Decatur Book Festival – Rolling Out the Red CarpetPhoto: Jonathan Phillips Authors Andrew Smith (left) and Jennifer E. Smith talk inside the hospitality suite during the AJC Decatur Book Festival on Saturday, August 30, 2014. The ninth annual event saw tens of thousands of people come out to the downtown Decatur area to meet with world-class authors, illustrators, editors, publishers, booksellers, and artists for a weekend filled with literature, music, food, art, and fun.
By Dena Mellick, contributor and Decatur Book Festival volunteer
Decatur is thousands of miles away from Hollywood, but every Labor Day weekend, the city rolls out the red carpet for the celebrities of the weekend – authors.
The power of the pen means the some 600 authors participating in the AJC Decatur Book Festival (DBF) are treated like movie stars by fans. And the DBF works hard to make sure the writers taking part in the event feel that VIP vibe while they are in Decatur.
Festival organizers start lining up authors in January. By June, about a dozen volunteer speaker managers are assigned to each presenting author to provide venue details, work out travel concerns, and coordinate requests during the summer.
And almost no request is too challenging.
A few years ago, there was a last-minute author request for a piano that Executive Director Daren Wang fulfilled by wheeling a large piano across Decatur Square. I asked DBF Programming Director Philip Rafshoon about any potential challenges this year. He said, “We have one author who wants to make his event something that can showcase a local pet adoption agency, and we’re able to accommodate that.”
“They do treat the authors like VIPs. You know, I can put on heels and feel like a rock star for a couple of days,” said White. The Southern women’s fiction author said she thinks the festival is special because, “they do everything right, it seems. They do the right promotions; they always bring in big crowds. They have events that really appeal to every reader of every age.”
And the Atlanta-based author said she has seen the difference between good and bad promotion. “I’ve been to too many events, you know, you travel to a place, and you get there and nobody’s there,” said White.
Rafshoon understands the value of author publicity. “They get so much exposure just by being in the festival. And the publicists love what we do for the authors. We treat them well, we give them exposure, and we sell books,” he said.
It’s not just the good PR that draws authors to the festival.
Among the perks writers enjoy: an author-only hospitality suite (complete with food, drinks, and laptop charging stations), a VIP party held the Saturday evening of the festival, early reservations to the festival’s keynote address, and an author packet with coupons and vouchers for many of Decatur’s finest restaurants and shops.
The DBF also provides one night’s hotel stay for out-of-town authors at the Decatur Courtyard Marriott, which is within walking distance to all of the festival’s venues. And of course, the biggest draw: the opportunity to speak at the largest independent book festival in the country.
Googie Daniels, DBF Assistant Program Director, said the most common request from authors is to get more days at the hotel so they can stay at the book festival longer. But the VIP party is a perk that’s gaining in popularity, according to Rafshoon, especially after the party was relocated last year to the Square.
Mickey Baskett is the festival’s Planning Committee and VIP Event Coordinator and is also the wife of Decatur Mayor Jim Baskett. She has been organizing the VIP shindig for seven years and said, “Each year the attendance at the party has grown.”
She noted that the party has become a place for authors to network and “perhaps let down their hair a little.” This year’s theme: “A Taste of Georgia,” with a menu that Baskett said includes Georgia-grown products and specialty drinks from Decatur restaurants.
While parties, comped hotels, and hospitality suites may go a long way, the festival staff is quick to point out that the DBF volunteers are a major factor in making the authors feel like VIPs.
“I think what [the authors] find that is surprising about the festival is that it is so well organized, that the volunteers are so gracious and so welcoming, and that everywhere they go they are treated like rock stars,” said Rafshoon.
Daniels echoed this, saying it’s the volunteers who give the festival such a good reputation with authors. She said, “The one thing that authors always compliment the DBF on is the volunteers … If someone needs an escort somewhere or has a question about where their venue is, there are hundreds of volunteers that help out over the weekend, and they definitely make the event shine. I think that is something that the authors all remember.”
Editor’s note: Dena Mellick is a Volunteer Speaker Manager at the Decatur Book Festival.