Literary veterans, novices at 10th edition of book fest

September 25, 2005|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,Sun reporter

Nearly 50 years ago, Arthur Frommer self-published 5,000 copies of a tiny book called Europe on $5 A Day, which he wrote while stationed with the U.S. Army in West Germany. Frommer earned nothing on that first printing because his distributor -- "a friend with a truck" -- went bankrupt.

Nonetheless, the company born of Frommer's endeavor quickly grew and is now the world's preeminent publisher of travel guides with 2,000 titles in print.

But the publishing business -- on display yesterday at the Baltimore Book Festival in downtown's Mount Vernon neighborhood -- is a tricky trade. One writer's idea rockets to worldwide acclaim while another's barely registers beyond family and friends.

The thousands of book lovers who leisurely perused the festival's attractions yesterday were treated to a mix of both established and aspiring authors from an array of genres -- from children's books to cookbooks, from titles like The Gospel of Philip to Schemin' -- Confessions of a Gold Digger.

The divide between struggle and success was most apparent in and around the Literary Salon tent, where the festival's celebrities appeared, including George Ross from The Apprentice television show and Candace Bushnell of Sex in The City fame.

As Frommer regaled an audience of fans yesterday with his multimillion-dollar success story, Dennis Johnson of Northwest Baltimore sat in a nearby booth selling his self-published first novel, Beijing Gold, for half its $10 price.

Johnson, 37, who wrote the book under the pen name of Sin Ga Weng, has been selling the novel about romance, rap and rage from the trunk of his car and at Mondawmin Mall since March. The full-time postal carrier who graduated from City College in 1986 paid to have 1,000 copies of his novel printed and hopes the finished product will attract an agent.

"This was one of the biggest gambles, getting the book made," he said, autographing a book for a fellow City College alum. For a day, at least, Book Festival patrons made the Beijing Gold author feel as if the risk just might pay off.

"Baltimore is definitely supportive of local artists," he said. "Maybe it was the book fair atmosphere."

Johnson wasn't the only bookseller pleased with the brisk pace of his sales.

The children's tent, anchored by The Children's Bookstore of Roland Park, appeared crowded all day. Customers were buying dozens of titles by local and national authors, many of whom paraded through to read from and sign their books.

The store is an original supporter of the 10-year-old book festival, said JoAnn Fruchtman, owner of the nearly three-decades-old shop. She said big names in children's books were scheduled to appear: Charles DeLint, author of Circle of Cats; Holly Black, who penned The Spiderwick Chronicles; and T.A. Barron, writer of The Great Tree of Avalon.

Simba Sana, co-owner of Karibu Books, said the festival's book-buying crowds were encouraging. The Washington-based African-American bookstore chain will soon open a store at Security Square Mall in Woodlawn.

The Book Festival featured an array of food, music, readings, literary criticism and other events, including handwriting analysis by two people who attempted to determine personality traits from a study of penmanship.

Leslie "Zo" Braxton of Baltimore waited with a half-dozen other curious people yesterday to see what the handwriting analysts had to say about their penmanship. "I'm curious to know what they feel they could possibly tell me," said Braxton. After her session, she was impressed. "I don't think I'd go out and make any life decisions on any of it," she said. "But it tickled my fancy."

At day's end, the enthusiastic crowd seemed to buttress the rating provided to Baltimore by Frommer's travel guide, which this summer named the city a top-10 international destination.

The festival was helped by good weather. Last year, Nelson and Heather Fiester traveled to Baltimore from Vineland, N.J., for the book festival only to have their plans spoiled by rain.

"I'm a librarian," said Heather Fiester, 31. "This is the nicest weather yet. We don't have anything like this book festival in New Jersey."

The Baltimore Book Festival continues today from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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