Book lovers descend on annual city festival

Annual Baltimore Book Festival wraps up 17th year with expanded events

  • Jean Schwind, of Forest Hill, looks over a vast selection of paperbacks at the Baltimore Book Festival.
Jean Schwind, of Forest Hill, looks over a vast selection of… (Photo for The Baltimore…)
September 30, 2012|By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

Mary Morton moved away from Baltimore earlier this year but returned on Sunday for the city's annual book festival.

Morton, who now lives in Hagerstown, has attended almost every Baltimore Book Festival since its inception in 1996. The festival has gotten bigger every year, she said, and more crowded.

On a sunny Sunday, Morton and a friend browsed through used books in Mount Vernon and listened to presentations by authors, including broadcast journalist Amy Goodman and Baltimore-born "chick-lit" novelist Emily Giffin.

"I like listening to the different talks," Morton said. "That's a big deal."

For a long weekend each year, Baltimore book nerds swarm to the area around the Washington Monument for the festival. An estimated 50,000 people attend the three-day event, organizers say. It's a chance for authors — from the self-published to the well-known — to meet their fans and sign and sell books.

For book lovers, it's an opportunity to stroll the streets of Mount Vernon, discover new books and authors, swap old books for other old books and enjoy the carnival atmosphere, complete with music, funnel cakes and quarter-pound hot dogs.

"We love, love, love it," said Jean Schwind, of Forest Hill, Morton's friend. "It's very cosmopolitan for us to come into the city."

This year, Center Stage took part in the festival, with performances and activities on a closed section of Monument Street near the theater, which is celebrating its 50th season.

Nationally and regionally known authors gave presentations and readings on 11 stages, while self-published and lesser-known authors exhibited their books in a large tent.

The festival has grown since 1996, when it attracted about 15,000 people. That year the festival featured a demonstration of the Internet. had been founded only two years earlier. Google hadn't been born yet. And chain bookstores held a lot of power.

Fast forward to today, when online book-buying — of print and digital works — accounts for about a third of all book sales, according to industry statistics and experts. Tablet computers such as Apple's iPad and electronic readers, such as Amazon's Kindle or Barnes & Noble's Nook, allow consumers to download digital books.

Several authors interviewed Sunday said that their books sell as e-books as well as traditional volumes — and that they actually make more money when they sell a digital copy because it costs less to distribute.

Isabella Harris, who writes adult fantasy fiction as I.R. Harris, recently released her first three books, "The Bound Trilogy." The North Carolina resident came to Baltimore to promote her work and by early Sunday had sold nearly all her copies.

She said most people buy her print books because they want her to sign them. But she said she is increasingly selling books on Kindle as people discover her online and want to immediately download her books.

"We're an instant-gratification society," Harris said. "They don't want to wait around."

Despite the growth of the digital book industry, festival organizer Bill Gilmore said the event is as popular as ever. Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, said the rise of ebooks "certainly hasn't hurt" the book festival.

"I think it's the contrary," Gilmore said. The event "still offers a chance for people to meet the authors. I don't think new media has dampened enthusiasm for the festival."

The Baltimore Sun was among the festival sponsors.

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