Originally appeared in Publishers Weekly, November 4, 2008
By Edward Nawotka
“Thank God for global warming,” said Claiborne Smith, literary director of the Texas Book Festival. Perfect 80 degree weather greeted this past weekend’s festival goers, who visited the Texas capitol in Austin for the 13th annual gathering. Despite the lack of a marquee headliner like Bill Clinton (2005) or Barack Obama (2006), both the number of attendees – typically 40,000 over two the two days – and quantity of book sales – which are handled by Barnes & Noble and routinely top $100,000 -- “should be about the same,” reported Smith. Over 190 authors participated.
Long-time Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda remarked: “On Saturday morning itself the Capitol Grounds looked like a carnival, and I had a standing room only crowd for my book Classics for Pleasure.” Rue Judd, publisher of Houston’s Bright Sky Press, said her sales were “better than ever before” and expected to sell all 12 cases of Mike Renfro’s Shine On a history of local favorite Shiner Beer. In the past Cinco Puntos Press has been a vocal critic of the Festival, accusing it having both high booth prices and exclusionary policies, but has since had a change of heart. “We brought five authors to the Festival,” said Cinco Puntos v-p John Byrd.
Unsurprisingly, considering the Festival’s proximity to the election, politics took center stage. Many of the largest venues were committed to authors discussing political themes, whether it was Jane Mayer outlining the shortcomings of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, Harvard professor John Stauffer describing echoes between our age and that of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, or Christopher Buckley offering updated inscriptions to go above the entrances of various government buildings (The Library of Congress: “Just Google it.” The Pentagon: “Make my day.”)
Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro, though not beloved by many Johnson loyalists, took home the Festival’s highest honor, a Bookend Award.
Smith noted that this year the Festival was forced to pay many authors travel expenses, that despite the fact that numerous publicists told Smith they were favoring festivals over book signings. “One thing that we as a festival can do is guarantee a good crowd for a writer,” said Smith. “which is not necessarily something a bookstore can do."