The writers were terrific and the events themselves were exhilirating, but there was a strange pall around this year’s International Festival of Authors.
Though some events were rammed – Jonathan Franzen’s, for example, the CBC event with Margaret Drabble and Deborah Eisenberg, for another – mid-festival, director Geoffrey Taylor allowed that attendance was down, citing construction on the Harbourfront parking lot as one of the problems.
Either way, when an event like Penguin 75th anniversary, celebration with the likes of William Gibson and Andrea Levy, draws something like 50 people, something strange is going on.
Over in the Marilyn Brewer hub, where Ben McNally was selling books, the energy was weirdly low. That may be because some of the most popular authors, like Franzen, came to town with books that had been released months ago, and his fans arrived at the signing with books previously purchased.
Last year, John Irving arrived with a newly minted novel and sales were through the roof. This year, sales of John Waters’s brand new book were brisk. But the great UK writer Ali Smith, who was inspirational during her event with Eleanor Catton and Brando Skyhorse last Saturday, was here with The First Person And Other Stories, which is two years old and, though she’s just finished a new novel, she hasn’t released a book since.
The whole festival lacked a sense of real excitement. The big party, held during Toronto’s civic election, was low-key and without those nutty Irish guys stirring up trouble the way they did in 2008, there wasn’t really anything to latch onto. The decision to focus on noir – which should have been a bestselling strategy – didn’t pan out in terms of ticket sales and even some of the out of town events, which usually attract a throng, had troubles. An event featuring Camilla Gibb in a strip mall Chapters store in Milton was a real dud.
In more book news, rumours are flying that Indigo may report a shortfall in the third quarter. Not surprising, in a way. If anyone’s going to suffer from E-Book and Amazon sales it will be the chains, who count on mainstream business. Small book stores, on the other hand, attract a real book-loving crowd and are showing a remarkable resilience. Of all things, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore relaunched last weekend under new ownership and Ben McNally Books is going strong.
Some of the problem stems from poor coverage from local media. The Toronto Star, for example, stepped in with a half-baked authors fest Author of the Day feature. I was happy to see that they named Brando Skyhorse Author of the Day last Saturday. Too bad the item didn’t include information on where and when Skyhorse was appearing.
And responsibility also falls on the shoulders of IFOA’s marketing strategies. Its YouTube account hasn’t been updated in a year, and its Facebook group still has evidence of their 30th anniversary. If IFOA wants to get the word out, social media cannot be ignored like this.
But plainly the book business is in flux. We’d be dreaming if we thought otherwise. But there’s no way people have stopped reading. IFOA has to think about what it can do more to get readers out in droves to a festival that rocked in every way – except when it comes to drawing an audience.