklyn's Borough Hall was thronged with visitors at last year's festival. This year will likely be no different. Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Book Festival.

“We’re completely unprofessional, or anti-professional,” said Anna Moschavakis, co-executive director and an editor there. “We’re all volunteers.”

Moschavakis noted that the changing perception of independent presses, and their growing importance on the world literary stage, made their informal ways of doing things a non-issue.

“To the literary world and the National Endowment for the Arts, it didn’t matter how small we were. It just mattered what we were putting out,” she said. “You can have total legitimacy on one hand and on the other hand you’re doing it in a bootstrap style.”

At a time when the future of the publishing industry — at least for the major publishers — is desperately trying to adapt to changing technologies and consumer demands, some authors prefer the indies.

“It’s a tumultuous time and there’s been a real shift in the industry,” said Johnson of Melville House. “It’s a better publishing experience for authors” at independent presses.

Moschavakis said something similar of the craftspeople who spend so much of their time in isolation.

“They [authors] say we give them the attention they need…They want to be a part of a community.”

New App from AT&T Tracks Growing Festival

While the festival has grown exponentially, that wasn’t a goal. Temple said the organizers actually tried to limit the number of programs this year, but they couldn’t do it.

“We tried to shrink this year because we were bursting at the seams, but we completely failed!” he said with a laugh.

And so, in order to make it easier for attendees to navigate the many events, long-time sponsor AT&T has created an app, available for iPhone and Android, specifically for the fest. On Friday, the Brooklyn Book Festival app was released and is available in the Apple app store and in Google Play.

“Through this collaboration, AT&T is excited to help take the Brooklyn Book Festival to the next level and expand it to an even wider audience,” said Marissa Shorenstein, president of AT&T New York , in a statement. “Brooklyn has become the hub of technology for the city and Brooklyn is also the hub of the literary community.”

The app, which features writers’ biographies and maps their festival events, is also social. Users can vote for their “Fan Fav.”

But in the end, the festival has grown and is popular because it is where those who love and appreciate literature want to be.

“It’s a charge when you get out there and see all these little presses taking chances and making art,” said Johnson. “It’s a real kick in the pants. It reminds us why we’re doing this.”


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