Column: Book Fare

Ann Arbor book fest slims down, focuses on aspiring writers

The Ann Arbor Book Festival returns May 14-15 with its chief draw, a daylong Writer’s Conference, as the centerpiece of an event that has been streamlined to conform to some – you guessed it – sobering financial realities.

Ann Arbor Book Festival board

An Ann Arbor Book Festival board meeting at the offices of the Ann Arbor State Bank (from left): Peter Schork, Kathy Robenalt, Jeff Kass, Evans Young, Bill Gosling, John Knott.

The starkest of those is the absence of Shaman Drum Bookshop, which closed its doors last summer. The bookstore had been a key sponsor since its owner, Karl Pohrt, took a key role in launching the festival in 2003. The void, for the festival as well as the community, has been deeply felt.

Pohrt’s staff “was extremely helpful in attracting some of our main guest authors,” said festival executive director Kathy Robenalt, “so that was a loss we had to work with.” And the woes of the wider industry have hit home, too: publisher-paid author tours are far from routine anymore, meaning fewer authors who might be able to appear at the festival on, say, HarperCollins’ dime.

Pohrt remains on the 18-member festival board, along with Bill Zirinsky, who owns returning sponsor Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room with his wife, Ruth Schekter.

“It’s been a difficult time for nonprofits, obviously,” Zirinsky wrote in an e-mail Friday sent on his way to a meeting in Birmingham. “And I think the festival board came up with a plan this year to keep the festival thriving, but on a scaled-back basis.”

“Our authors, poets, bloggers, digiterati, readers and assorted literary types deserve this kind of regional festival,” he wrote.

Organizers expect to continue with a smaller event for “a couple of years, when, hopefully, funding will be more consistently available,” Robenalt said. “There are a lot of people in the community who support the festival financially and in other ways, and they want to see it continue.”

No exhibitors this year, indoors or out

The high-profile – and expensive – street fair of previous years gave way in 2009 to a group of exhibitors inside the Michigan League and a few more outside on Ingalls Mall. This year’s event skips that aspect altogether. “We’re hoping things will bounce back and that this won’t always be the case,” Robenalt said.

And while that “festival feeling” might be lacking without exhibitors, she acknowledged, the planning committee decided to “focus on some of our key events that we have had good response to in the past and at the same time earn some revenue. Hopefully,” she says, “that would put us in better shape for next year.”

Hence, the emphasis on the Writer’s Conference.

Kathy Robenalt

Kathy Robenalt, executive director of the Ann Arbor Book Festival.

“A strong contingent of people attend it pretty regularly,” Robenalt says. “There aren’t enough of these sorts of events in the area, and people like them.”

The festival kicks off at 7 p.m. Friday, May 14, at the Neutral Zone, 310 Washington St., with “Literama.” It’s a celebration of poetry with readings by Rachel McKibbens and Aracelis Girmay (“Teeth,” Curbstone Press, 2007) as well as an “intergenerational poetry slam.” Admission is $5.

Also on Friday night, the festival will present its LILA Award to two local “Leaders in the Literary Arts”: Nicola Rooney of Nicola’s Books and the Family Book Club, a nonprofit that promotes literacy and the value of reading to children in Washtenaw County.

Saturday starts, appropriately enough, with breakfast: an Author Breakfast, at 8:30 a.m. at the University of Michigan’s Hatcher Graduate Library. Authors and participants will get together with Michigan Radio’s Charity Nebbe and pastries donated by Zingerman’s; there’s a $20 charge.

Festival organizers decided to start this year’s Writer’s Conference at 10:15 a.m. – a little later than in past years, Robenalt said – so area participants driving considerable distances to Ann Arbor (“they really want to come”) could make it in for the whole conference without a killer pre-dawn drive.

Writing workshops – the how and the why

This year’s conference workshops range from writing exercises and the art of revision to magical realism and new approaches to nonfiction – the last led by New York Times auto industry reporter Micheline Maynard (“The End of Detroit: How the Big Three Lost Their Grip on the American Car Market”). Other instructors include local lights Ann Pearlman (“Infidelity,” “The Christmas Cookie Cookbook”); Ann Arbor Observer editor John Hilton; and Margaret Yang, a former restaurant critic for the Observer and winner of the Ann Arbor Writer’s Festival 2009 short story contest. The workshops will meet in the Mason/Haven Halls on UM’s Central Campus.

For the last session of the conference, all participants will gather at the Library Gallery (Room 100 at Hatcher) for a panel discussion on “the sort of question that everyone has” at writing workshops, Robenalt said: How do you find a publisher?

Panelist Bonnie Jo Campbell of Kalamazoo will provide an important perspective, Robenalt pointed out. Her most recent collection of stories, “American Salvage” (Wayne State University Press), was a 2009 National Book Award finalist and a 2010 Michigan Notable Book – and she doesn’t have an agent. Campbell is proof that “you don’t have to have an agent; you don’t have to go through New York City,” Robenalt said.

An Author’s Forum wraps up the festival at 5 p.m., featuring Campbell and Lolita Hernandez, a writing teacher at the University of Michigan Residential College and author of the award-winning short-story collection “Autopsy of an Engine and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant” (Coffee House Press, 2004). They’ll talk about working-class characters in contemporary fiction.

Interested in the Writer’s Conference? You can register as late as that morning but, obviously, the sooner you sign up, the better the odds of landing in your first-pick sessions.

A community presence

Some of the guest authors will be visiting the Ann Arbor Public Schools in the week leading up to the festival. “It’s a great way to fulfill our mission of continuing to push reading, writing and literacy,” Robenalt said, “and doing that with authors in schools opens up a lot of doors for a lot of kids who may not normally be able to be exposed to an author or an illustrator.”

And the annual Ann Arbor Antiquarian Book Fair returns to the Michigan Union on Sunday, May 16, thanks in great part to Jay Platt and the West Side Book Shop, 113 W. Liberty St. Among some 40 exhibitors will be locals Bessenberg Bindery, UM’s William Clements Library, Third Mind Books and Kaleidoscope Books and Collectibles.

With an overall budget of about $40,000 this year, the festival took smart advantage of free, local online and radio events calendars for the bulk of its promotional efforts. The Ann Arbor Visitors and Convention Bureau also offered meeting space to festival organizers in its building on Huron and Ashley streets, and in-kind contributions came from such local companies as Zingerman’s and Edwards Brothers, which is handling some of the festival’s printing work.

“Unfortunately, we were having to look at the bottom line in deciding how to go forward,” Robenalt said. “Choosing to do the events we are doing will keep us out there.”

About the writer: Domenica Trevor is a voracious reader who lives in Ann Arbor and has been known to attend a writer’s conference from time to time.


  1. April 24, 2010 at 5:12 pm | permalink

    Thank you for this thoughtful coverage. I’m not sure why it was labeled a column since it seems to be simply very thorough reportage. I found the historical perspective useful as well as the preview of coming events.

  2. April 26, 2010 at 11:14 am | permalink

    My title at the New York Times is senior business correspondent, and my new book, which will be available at the festival, is The Selling of the American Economy.