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Publishing: Boston Book Festival, Opening Up To Indies – But Not Enough

Publishing: Boston Book Festival, Opening Up To Indies – But Not Enough

Indie author Christine Frost shares her disappointment on a major book festival’s attitude to self-published writers and makes some constructive suggestions for change.

Indie author Christine FrostLast year as I perused the exhibitor booths at the Boston Book Festival (BBF) in Copley Square, the idea came to me to look into setting up my own display. Alas, checking the organization’s site revealed self-published authors were not welcome. I had been hoping to talk with someone at the BBF about the opportunity, but they soon recognized the popularity of indie publishing and opened up to indie authors for the first time this year.

So when Boston Magazine reported that this year’s event would offer space to indie authors, I was looking forward to seeing how they would be integrated into the festival, which draws more than 25,000 people to Copley Square. With ALLi’s Open Up To Indies campaign in mind, I was pleased.

At the Festival

Unfortunately, it did not go well. The printed program offered little enlightenment about Indie Alley or its precise location. The venue map showcased traditional publishers and literary organizations in their usual spots. Rather than include Indie Alley in the exhibitor list, it appeared as a pale orange ad toward the back of the program. No signs directed attendees to it. I traversed the perimeter of the festival, eager to see fellow indie authors, and eventually gave up in favour of not missing out on the dozens of readings and panel sessions to choose from.

Days later, some of the authors who found themselves in this out-of-the-way area shared a letter on Facebook that had been sent to the event organizers to express their frustration. The authors of Indie Alley each paid $150 for a table, plus the cost of their displays, only to be found when passersby were lost around the John Hancock Tower.

Boston Book Festival settingCalled to Account

When I contacted organizers of the Boston Book Festival, they mentioned that Boston Magazine incorrectly reported the indie authors went through a “rigorous application process” in which 30 were selected; slots were actually given on a first-come, first-served basis. They said there was no other location to place the authors. The original plan was to have poetry readings throughout the day in the John Hancock Tower’s Blue Glass Café, and people would pass through Indie Alley to get there. In the weeks leading up to the event, managers at the tower notified the BFF that the space wouldn’t be available anymore. Authors from Indie Alley argued that there was plenty of space in front of Trinity Church, which would have placed them along the perimeter enjoyed by the other exhibitors.

The Boston Book Festival is comprised of two full-time and one-part-time staff, and relies on a small army of volunteers. I was told the amount of extra effort to coordinate Indie Alley proved to be too much in the face of the increased phone calls and emails in addition to the unhappiness that was felt on all sides of it. Ultimately, I was told, they can’t be all things to all people, and independent authors should organize their own event.

Lessons Learned

Boston Book Festival settingI was disappointed that it was deemed such a failure. Lessons were certainly to be had on both sides. Better strategy would have made Indie Alley more visible. The follow-up conversation might have been more constructive, with indies offering more collaborative solutions to perhaps help organize their own space at the event in the future.

While BBF organizers solidly shut down the idea of trying to incorporate self-published authors again after this experience, I’m hoping that eventually there can be a chance to revisit this to make it a more positive experience for everyone. With ever more authors turning to self-publishing, there is a host of opportunities to showcase the wealth of talent, innovation, and experience indie authors offer, through exhibits and panel discussions, and there would be plenty of interest among the attendees of this great Boston tradition.

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Christine Frost

Christine Frost received master’s degree in literature and creative writing from Harvard Extension School. Having worked as a beer and mead brewer and an international sales assistant for a record label, she eventually found her career in the world of words, becoming a communications manager, writer of historical fiction, and teaching assistant for college-level literature courses. She’s happily ensconced in a place overcrowded with books in the Boston area with her husband. Her blog is www.herravendomain.com.

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This Post Has 17 Comments
  1. Hi Christine: Why am I not surprised at your unfortunate experience? I have seen the same sort of ignorance at other book fairs.The ABA is professional. These “once a year” experts really do not keep up with the huge changes in the Digital Book World. and the Indie Authors successes. It’s not only bad for us, They are cheating the attendees as well.Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

    Stay well… Warren.

  2. Excellent points–I concur–cohesive and professional coordination is essential! And having worked for a traditional publishing office for more than 12 years, I realize how important it is to have structure, and having specific contact people who have experience in organizing such things would go a long way in helping these collaborative opportunities succeed. I’m hoping to be able to get more involved with regional indie author groups to come up with a viable solution.

    I’m happy to see all the supportive comments here–thank you everyone for reading the post!

  3. Maggie, you make an excellent point, viewing event management from the organisers’ viewpoint, and ALLi is indeed giving individual indie authors strength by bringing them all together and negotiating and advocating on their behalf. This is what the Open Up To Indies campaign is all about, and we are doing this in lots of ways, e.g drawing attention to key issues on this blog and elsewhere, through the Open Up to Indies petition, and facilitating opportunities for indie authors to work together for the greater good of all.

    We will also shortly be publishing a new handbook in support of the Open Up To Indies Campaign, giving guidance to indie authors and to bookstores, events organisers, awards bodies and other relevant parties, on how to work more effectively together to everyone’s benefit.

    In the meantime, there are two easy ways for all indie authors to get behind our efforts today:

    (1) become a member of ALLi
    (2) sign our Open Up to Indies petition, which you will find here: http://www.change.org/petitions/open-up-to-indie-authors

    Thank you.

  4. Familiar excuses made here: I suspect there is resistance to indie authors, though the exact reason for it is not yet clear. Can it really be the memory of the badly-written ‘vanity published’ book of the past? Or some feeling of threat from the big publishers – surely not that, since they are conglomerates well able to defeat any small fry in the battle for sales?

    1. What I find amazing is that I attend so many events like this in so many venues–particularly literary and publishing events around Harvard, and the audience is always keen on finding out more about indie publishers. Many of the panelists have been open to it as well, such as the organizers of the Digital Public Library of America. I once attended a panel event with book reviewers, and one reviewer from the New York Times said while she knows “never say never,” that she didn’t imagine the NYT doing a review on a self-published book. However, three months later, they did. The industry is changing so rapidly and we have great indie voices like Hugh Howey (and many others, as the numbers grow!) out there showing how well it can be done. And while I think there is some reluctance to accept it on the part of some in the traditional organizations, that it is bound to change. It’s only a matter of time!

  5. Each year, in Ottawa Canada, usually in the autumn, the Ottawa Independent Writers (OIW) Association holds it’s own book fair for indie writers. The event is usually held in rented auditoriums, sports venues, etc. and, over two days, always attracts scads of people and sales are often brisk. The author-sitting-at-the-table ready to talk with potential book buyers, is a big help.

  6. The L.A. Festival of Books, sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, has a similar attitude. The booths are very expensive and they do nothing to support local independent authors. It’s no surprise the book industry is going the way of the dinosaur.

    1. I was thinking about something along those lines–either a collaborative voice with ALLi or similar a regional organization, such as the Independent Publishers of New England. I think if a group gets together and proposes a plan that can be connected to the Boston Book Festival, that we can have a presence there and it would work out well for everyone.

      1. I am heartened and encouraged that this idea has been aired. I suggested it to another organisation (in a wider context than the Boston Book Fair admittedly), having read the interesting post by the collective who wrote about the “Triskele Trail’ and was rather slammed for suggesting collaborative efforts by indie authors! My feelings are, people can still remain “indie” while collaborating to share resources, or as in this case, to present ourselves at a book fair. If the ‘umbrella” organisation doesn’t want them to use its imprimata, that can be managed by calling the group something else, and of course, one would not want to, or try to, ‘use’ its resources.

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