(With a special thanks to science fiction author, poet, passionate foodie, and my co-panelist on Sunday’s “Science in Science Fiction” panel Fran Wilde for her enthusiastic support and valuable contributions to this report.)
Over the weekend of September 26-28, I had the opportunity, as part of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) programming, to participate in the Baltimore Book Festival.
This annual event (19 years running) is sponsored by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts. It’s held outdoors – participating organizations and vendors are set up, tailgate-style, in tents – and it’s free and open to the public. SFWA has had a presence there for a number of years and has been a programing partner (read “bigger tent”) since 2012. Multiple Nebula Award winning author and SFWA Past President Catherine Asaro (a Baltimore resident and true polymath) has been the driving force behind the ongoing participation by SFWA.
I’ve lived in the Maryland and Delaware area since 1992, and attended regional book and science fiction conventions nearly every year (including Bucconeer, the 56th World Science Fiction Convention held in Baltimore in 1998). And yet somehow I managed to overlook this. For its first 18 years it was held at Mount Vernon Square, which is farther uptown and not so conspicuous to out-of-towners (which probably explains how I missed it). This year the Festival was held at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which is to Baltimore summer visitors as the Jersey Shore is to Philadelphians.
I won’t make that mistake again. The Book Festival was terrific, if a little overwhelming.
An estimated 50,000 people attended the three days of the Festival. The days were hot (mid to high 80s) and humid and, outside of the tents, there was not much in the way of shade. For some reason the organizers didn’t think to give away tote bags (or sun visors).
Since the Inner Harbor waterfront is about a mile long and encircles the harbor, it was difficult for people to carry books and other items they purchased as they wilted and made their rounds. Some of the discount book vendors seemed be doing brisk business, but other tents I visited had mostly browsers.
(According to a survey done following the 2012 Book Festival, an estimated 47,000 visitors spent $1.27 million with Book Festival vendors, making it a successful three days for the organizers. Of that, book vendors received more than $632,300 in sales, beating out the food and alcohol vendors by $30,000. But still, that works out to about one book per visitor. Imagine how many they’d buy if they’d been handed something to lug them around in as they arrived.)
There was a LOT of traffic through the SFWA tent. They had a large number of books for sale and later estimated that they sold about $1000. worth. The folks tending the booth seemed pleased. The SFWA schedule consisted of back-to back talks and panels covering all available hours for the entire three days. The atmosphere inside the large tent was very much like a Con.
The agenda was incredibly rich. New York Times-bestselling fantasy novelist Marissa Meyer was the SFWA Author Guest of Honor. Marissa participated in SFWA’s “SF in YA Fiction” discussion with Christine Norris, Cheryl Klam, and Rori Shay. Authors Ellen Oh, Justina Ireland, Caroline Richmond, and Karen Sandler presented an excellent “We Need Diverse Books” panel, and Justina joined authors Fran Wilde, Alex Shvartzman, Sunny Morraine, and Anne K. Gray to talk about “Social Justice in Science Fiction and Fantasy”. There was a panel featuring the mission and ongoing work of the Heinlein Society. Catherine Asaro also interviewed Marissa Meyer on the Festival’s central Literary Salon Stage.
And that was just the first day.
On Saturday, Marissa Meyer and award-winning science fiction author Charles Gannon were featured authors for the “Dangerous Voices Variety Hour”, hosted by 2014 Theodore Sturgeon Award Winner (and Baltimore resident) Sarah Pinsker. On Saturday afternoon SFWA hosted a “Meet and Greet the Authors” session in the tent.
Since there was no single central hotel where the SF people could congregate after hours, there was limited opportunity otherwise to mingle with writers and fans. However the SFWA tent, which could seat about 30 or so people at a time, did provide fans more intimate access to writers and speakers than is generally available at the larger Cons. I’ve included a link to the 2014 SFWA schedule here.
And that scratches the surface of what was available at the Festival. Elsewhere there were book giveaways, and cooking demos, and art shows, and magic and craft tents for the younger kids, and writers’ workshops, and a PEN / Faulkner Writers panel, and self-publishing help, and even live music. Several nationally known authors, including Alice McDermott and Jeff VanderMeer, read from and discussed their works. It was a readers’ feast of overindulgence. The complete schedule of 2014 events can be found here.
All in all, it was a great experience for book lovers, and especially SF fans. If you chance to be in the area next year, I heartily recommend you go. I’ll be there (with my canvas tote bag from Book Expo America).
Copyright 2014 Dandelion Beach LLC, Images Copyright in photo captions