Photo: Paulo Slachevsky
Downtown Berkeley will host the first Bay Area Book Festival on June 6-7 — a free event hoping to draw up to 100,000 visitors. Photo: Paulo Slachevsky/Creative Commons
Downtown Berkeley will host the first Bay Area Book Festival on June 6-7 — a free event hoping to draw up to 100,000 visitors. Photo: Paulo Slachevsky/Creative Commons

By Gill South

The Bay Area Book Festival, a free weekend, walkable book festival to be held in Berkeley, is on schedule to launch the weekend of June 6-7. More than 300 authors have signed up to participate in around 100 sessions, and the center of the city will be alive with an estimated 125 exhibitors, from independent bookstores to literary magazines, nonprofits, and writing programs.

The festival, which hopes to attract an estimated 100,000 people to the downtown over one weekend, will be spread over a 14-block area and venues for talks include the Freight & Salvage, the Marsh Theatre, the Brower Center, the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art & Life, the Berkeley Public Library, the Berkeley Shambhala Center, and the East Bay Media Center.

Sponsors, exhibitors and authors continue to sign up, according to founder and executive director, Cherilyn Parsons, who said there is about $100,000 left to raise.

In one case, however, a supporter has withdrawn. Self-publishing services provider Authors Solutions committed to a $5,000 sponsorship, but withdrew from the festival, redirecting the money into local literacy groups instead, after its involvement drew criticism. David Gaughram, who runs publishing blog Let’s Get Digital, first brought the issue to light, and others in the international writing community joined the conversation, accusing AS of taking advantage of naive new writers and charging large sums for marketing their books. AS and parent company Penguin have faced a class-action suit for deceptive practices. The brouhaha led some in the Berkeley area to say they would boycott the festival if it went ahead with the sponsorship.

Parsons said she was following the lead of other major festivals, such as the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and Miami Book Fair International who had accepted AS as a long-time exhibitor rather than as a sponsor. The matter has been resolved as far as she is concerned.

With just over two months to go, the BABF organizer is keen to get out all the good news stories about the festival for which close to 300 authors are confirmed. Well-known names who will be speaking include Karen Joy Fowler, Ann Packer and Geoff Dyer, children’s and young adult author Judy Blume, and Peter Coyote who recently agreed to speak there about his new memoir, The Rainman’s Third Cure. (See more details of the program on the BABF’s website.)

The festival’s Young Adult sector will be an exciting part of the program, said Parsons, with a teen stage and a teen street.

Half Price Books is donating a free book for every child under 12 coming to the festival. East Bay Children’s Book Project is managing the giveaway. BABF expect to give away over 10,000 free books to kids.

“We have an exceptionally strong sci-fi line-up, including solo talks with bestselling authors, John Scalzi, Paolo Bacigalupi and Kim Stanley Robinson,” she said.

There will also be a panel on Futurism, Fatalism and Climate change with Edan Lepucki, John Scalzi and Paolo Bacigalupi.

Berkeleyside, which is one of the main media sponsors of the festival, will host three special “Uncharted” sessions there. The “Uncharted” line-up includes Wallace Nichols, author of Blue Mindwhich explores how being near or in water can make you an altogether happier and healthier person; former Mashable editor Ben Parr, whose new book, Captivology, focuses on the art and science of getting attention; and Rob Forbes, founder of Design Within Reach and PUBLIC bicycles, whose new book is titled See for Yourself: A Visual Guide to Everyday Beauty. The talks will provide a taste of Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas, the annual event organized by Berkeleyside, which this year takes place on Oct. 16-17.

“We want the festival to include everything from international, award-winning literary giants all the way to genre authors, said Parsons.

“We keep pushing our numbers higher and about 25 of those are coming from overseas. In future years, we want more international writers, but this is the first year,” she said.

The latest sponsors to sign up are the publisher HarperOne, and Otis Chandler and Elizabeth Khuri Chandler, co-founders of Goodreads.

The San Francisco Chronicle, a media sponsor along with Berkeleyside and KQED, is contributing $250,000 of media promotion and will be printing and distributing the program due to come out at the end of May. The City of Berkeley is also a partner as are the Berkeley Public Library and UC Berkeley. BABF was a recipient of the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund.

A $25,000 Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation grant will support international authors coming to the festival. Another donor is Steve Silberstein, a pioneer in building the information systems that nearly all libraries use today. He was also the donor behind the Free Speech Café at UC Berkeley. His support at the book festival will include a panel involving free speech and first-amendment issues.

