I’ll never forget my first visit to the Southern Festival of Books in 2013. I was freshly divorced and nervous as a cat, with the self-esteem of a garden slug. Despite all this, I had a fantastic time. I attended interesting talks, met a bunch of cool authors, and even made some new friends. By the end of the day, I was so proud of myself for being brave that I left with my spirits lifted and a song in my heart. Then I had to drive home to Chattanooga alone over Monteagle Mountain in the dark … but hey, the point is, the festival is magic (and anyway, I survived).
I’m thrilled that, after two years of virtual programming, the festival will mark its 34th anniversary in person this year, returning to downtown Nashville on October 14-16. In case this is your first festival — or you’re a little rusty since 2019 — I’ve got just what you need to get in the zone. I call them Tina’s Tips for a Fabulous Festival. Whether you attend just one day or are lucky enough to make it all three days, follow these instructions for (practically) foolproof fun. I hope to see you on the Plaza!
Download the app: The SFB app is indispensable for festival attendees. Here you’ll find all the featured authors listed, along with their bios, info about their latest book, and photos of their book covers (very helpful for memory jogging when the time comes to shop). The app also provides a list of vendors, links to SFB on social media, ways to donate, and opportunities to purchase festival merchandise online. Most importantly, each author’s scheduled appearance date and time are listed so you can plot your daily strategy.
Pace yourself. There’s plenty of ground to cover, from the Nashville Public Library to Legislative Plaza and the War Memorial Auditorium, so study a map of the venue ahead of time (you’ll find one on the app), and figure out where you need to go and how to get there. Author events run concurrently, so sadly, you can’t catch them all. Make your plans accordingly, and be sure to wear comfortable shoes. If the going gets tough, especially for us older folks, there are friendly volunteers in golf carts to help you up the hill. Be sure to take a look at the weather forecast and pack a poncho or umbrella if needed.
Meet an author (or lots). That’s what you’re there for, right? Authors are usually available in the signing colonnade immediately following their talks. Don’t be afraid to ask (brief) questions and don’t be daunted by a longer line. It’s worth the wait to exchange a few words with someone whose work you enjoy. Tell them what it means to you to meet them or how much you enjoyed their latest book. Authors come to festivals to connect with their readers, so show them some love!
Take a chance. A plan is great, and I personally never leave home without one, but try to save room for serendipity. Some of my best memories are of sessions I attended on a whim or because someone else dragged me. You don’t have to have read the author’s latest book or any of their books. You don’t have to know anything about the subject matter. There won’t be a quiz at the door! Keep an open mind and try something new. You might discover a new favorite book or author, which leads me to …
Buy a book (or lots). What a wonderful day: Everywhere you look, there’s a book! Or, more accurately, a multitude of books. The Parnassus tent is legendary and large. You’ll find all the festival authors represented there. But don’t forget about the book sale in the lobby of the library or all the tents set up in between. You’ll find university presses, specialty presses, individual author promotions, and book-themed gifts and apparel – oh my! Because you’re going to need something in which to carry all those books, be sure to visit the festival tent to peruse a variety of merchandise (including tote bags) that corresponds to this year’s theme. It’s only once a year. Go crazy. You deserve it.
Treat yourself. Self-care is vital to making it through the festival, so be sure to stay hydrated and watch your blood sugar. All that book excitement (and walking) can take a lot out of a person. Luckily, the festival organizers have you covered. Numerous food trucks are provided for your mouth-watering pleasure, and every year the offerings get more varied and more delicious. You will not go hungry, believe me. Grab a table or a bench, open your new book, and chow down. But hurry, because the next event on your schedule is about to start!
Make a friend. Remember, you are among friends at the festival. This is your tribe. These are your people. So don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with the fellow booklover sitting next to you at a session. Geek out over your favorite books by the author you are about to see. Chat with those around you in the autograph line. It’s fun and it makes the time pass more quickly. Not sure how to start? Try pointing at the book in their hands (there is always at least one book in their hands) and say, “Oh, I haven’t read that one yet. Is it any good?” or “That’s my favorite. How about you?” Don’t be shy.
Bring the kids. Let’s not forget our responsibility to mold young minds into the next generation of booklovers. If you don’t have kids of your own, borrow some. The programming for children and young adults at the festival is outstanding. Take them to see their favorite authors or potential future favorites. Expose them to authors talking about the writing process and, in so doing, encourage their own creativity. Past festivals have included talks by a Supreme Court justice and a civil rights hero. What priceless memories for young readers! As a bonus, children’s authors are unfailingly generous with their time and attention in the autograph lines. It’s an opportunity not to be missed.
Soak up the atmosphere. I’m convinced there is no place like a book festival, and the Southern Festival of Books is like no other. The setting is breathtaking and inspiring. The people are friendly and welcoming. Volunteers abound to answer questions and point you in the right direction. Authors are happy to see you and interact with you just like regular people. Plus, there’s live music, and storytelling, and poetry reading in the air all around you. Take some time to just sit and absorb. I said it was magic and I stand by that. For a lover of books, it’s paradise. Soak it up, especially this year.
Give thanks. What an abundance of riches the festival provides! And I forgot to mention the best part: Attendance at the SFB is absolutely FREE. So take a moment to stop and be grateful. For all the hours of hard work and planning that go into putting on this immense party just for you. For the Humanities Tennessee staff and volunteers who show up and make it all run. For the authors and booksellers who take the time to travel, often from a significant distance, to meet you and make you happy.
Yes, there’s a certain amount of (worthwhile) commerce involved, but at its core, that’s not what the festival is about. It’s about love. Love for the beautiful words that move and delight us, love for the authors who put those words on paper and screen, and love for the culture and community of the book. And this year, as old and new friends gather on the Plaza, there will likely be tears of joy and much laughter and maybe even hugging. Remember hugging? So give thanks. And have a great time!
Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.