Brooklyn BookFest: A Retrospective

Last week (September 11-17) was the Brooklyn Book Festival, one of the premiere book festivals in the US, and the largest free literary event in New York City.

Brooklyn BookFest is a unique kind of festival. Rather than being centralized in a particular convention hall (such as Book Expo America in the Javits Center), the whole literary community in Brooklyn gets involved, and so “BookEnd Events” have cropped up—some officially, some unofficially—all around New York City.

The BookEnds are events before and after the official Festival weekend, ranging from a kick-off party at a Brooklyn watering hole (King’s Beer Hall, this year) to author events such as:

There are also more esoteric events simply for the love of literature, like Transcending Spaces: A Literary & Aerial Spectacular at The Muse, sponsored by HIP Lit, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, The Rumpus, and WORD Brooklyn.

This was a riveting night of readings showcasing new work from a diverse cast of writers, including: Hala Alyan, Alana Massey, Alissa Nutting, Tea Obreht, and Camille Rankine, emceed by writer and Rumpus Funny Women Editor Elissa Bassist.

In collaboration with Brooklyn’s home for circus and immersive shows, this event also featured a stellar set of aerial performances from Chriselle Tidrick and Mara Hsiung, creating a powerful intersection between page and sky for what was truly a memorable celebration of creativity and community.

Festival Day

But for me, the highlight of Brooklyn BookFest is always the Festival Day. Vendors line the walk-ways from the beautiful Brooklyn Borough Hall to the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and panel discussions are held in open air pavilions as well as in rooms at the Borough Hall, the Law School, and other surrounding venues.

Since I attend the festival more as a publisher and a writer than as a reader, the panel discussions always draw my particular attention.

Panels I Attended at Brooklyn BookFest

Telling Her Own Story

Girls were center stage at this panel discussion with Tracey Baptiste  (Rise of the Jumbies), Meg Medina (Burn Baby Burn), and Renée Watson (Piecing Me Together) as they discussed how their writing explores the complexities of girlhood and why it’s important for them to create bold, brave girls. Moderated by Dhonielle Clayton (Tiny Pretty Things).

Perhaps ironically, as these terrific writers discussed the challenges they faced as writers, girls, women, and people-of-color, I found myself often thinking, “that’s not a girl/woman/POC-problem, that’s a human-problem,” a problem that I myself (privileged white male that I am) could relate to in my own way.

Telling Her Own Story-BklynBookFestBut it also left me kicking myself over missed opportunities in The Wedding of Eithne, where I might have addressed some of the topics raised in the panel, such as the effect on women and girls of socio-cultural attitudes like “boys will be boys” as a deplorable hand-waving of harassment and violence against women.

My own male privilege kept me from seeing this problem in quite the way that these women described their approach to the same issues in their own work. It leaves me wondering if I did my protagonist (and by extension, my readers) a disservice by not finding this space in Lady Eithne’s experience? I’ll have to give the book another reading with this in mind, and a thought toward a revised future edition.

So for me, this was a great panel discussion with a wonderful take-away for me as a writer, and an opportunity for growth. This is what I mean when I say that literature is a discussion, each author to the others, through the medium of writing.

Structures of Power: Politics, Science Fiction, and Fantasy presented by the Center for Fiction

It’s a common conceit that the science fiction and fantasy genres are uniquely positioned to explore structures of power.

In this panel discussion, four authors examined:

  • how power struggles impact individuals and collectives;
  • intersections between technology and politics; and
  • methods of resistance to oppressive governments and technologies.

N.K. Jemisin (The Stone Sky), Eugene Lim (Dear Cyborgs), Malka Older (Null States), and Deji Bryce Olukotun (After the Flare) discussed how science fiction and fantasy responds to our hopes and fears for the future, offers alternatives to conventional politics, and examines how technology affects freedom. Moderated by Rosie Clarke.

But I have to admit, I was a little disappointed with this panel at first.

The discussion promised to be a high-level look at power structures in genre fiction, and I studied Post-Colonial Metaphysics with Leela Gandhi at Cornell University’s School of Criticism & Theory, so when the moderator opened up by asking the authors to describe how their own fantasy and science fiction worlds were affected by real life hegemonic power structures, I was right in step with her.

Structures of Power-BklynBookFestAnd then N.K. Jemisin took up the mic as the first respondent, and we all got totally Philip K. Dick’d.

Science fiction writers, I am sorry to say, really do not know anything. We can’t talk about science, because our knowledge of it is limited and unofficial, and usually our fiction is dreadful. — Philip K. Dick

Ms. Jemisin’s initial response was, “Uhm… I’m not really sure what you mean by ‘hegemonic power,’ uh, but…”

To be fair, these four writers are not by any means dreadful, and the panel quickly turned around. Despite the academic jargon that might have flown over some heads, the discussion went on to look at the place of technology (particularly information and communications tech) in our own political environment, how it’s changed the political and social discourse of our times, and how these writers have used technology in their own works.