Local independent bookshops taking part include Mrs Dalloway’s, Book Passage, and A Great Good Place for Books. One notable absentee will be Pegasus Books. Pegasus Books’ owner Amy Thomas said she hoped the festival was a big success but she was busy with other book promotions for the year. Pegasus is putting some money into a play due to run during the festival instead.

But she added: “Our store is right there in downtown Berkeley – we think the festival is a great idea. We are so excited about the Temple of Books, and we are ready to be a venue if needed.”

“We have done book festivals in the past,” she added. “It’s very hard to get them off the ground. There are a lot of logistical problems and it’s risky. Any great event takes two or three years to happen.”

 the rendition of the installation as built around the dormant foundation in Civic Center Park
A temple of books will be erected at Berkeley’s Civic Center Park as part of the inaugural Bay Area Book Festival. Read more about it. Image: FLUX

In terms of financial support, Parsons and her team are hoping more developers, downtown Berkeley retailers, banks and telecommunication companies will come to the party.

“This festival will benefit the city so much — we should be meeting with more developers,” said Parsons.

One local developer has stepped in to help. Denny Abrams, owner of Abrams/Millikan, the developer of Fourth Street, will sponsor a panel on The New Urbanism featuring novelist James Howard Kunstler. The $10,000 contribution will also support exhibitor booths for Fourth Street retailers Builders Booksource and for Castle in the Air.

The Pyramid Hotel Group is supporting the festival with a $6,500 sponsorship, even though its hotel at the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street is still four years down the road, said Parsons.

As to what the event will bring to the city in economic terms, Michael Caplan, the City of Berkeley’s economic development manager, said: “We are hopeful, we are really excited about it. It’s unknown how much money it will bring in. Some will be coming from afar, a lot of people will be coming to Berkeley who have not been here before. It’s hard to know because it’s never done it before. It is very transit-accessible. This festival is a wonderful vision that is inclusive and brings people from all walks of life together.”

One thing Parsons, a professional fundraiser, is adamant about is that the festival must be free to participants.

“I want people of all backgrounds to be able to hear, meet and access some of the best authors in the world.

“There are a lot of elite book events in the Bay Area but not many can afford to go – we are the book festival or literary event for people who can’t afford those. All people deserve to go to a world-class literary festival. This is a personal passion of mine – of all the things about this festival, it is to make it available to all people. A lot of people have suggested that we charge but we have held out.”

“I grew up in the lower middle class on the edge of the suburbs, in West San Fernando Valley and the bookmobile was my lifeline. I could never have afforded to go to a book festival.”

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books (April 18-19) is free and other well-known ones, like the Brooklyn Book Festival are too, she added.

Closer to home, Litquake, the largest literary festival west of the Mississippi River, brings more than 500 authors to read and speak, this year from Oct. 9 to 17. Around 80% of Litquake’s events are free.  The Oakland Book Festival will also launch this year with a day-long series of author readings at City Hall on May 31.

Books by the Bay, a book festival sponsored by Bay Area independent bookstores that attracted thousands to Yerba Buena Gardens, ran for a decade from around 1995 to 2005. It folded for financial reasons.

Parsons volunteered for many years at the LA Times Festival of Books, which was co-founded by her friend Narda Zacchino. Her main career has been as a development consultant in fundraising for non-profits. One of her clients, the Center for Investigative Reporting, brought her up from LA to live in Berkeley in 2008. It was then, she said, that she got the idea for an international book festival.

Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Books Association, believes the Bay Area had gotten away with a lack of book festivals thanks to its strong network of independent bookstores.

“The Bay Area is fortunate that there are so many independent bookstores – 50 within a 25 mile radius of Berkeley or San Francisco and many who have authors visiting for readings,” he said. Organizing a book festival is a lot of work, he added. “I think that it’s important that people realize this is the first year so it may not be perfect. But whether it is as good as it will be five years from now, certainly it’s off to a good start.”

Referring to the foiled AS sponsorship, he said:“There’s always going to be growing pains.”

Visit the Bay Area Book Festival website for details on the program, and how to reserve spots at popular sessions, and connect with the festival on Facebook. Berkeleyside is a media sponsor of the festival.

At first Bay Area Book Festival: A temple made of books (3.26.15)
Bay Area Book Festival to launch in Berkeley in 2015 (06.23.14)

Want to know what else is going on in Berkeley and nearby? Visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. And submit your own events — the calendar if self-serve and free.

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