For the Love of (Indie) Literature: The Brooklyn Book Festival

The day began like any typical Sunday. But this Sunday was different, as I made my way down to Brooklyn all the way from the Bronx. Sunday, September 21, was the day of the Brooklyn Book Festival, and I had signed up to be a volunteer for the festival. I had come to Brooklyn a week earlier to receive training. It was an informal affair, but I felt nervous about my responsibilities helping authors have their books signed. We could work one of two shifts or the whole day. I was working the first shift, and would be free to explore the festival afterward. I had originally heard of the Brooklyn Book Festival in my quest to find a literary event in New York City. I had found the event the day after it happened a year earlier. I knew that I would want to participate in next year’s event. It would be my chance to promote independent literature. I could help authors connect with their audience, and let myself learn about the independent publishers at the event. I know that I want to work in independent publishing in the future and encourage new voices. I recognize independent publishing as something special, as they specifically look to help traditionally oppressed groups express themselves. I knew that going to the Brooklyn Book Festival would allow me to find an entire community that acknowledged the importance of independent publishing like I did.

As a volunteer, my job was to help authors with book signings. I would be the one to take a visitor’s name on a sticky note as they waited to have their beloved copy signed. It was also my responsibility to direct authors from the auditorium where they gave their talks to the tables where they would sign books. I did not have too many problems with crowds, and most people were amicable. However, getting the authors to their tables to sign books was a challenge. As soon as their talks were over, people would approach the authors with questions. The authors would happily chat with anyone who came up to them. It took much effort to get the authors where they needed to be signing books. This obviously added difficulty to my position, but as my shift went on, it made me happier. Here were these authors, most of whom I had not heard of, who were getting attention from readers as though they were celebrities. It was refreshing for me to see. In the current world, the attention has been moved from books to electronics. Books have fallen by the wayside, unfortunately. They are important for ideas and art to be expressed in the world. But readers had come to the Brooklyn Book Festival to see their favorite authors and immerse themselves in a bibliophilic culture. They all wanted to be there simply for the love of literature. No one was forcing them to go. They chose to sacrifice sleeping in on a Sunday morning to chat for a minute with their favorite author. It bolstered my hope for the literary community.

After finishing my shift, I was free to wander the festival. I decided to make my way to the booths where several independent publishers, literary magazines, and literary advocacy groups had set up shop, selling books at a discount rate. Many people there were taking advantage and collecting new reads. Overall, I observed several attitude and trends about publishing. Books have fallen from grace, especially as the Internet has become a major platform for information. Blogs and online publications are currently in the cultural spotlight. It is easy to write off books in today’s society. Many assume the publishing industry is completely ruined. But what I saw at the festival showed the opposite. Independent publishing is thriving. It may not always seem like it, but it was apparent at the festival.

Book publishing is often categorized as a one-dimensional industry. Traditionally, six companies-Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, and Simon & Schuster- dominate the publishing industry. Many potential authors feel smothered in this world. These publishers often don’t want to take a chance on new authors or on controversial literature. However, we can find a new direction in independent publishing. Many indie publishers deliberately seek out new talent for the purpose of promoting new artistic ideas. The amount of support they offer their authors is incredible. They take it upon themselves to promote the author and work with them every step of the way. Bigger publishers may choose to outsource publicity instead, alienating the author. Independent publishers focus on the product and not the profit.

Journalist Elise Blackwell is the author of four books, and she also teaches creative writing and is director of the MFA program at the University of South Carolina. She writes, “While most small- and mid-sized independent publishers also need to make a buck, their acquisitions decisions are generally made by smart editors rather than marketing departments populated by the underpaid, unseasoned, and sometimes literarily uninterested”. Independent publishers provide an outlet for new and controversial literature. Many specialize in certain niche markets that would be ignored by the big companies. In order for new, controversial things to be published, independent publishers are necessary. Since bigger publishers have profit as a main goal, they simply shut out what cannot be guaranteed as profit.

For example, the young adult market is saturated with spin offs of what is currently popular. One can find many novels in the same vein as the Twilight series, The Hunger Games series, or The Fault in Our Stars. These books get published because they have a precedent that made excellent money. The popular culture is promoted and new voices can be lost. Most importantly, independent publishers are willing to take a chance on voices that are typically ignored. Voices that represent that represent minority populations (including race, sexuality, and ethnicity) can usually find representation with an independent publisher who is specifically interested in taking them on. At the festival, I found a press that focused exclusively on literature published by and for blacks. It allows black people to have an explicit space to allow their work to be published. Another press focused on steampunk literature. Steampunk is a science fiction genre that values old time steam power over modern technology. Steampunk, as a niche market, would rarely be published by traditional publishers, as it does not guarantee profit. Independent publishers provide a safe place for artistic expression, regardless of profit.

Some advocacy groups actively fight for their voices to be heard. PEN America is a group that works to further literature written by those on the fringes of society. Their goal is simple. As stated on their website, “PEN American Center…work[s] to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to make it possible for everyone to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others” (PEN America). Many of these voices are ones that would be traditionally ignored. Society, as a whole, can gloss over certain groups. Some are considered incapable of artistic expression. Others may simply be forgotten because of obsession with the mainstream. For example, PEN’s latest publication was a collection of works made by prisoners. PEN runs a program designed to allow prisoners to be empowered with literature. PEN views literature as a tool for power. It allows prisoners to have an avenue of expression when they have been stripped of everything else. To further their cause, PEN also publishes a how-to guide for potential prison writers, allowing even the uneducated to learn to express themselves through literature and writing. Another active campaign is trying to raise awareness of the imprisonment of author Ilham Tohti. He is a writer of Uyghur heritage, who was sentenced to life in Chinese prison on unfounded charges of separatism in his writing. The group is hoping to bring the injustice of his imprisonment into the light.

The Brooklyn Book Festival was an empowering event for literature. It allowed me to find other book lovers. I was able to tangibly see how much they love books, and how much books affect them. Also, it served as a space for independent publishers to come together and allow new ideas to flow. People could discover outlets for minority voices, and discover the fight for representation of minority voices. I am someone who hopes to champion new voices one day and support new authors by working in the publishing industry. The Brooklyn Book Festival was a captivating example of the cultural movement to support new voices and fight for art.

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