When a book festival isn’t so festive

The fact that the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is America’s largest literary event doesn’t necessarily make it the best.

Each year my Sisters in Crime chapter rents a festival booth where members can sell their books. I hadn’t gone in past years because I don’t drive in L.A.’s notorious bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic, but this year the Friends of the Moorpark Library chartered a bus for anyone wanted to ride to the event. Since I could travel stress-free to the USC campus, the site of the event, I signed up.

The bus dropped us off at the festival entrance, thus sparing us a long hike from the distant (and pricey) parking garages. The “booths” were white tents with the vendor’s name and the booth number professionally printed on the tent flap, making identification easy. Most of the booths were set up along a walkway running the length of the campus from north to south. Other booths branched off along east and west walkways, some easier to find than others. Since the campus lacked a large central grassy area for staging such events, the booths were spread out so much that one needed to walk a lot.

And walk I did, in 90-plus-degree temps and bright, blinding sunlight. My bus arrived at 10 a.m. and by noon I was sweaty and tired and I’d only seen half of the booths. Had the festival been set indoors in air-conditioned comfort, I would have fared better; I don’t function well in heat.

The vendor selection was disappointing. Most of the booths contained self-pub authors with works of dubious quality, gritty/underground niche publishers or local indie bookstores. Other vendors hawked publishing (vanity presses) or editorial services.

Some of the better companies specialized in comics or children’s books—I got a kick out of the reissues of the Little Golden Books for kids. Besides Sisters in Crime, several other organizations were present for horror, romance and mystery writers as well as small presses.

Several booths promoted Islam; New Age groups and Atheists United were present. But in the second largest city in American, not one booth represented Jewish or Christian publishers or bookstores. Go figure.

I wanted to check out the old and antiquarian books, but to do so I had to enter a stifling hot booth and move along aisles only wide enough for one person. Since I was toting a heavy shoulder bag (I didn’t know what I’d need, so I packed everything), squeezing through narrow aisles and dodging other people didn’t seem doable.

At least the Vromans (a large indie bookstore in Pasadena) booth had a fan, which made browsing enjoyable. Barnes & Noble was not present.

Due to the size of the tents, inventory was limited and I found little of interest.

A number of booths had pushy vendors who unloaded a sales pitch on any passer-by. I stopped making eye contact with dealers and avoided getting close to the booths.

The L.A. Times booth had some nice umbrellas that would have been helpful on the hot day. As I approached a woman staffer asked if I had a subscription the Times. When I said I subscribed to the L.A. Daily News, she spouted off on a loud, angry rampage. I walked away without an umbrella or a subscription.

One bright spot was the free health screenings offered by the USC School of Pharmacy. The young students were professional, competent and friendly, with no wait time for services.

My book signing lasted one hour and was uneventful (euphemism for no sales). L.A. is not a cozy mystery town. Many strolled by, but only a handful stopped by the booth and most of those people were friends of the other authors present.

When my time was up, I took my unsold books with me. My suitcase had wheels but it was still heavy and a bother to lug around, especially since I was trying to worm my way through the crowd. Now I know how a salmon feels swimming upstream.

Finding a place for lunch was challenging. I avoided the high-priced campus restaurant with a 30- to 40-minute wait time. After hoofing to the edge of the campus, I found a tiny coffee shop with no salads left and only two choices of sandwiches. Lunch was an $8 turkey pesto pre-made sandwich wrapped in cellophane. At least the building was air conditioned. 

 Later I discovered the campus also had a food court and some food trucks for the day. Where were they? I couldn’t find them on the map or by sight.

As for the restrooms: I could have used the restrooms inside the buildings, if I didn’t mind standing in line for 20 minutes. I settled on the Porta Potties with no wait time. In a pinch I can rough it.

I didn’t go to the panel discussions since I didn’t know the writers and from the titles of the talks, most of the panels seemed to have far-left bias.

 I saw few people carrying or buying books. Apparently most people came to the festival because admission was free and it was a “big event” and “something to do” on a sunny weekend. Or maybe they just came to listen to the outdoor band concerts or shop at the campus store. I didn’t feel much of a literary vibe or maybe I was just too hot and tired to notice.

 Will I go to the LATFOB next year? Probably not. But I did meet some nice people on the bus, and I got a nifty orange festival tote bag for free.


2 thoughts on “When a book festival isn’t so festive

  1. I haven’t gone since the left UCLA, but even then it was almost too much walking for me. I did have spots in two booths, SinC LA and MWA. I think a sold a few books, but don’t really remember. I did enjoy it, except for all the walking. My husband and I went together a couple of times, and one other time a friend drove down.


    1. Hi Marilynn, thanks for stopping by. I might have enjoyed a smaller event or more compact. The walkways on campus are too small to run a shuttle service across the grounds, although that would have been nice.

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