Overall, I was pleased with the discussion, and it raised questions for my own Fantasy work. Though it’s been a fairly minor plot-point, changes in medieval technology have played a part in the socio-political milieu of my Matter of Manred series.

When a backward gang of bandits gains access to advanced weapons technology (the crossbow), it affects the balance of power in the Kingdom of Droma and threatens the authority of the State’s military force to police and protect its citizens. Comparisons and contrasts to the recent events on the Korean peninsula, the influence of military technology and training on criminal gangs and the American police force from Prohibition to the present, and the rise of radical terrorist groups around the world, are all easily enough drawn. So I’m looking forward to bringing more of this sort of technological conflict into my work in the future.

And for those in the cheap seats, I promise not to use the phrase “hegemonic power-structures” in casual discourse.

How to Reach Your Readers

The event description for this panel promised the following:

Join a publicist, marketing director, SEO specialist and audio expert for practical tips on reaching your readers via mobile, audio, thought leader placement, email marketing, and social media platforms (including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn). Authors, agents, publishers should attend for the latest news you can use from industry pros Rich Kelley, Anne Kostick, Jennifer Maguire, and YEN founder Bridget Marmion.

I attended this panel with my own friend and publicist, Kira Citron. Right away, she wrote me a note: “Very basic, but good to be reminded of the fundamentals…” A few minutes later, she circled another event in the program and made it clear she was leaving.

And I didn’t blame her. By no means do I consider myself a publicist, a marketing expert, an SEO specialist, or anything else of the sort, yet even I found this panel to be a very “101-level” look at marketing, with very little in the first 20 minutes that I hadn’t gleaned from a hundred other marketing and publicity “gurus” and blogs over the last three years.

But the discussion did allow me to sign up for a free 30-minute consult with the well-meaning folks at Your Expert Nation. Perhaps if I open that session with a quick overview of where I’m at, we can skip the “social media marketing is all about engagement” and get into the real nitty-gritty of finding the most effective ways for a writer on a time-budget to engage with readers. More on this when I follow up with the free consultation.

Writers Watching, Listening and Writing

After ducking out early from the marketing panel, I went to check this out.

Writers-Watching-Listening-Writing-BklynBookFestI know that I myself listen to music, watch TV, and generally enjoy pop culture in my downtime, just like anyone else. I recently binge-watched the entire first season of American Vandal (surprisingly awesome, given the premise), and caught the opening episode of The Defenders (looking forward to the rest) on NetFlix. My friend and collaborator Jean Lee has an entire series of blog posts about how music influences her work.

Well, as it turns out, many great writers and authors do the same (who knew?!)—and sometimes they even write about their watching and listening experiences. Caroline Casey (Little Boxes) has edited a book of authors writing about the TV shows they watched, and Andrew Blauner (In Their Lives: Great Writers On Great Beatles Songs) has a playlist of authors writing about songs the Beatles wrote!

This was an enjoyable panel discussion. I’ve worked in non-fiction the majority of my publishing career, and the idea of editing together a multi-author anthology of my own has occurred to me. The insights from Ms. Casey and Mr. Blauner highlighted one thing for sure: organizing and editing an anthology is a bloody lot of work. So maybe not for me, not in the immediate future…

Working with Amazon Publishing: Author and Editor Perspectives

Maybe I didn’t read the description correctly, or maybe I projected onto it what I wanted to see.

Global bestselling author Marc Levy (P.S. from Paris), bestselling author Kimberly Rae Miller (Coming Clean and Beautiful Bodies), author Jimin Han (A Small Revolution), discuss their experiences working with Amazon Publishing and how they create a community of readers through Amazon, social media, and events, in a conversation moderated by an Amazon Publishing Editorial Director, Carmen Johnson.

Within moments of starting, it became clear this panel was going to be a self-congratulatory, mutual-admiration circle-jerk to promote Amazon Publishing, rather than any kind of meaningful discussion from various perspectives (good, bad, and ugly) about working with Amazon Publishing. Not at all what I was looking for, and I left immediately.

The Madding Crowd

As always, whether as a reader, a writer, an editor, or a publisher, I enjoy walking the vendor booths at Brooklyn BookFest. For one thing, the park at Borough Hall is beautiful, and BookFest almost always has nice weather in September (though a little hot).

BrooklynBookFest

Most of the major traditional publishers (HarperCollins, Random Penguin, etc) were represented, as well as academic publishers with a presence in and about New York (I saw the Oxford, Columbia, and Princeton University Press teams, among others).

But the Brooklyn Literary Scene is a vibrant one, benefiting from its place in the shadow of Manhattan’s traditional publishing giants, and the plethora of indie book stores, and the talented writers (published and aspiring) who live and work in the area. As such, many more indie presses were in evidence, and no few indie authors as well, not to mention a number of booksellers, writing programs, and author services.

Altogether, it created an exciting tapestry of readers, writers, and all things literary. If you’re a lover of books, definitely make a date for next year’s Brooklyn Book Festival. I’ve already decided, I’m getting a table next year, so stop by and see me!

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About

Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

Posted in Passion, The Business of Writing, Writing Life

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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