The Virginia Festival of the Book celebrates 20 years navigating an industry watershed

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Virginia Festival of the Book Program Director Nancy Damon is curating her 14th and final festival this year. Photo: Elli Williams. Virginia Festival of the Book Program Director Nancy Damon is curating her 14th and final festival this year. Photo: Elli Williams.

The Virginia Festival of the Book began in a world with no Kindles, no iPads, and no online self-publishing. Barnes & Noble recently had arrived in Charlottesville and the death knell for independent bookstores promptly sounded. It was 1994, and a company called Amazon had just started selling books over the Internet.

Two decades later, independent bookstores are still hanging on and Barnes & Noble could be the next endangered species trampled by the Amazon juggernaut. Meanwhile, the Virginia Festival of the Book is gearing up for its 20th literary orgy.

The festival’s history spans some of the most dramatic changes in publishing and book selling since Gutenberg came up with the printing press. Rob Vaughan, president of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the guy who came up with the idea for a local book festival, is taking nothing for granted, but he’s been pleasantly surprised by the persistence of his preferred form of consuming literature.

“I’m impressed the book is still the predominant form of publication and the predominant form of reading,” he said.

Vaughan said the idea for the book festival was inspired by an event poet Gregory Orr put on in the early ’80s to honor Stanley Kunitz, which drew six or seven poets and around 150 people. The success of the event spurred Vaughan to envision a modest book fest with maybe 15 programs.

“We ended up with 55,” he said.

Today the festival offers more than 200 programs during its five-day March 19-23 author-filled extravaganza, and the more than 20,000 attendees aren’t just book-loving locals. People come from more than 30 states, and Vaughan said he’s been amazed at the number of guests from places like Ohio or Michigan who approach him and say, “I’ve taken vacation for the past 10 years to come to the book festival.”

While not as prolific as film festivals, other book festivals have sprung up—and disappeared—during the Virginia Festival of the Book’s 20-year history. Vaughan said he never doubted the viability of the festival.

“It’s been a high priority of ours,” he said. “People have responded in lean years. We’ve gotten sponsors.” With a handful of ticketed events and a budget of $260,000, the festival is “almost self-sustaining,” he added.

“This is really a community that supports books,” said festival program director Nancy Damon. “We still have bookstores. A lot of towns don’t have book-and-mortar stores anymore.”

Damon, who’s organizing her 14th and final book fest, described how the changes in the publishing industry have changed marketing priorities.

“Publishers have shifted from putting money behind debut authors to the people they feel comfortable will sell a lot of books,” she said. “Now books have trailers.”

Back in the festival’s infancy, publishers didn’t want authors to go to book festivals because they’d be one of many, said Damon.

“Now they want them to go because a guaranteed audience will be there, it’s on our website, and you’re going to get publicity from a book festival.”

Before e-books, self-publishing was called vanity press, and some of the pitfalls that made those books unlikely to be read still exist. “There are lots of books that are not very good,” observed Damon, “and that could have used an editor and a copy editor.”

That doesn’t mean a strictly e-book author won’t get into the festival. “We try to rate them on their merits,” said Damon.

But there’s one location they will not have a program: in a bookstore.

As Damon prepares her final festival, she’s not quite ready to dish about the most pain-in the-derriere authors, the ones she tactfully dubs “high maintenance.”

However, she did share her worst experience as program director when an author double booked and she didn’t find out until three weeks before the festival that he would be a no-show. Eric Abrahamson, who wrote A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, was scheduled for the business breakfast and several hundred tickets had already been sold. Fortunately veteran newsman Roger Mudd was in town and agreed to speak at the breakfast.

“It was briefly a nightmare,” she shuddered.

Other festival mishaps were more prosaic, like when authors’ books failed to show up at events.

“We’ve had book mix-ups,” said Damon. “We had two mystery writers named Anne, and the kid at B. Dalton delivered the wrong Anne’s books to the program. One of them called and yelled at me.”

Damon, of course, would rather focus on the festival’s high points. Her personal favorites include last year’s joint appearance of Black Power icon John Carlos and civil rights trailblazer Congressman John Lewis. For the 10th festival, she scored the killer line-up of Michael Chabon, Michael Ondaatje, and Garrison Keillor.

“That was a pretty exciting year,” Damon said.

The traditionally sold-out festival luncheon has hosted dynamic speakers like Alexander McCall Smith and Doug Marlette, who died shortly after he was in Charlottesville in 2007. Damon was especially fond of One Life to Live writer Michael Malone, who made it to the festival despite the “check engine” light that appeared in his Jaguar.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a luncheon speaker who was a dud,” she said.

Damon and Vaughan both credit well-known local authors like John Grisham and Jan Karon, and poets Nikki Giovanni and Rita Dove for lending their support to the festival. Rita Mae Brown, who was the first luncheon speaker in 1994, is back to introduce this year’s speaker, David Baldacci.

“I think the book festival continues to draw a wide range of authors and audiences of all interests—unless it’s bondage books,” said Damon. In other words, don’t look for a 50 Shades of Grey panel, although you will find Change Me: Stories of Sexual Transformation from Ovid.

With topics ranging from fishing to fiction, from crime to cooking, publishing to poetry, and romance to the Middle East, the Virginia Festival of the Book truly offers something for everyone. Damon said she’s always been most proud of “the diversity of the topics, the diversity of the audience embracing literacy in all its forms.”

Vaughan said Damon brought continuity to the festival during her 14 years as program director.

“She knows what works and what doesn’t work,” he said. “She’s also one of the most avid readers I’ve ever encountered.”

To her as-yet-unnamed successor, Damon had some advice: It’s important to get along with all sorts of people, don’t presume anything, be adept at moving vast amounts of data, and never ever relax.

“When you think everything has come together, it will fall apart,” she warned.

As Damon juggled myriad details in scheduling 218 events with 439 participants for the last time, she reflected on her job.

“It does wear you out,” she admitted. “You go from ‘Oh God, I’m forgetting something,’ to the point, ‘It’s too late now.’”

In the run-up to the festival, Damon decompresses by watching British murder mysteries. Does one in the book biz ever get sick of reading? “Let’s just leave it that I’m watching a lot of British murder mysteries,” she said.

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