Mississippi Book Festival develops into power player in publishing

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Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

“A Conversation with Kate DiCamillo” kicked off the 2016 Mississippi Book Festival. DiCamillo answered audience questions about her books, including “Because of Winn-Dixie.”

While thousands of literary fans listen to acclaimed authors, line up for book signings and enjoy outdoor food and music at Saturday’s Mississippi Book Festival, executive director Holly Lange already will have her sights on next year’s event.

“We will take about a week off, maybe, not much,” Lange said. “Right now we are already designing our fundraising packet and our panelist packet for 2018.”

In its third year, the Mississippi Book Festival will include appearances by more than 150 authors, including Greg Iles (Mississippi Blood), Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give) and Richard Ford (Between Them: Remembering My Parents) as well as a display of writer and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats’ original works.

Authors will participate in more than 30 panels in the State Capitol Building and Galloway United Methodist Church in downtown Jackson, ranging from a cookbook-centered conversation led by restaurateur Robert St. John, a discussion about capturing images of Mississippi using photography and a look into the 20-year process of crafting the new Mississippi Encyclopedia, which will be released at a publishing party Thursday evening at the Cathead Distillery in Jackson.

Putting all these pieces together requires a year-round effort, and as a non-profit function the festival needs funding to make any of this happen. By October, Lange will need a preliminary list of 2018 participants so she and her colleagues can pitch the program to potential financial sponsors.

Courtesy of the Mississippi Book Festival

Holly Lange, executive director of the Mississippi Book Festival, at the inaugural event in 2015.

“We have ‘x’ number of rooms and we have ‘x’ number of times,” Lange explained. “We start filling what we call the grid: We start putting genres across the board, and you don’t ever want to have, for example, two children’s panels competing against each other. So we divide it all out and we start calling publishers in New York, and we talk to independent book stores about their schedules, and then who’s in our own backyard [as well].”

Most of the festival’s funding comes from private individuals, because “everybody loves to read,” Lange said. The state is a big contributor as well, allowing the festival to use the Capitol Building. (The festival can’t afford to rent a large private space.) The Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Visit Mississippi and the Mississippi Arts Commission also support through event space, marketing and grants. In total, the festival has raised about $275,000, not including approximately $50,000 of in-kind contributions.

Organizing the first Mississippi Book Festival in 2015 was a monumental undertaking.

“What I’ve realized as an event planner, particularly in Jackson, is it’s very difficult to start something brand new that no one’s experienced before,” Lange said. “I knew the first year was going to be very hard to raise money for.”

Photo Courtesy of the Mississippi Book Festival

Mississippi authors Bill Ferris, Jerry Mitchell and John Grisham spoke the 2015 Mississippi Book Festival.

The tipping point that year came when longtime Mississippi resident and best-selling novelist John Grisham agreed to appear. Following a performance by Jackson State University’s Sonic Boom, Grisham spoke on the Capitol steps alongside state leaders including Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.

“I felt such pride at that event,” said Emily Pote, who started as a volunteer before becoming program manager last November. “To be able to say this is Mississippi, this is our literary heritage, and all of these people are here to be able to say they’re proud of it, too.”

Approximately 3,700 book fans turned out that year, and attendance grew by nearly 70 percent to 6,200 in 2016.

Publishers now revere the festival enough to move up book release dates. With a few exceptions, only writers who have published a work in the past year are eligible to participate.

“Thankfully, we have a good reputation,” Pote said. “It truly is a literary lawn party. It’s like a big homecoming or reunion for a lot of these authors. Authors tell other authors about this festival. They say, ‘If you ever get invited you should go because it’s a good time.’ And that’s what we want to hear, because this is really just a big, love-of-books party.”

In addition to introducing the Mississippi Encyclopedia, the festival will celebrate the state bicentennial by unveiling an updated literary map of the state, put together by the Mississippi Center for the Book.

To see all of the attractions, visit msbookfestival.com.

Mississippi Today is a sponsor of the Mississippi Book Festival