The normally calm Words & Music Festival 2011 experienced both fireworks and sadness but delivered on the promise of its full name: “A Literary Feast in New Orleans.”
The sadness came with news of the death of William Faulkner’s niece, Dean Faulkner Wells, and the conversion of the annual “How to Read Faulkner and Love It” into a memorial for her. The fireworks featured upstart e-book publishers, which included local Edgar-winning mystery novelist Julie Smith, squaring off in an at-times testy exchange with nominal moderator Will Murphy, executive editor at Random House.
The panel on “New Designs in Publishing for the Electronic Age” started off sedately enough, with Smith and head of OR Publishing John Oakes outlining the case for a move away from the traditional publishing model toward e-books and short-run digital printing as a more efficient model. Then Murphy brought up the temperature in the room when he said, as politely as possible, “I’m afraid the two esteemed panelists to my right are going to have to answer for what they said,” challenging them to differentiate themselves from those in self-publication.
Oaks responded in kind: “I don’t think traditional publishing is breaking down. I think it’s broken and has been for a number of years, in tatters and a smoking ruin,” which led to a romp through several sensitive topics in publishing. In response to Murphy’s challenge to differentiate themselves from vanity presses, which charge authors to self-publish their works, Oakes suggested that Big Six Publishers’ requirement for new authors to hire their own publicists amounted to their charging new authors. Murphy stoutly denied such things happen, but both Smith and Oakes asserted that it is common.
In their new model, small press publishers do not charge authors, Smith and Oakes explained, outlining a process along the same lines as a big publishing house, of authors and agents submitting work for consideration and publishers providing the editing, design and publication (either in softback, an e-book, or both) and marketing. The difference is in distribution and cost savings, which Smith passes on to her authors in the form of a 50 percent royalty on her e-book-only BooksBnimble press.
Incited by the exchange, the audience jumped in, decrying the loss of newspaper book sections and the decline of arbiters of taste such as the New York Times and Washington Post book reviews.
“If you care about literary fiction, where do you think we find out what to read?” one audience member asked.
The only thing settled by the panel, as Murphy said in closing, is that publishing “is an artisan profession that is in transition. And great people such as the people to my right are tinkering and prematurely aged people like myself are done in, and that’s an exciting world to have.”
The rest of the festival was more in keeping with what one expects from five days of panels on writing topics, luncheons featuring prominent writers, editors and agents, and manuscript consultations for new authors with those editors and agents. The festival theme was “Literature & Life in the Global Village” and had a decidedly Latin theme, with numerous artists representing the Latin American diaspora including Pulitzer winner Osar Hijuelos (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love), Nobel Laureate for Drama Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics) and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for Human Rights Armando Valladares, who gave the keynote speech at the annual black-tie gala discussing his book about his 22 years as a prisoner of conscience in Cuba, Against All Hope.
There were musical interludes, including performances by Irvin Mayfield as part of a lecture on his recent book, A Love Letter to New Orleans, and a musical piece commissioned by the festival from UNO music professor Victor Atkins. The performance Friday night of the work was unfortunately cancelled due to Atkins being delayed by a fender-bender.
Joining Cruz, Hijueles and Valadares as celebrity guests was notoriously funny humorist Roy Blount, Jr., who kept a luncheon room in stitches. A dozen major agents and editors helped staff the panels and gave manuscript consultations to individual writers, always a major component of the Words & Music Festival.
Local authors were also well represented. James Nolan opened the festival with a discussion and reading of his comic noir, post-Katrina novel Higher Ground, which festival organizer Rosemary James of Faulkner House books compared to A Confederacy of Dunces (based on Nolan’s reading from the first chapter, that comparison is no stretch).
Julie Smith appeared both as author and founder of a new e-book press and joined George Rodrigue on a panel about illustrated children’s books. Featured panelists from both coasts were joined by a who’s who of local writers: John Biguenet; Randy Fertel; Roger Kamentz; Moira Crone; photographer Josephine Sacabo; Robert Olin Butler; Elise Blackwell; New Orleans newcomer George Bishop, who made his literary debut recently with an acclaimed novel Letter to my Daughter; and Louisiana political blogger and humorist Lee Papa, better known as The Rude Pundit.
There were readings throughout the festival, featuring winners of the annual Faulkner-Wisdom competition, including NOCCA student and Metairie resident Ruth Marie Landry, poetry winner and Tulane student M’Bilia Meekers, local Terri Stor for short story, novel-in-progress winner M.O. Walsh of Baton Rouge and novella winner and NOLA native Chris Waddington. Winner for novel was Peter Selgin of New York, and the winner for essay was Jacob Appel, who adds this prize to many others, as well as publication in more than 200 literary journals.
The festival-affiliated Words & Music Writers Alliance held a reading on Wednesday hosted by poet and LSU creative writing teacher Lauren Mullen, with local poet Brad Richard and prize-winning poet and writing coast Rosemary Daniell, featuring festival short story winner Stor along with Tad Bartlett, Maurice Ruffin, J. Ed Marston and festival poetry winner M’Bilia Meekers.
Winners of the festival ALIHOT (A Legend In His/Her Own Time) awards included Hijuelos (Literature), Cruz (Dram), Valladares (For Social Justice Advocacy), Fertel (Narrative Non-Fiction) and Justin Torres for his first novel We The Animals.
For detailed Dispatches from the Back on several of the panels, visit contributor Mark Folse’s blog ToulouseStreet.net.