Bloomington Writers Festival

The Bloomington Writers Festival is all about the author: according to the festival’s website, “The Writers Festival and Book Fair connects budding and established writers with published authors and other experts in the field to share information, techniques, skills and resources.” With readings, lectures, panels, and workshops occurring all day (most of which were ticketed), as well as a healthy book fair featuring local publishes and authors, the tenth annual event seemed like a productive and worthwhile forum for any writer testing the waters of the book world.

Main exhibit hall

Main exhibit hall

The BWF was held on Saturday, March 23 in the Bloomington Center for the Arts, a strikingly  modern building/complex which also houses City Hall and the Police Station. Exhibitors set up in the spacious atrium and along a tall-windowed hallway that jutted from one end of the room like a capital L.  When I arrived, in the middle of the day, keynote speaker Tom Clegg had already concluded his lecture, workshops and readings were in full swing, and the exhibit hall buzzed with the din of writers, editors, and publishers mingling and milling through the exhibit hall.

Norton Stillman of Nodin Press

Norton Stillman of Nodin Press

Like-minded organizations were grouped into clusters, so that “resources for writers” took up the bulk of the main exhibit, with the rest of the tables hosting authors, cordoned by genre.  Poetry, inspiration, and memoir filled out the main room; Sci-fi, YA, and fiction occupied the base of the L.  Anyone interested in sitting down at the lunch tables, at the far end of this hallway, had to pass between tables of authors standing behind piles of the books they were there to support. It felt ever-so-slightly like passing through a gauntlet–though I can’t think of a much more pleasant gauntlet than one made of books.

I saw a few familiar faces and a couple of titles I recognized, and I also met quite a number of authors I’d never heard of. After taking a loop and chatting with a few vendors (I made a print with MCBA, perused Nodin Press’s catalog, stopped at chatted with the fine representatives from the Loft), it became clear that this festival’s emphasis, whether by design or not, catered to the massive swell in independent (read: self) publishing.

Friendly folks from the Minnesota Center for Book Arts

Friendly folks from the Minnesota Center for Book Arts

With such a strong contingent of individuals selling books they’d written, designed, printed, publicised, and sold themselves–largely at festivals such as this–I couldn’t help but wonder what the event looked like in its infancy.  Ten years ago self-publishing existed, but it certainly didn’t have anywhere near the widespread acceptance it does today.  Part of this is technological–individual authors have access to the software they need to produce a book, and digital printing has cut costs to make it possible for a single person to make a print run. More and more authors elect to publish their books themselves, or lean on publishing services such as lulu and CreateSpace, as well as quasi-traditional houses like Beaver’s Pond Press and Northstar Press of St. Cloud, to get their work off of their laptops and into the world. It’s a trend, or a movement, or a side-effect, but as the BWF showed, it’s something to pay attention to if you’re not already.

The gauntlet

The gauntlet

The traditional publishing industry has long held its nose at the concept of self-publishing, possibly in part because it challenges the basic assertions of the industry: editors exist for a reason, as do designers, publicists, and distributors, and if a book isn’t good enough to make someone else want to publish it, it probably shouldn’t be published.  Self-publishing forces us to ask who the establishment thinks it is to unilaterally determine what’s good enough to publish? Looking at the wares on display in the gauntlet, I’ll admit that to me, self-published books seem a bit junior varsity–that bleached paper, the glossy covers, the lazer jet printing.  Talk about judging a book by its cover.  How about judging a book by the book? Not the content, but by the actual physical object.  There is no question that a Knopf deckle edge hardcover, or even a Penguin PBO, is a superior physical product than anything you can print on demand.

But something else announced itself in that hallway of self-published authors. I mentioned before that part of the surge in self-publishing can be attributed to technology and affordability. Another factor in this surge is the way bands of self-published authors league up to help each other find opportunities to market, promote, and sell their titles.  A network of individuals with similar goals, similar avenues, and similar mentalities, all willing to help each other, learn from each other, launch rabid campaigns on Goodreads for each other and write ebullient reviews on Amazon for each other. Writers who choose to publish their own work  are finding something that the traditional New York establishment offers in only the smallest, tenuous doses: affirmation. Not the traditional affirmation of being a “good writer,” or having written a “good book.” Self publishing offers the affirmation of taking part in something, of belonging to something, of believing in something.

I can’t say I’ve fully formulated my opinion about self-publishing, but I’m honing in on the spectrum on which I believe self-publishing falls.  One one end, it is a counter-establishment DIY revolution; on the other, it’s a predatory capitalist scheme. Somewhere in the middle, it is a community of ambitious, imaginative, and industrious writers. Seen this way, it’s hard to look down your nose at something like that.

–RHM

Were you There? Have something to add, or a different take on this event?  Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at LitSeen.Mpls@gmail.com! Be sure to check the schedule to the right and the Twin Cities Literary Calendar to be at the next LitSeen.org attended event. See you around!

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