Onto the second part of this multi-part series of posts about the INSPIRE: Toronto International book Festival, I’m going to talk about the event itself. Later this week I’ll wrap up with writing about the outside activities and sites I visited, then end with a post on what worked and what could be improved to make this a really knock out event.
The INSPIRE: Toronto International Book Festival (TIBF) ran for three days, from Friday, November 14 through Sunday, November 16. It kicked off on Thursday night, though, with a launch party. Prior to the launch, bloggers who were invited to meet with a handful of the event creators and facilitators, which gave us insight into how TIBF came to be what it is and what the vision for the event is. Unlike BEA, TIBF is meant to be a consumer-facing festival, meaning that the goal isn’t to bring in the industry but instead, to draw in the general public. In other words, it wants to be more like what Book Con would hope to be, and the purpose isn’t to talk up or get buzz going for upcoming titles. It’s on selling readers what’s already out there and encouraging reading in whatever form it takes.
Other countries throughout the world hold large consumer book festivals, but something similar in scope doesn’t exist in North America, aside from the Gudalajara Festival. TIBF wants to fill in that gap, and the hope is that by being located in Toronto — which is quickly accessible to a large population — it can do just that.
I’d say for the inaugural year, it didn’t do a bad job.
The Metro Centre, where the event was held, was so much more pleasant than the Javitz, and I think a large reason for that was it was much smaller and because this event wasn’t as huge as BEA, there was more room for spreading out and making it an experience for attendees. When you went upstairs, where the exhibition and event floor was, attendees were greeted with a really neat display of old printing presses:
At times, especially during the Q&A, I felt like the panel went a little off the rails and became too self-conscious and directed at adult readers of YA, rather than YA readers (I even heard one of the panelists comment that a “real YA” was asking a question — which was odd, since I thought most of the audience looked pretty young). It wasn’t bad, but I ended up sneaking out before the end, since I thought the meat of the discussion happened early on, with questions like the one above.
I skipped out on the event Saturday — the only regret I have about that is missing Margaret Atwood — but on Sunday, I hit up a number of really interesting panels.
The first was called “Books By Their Covers: Redesigning Classics,” featuring Elly MacKay (who redid the Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon covers for Tundra), Debbie Ridpath Ohi (who redid the middle grade covers of the Judy Blume books), and Cybele Young (who redid the covers for the Kit Pearson books). This session was fantastic — all three of the artists talked about “getting the call” and being asked to redesign covers for these hugely iconic books and what their design process was. How did they choose the images they did? What sort of mediums did they work with?
Aside from a stomach that hurt from laughing so much, the biggest takeaway from this panel was that even funny people know it can be weird and uncomfortable to try something new — and sometimes something series — and that the only way to grow is to go for it if you believe in it. The audience who doesn’t like it will skip it and those who do will only encourage you to grow your art and style. There was great chemistry on the panel, and the way they were all able to play off one another made it even funnier.
The final panel I went to was at the end of the day on Sunday, and it was “Diversity, DJs, and DIY,” featuring Greg Frankson A. K. A. Ritallin, Kayla Perrin, Stacey Marie Robinson, and Leonicka Valcius. Right before taking the stage, I got the chance to meet Leonicka, who I’ve been following on Twitter for a while and who has some incredibly insightful thoughts on diversity in publishing and the book world more broadly, and it was a treat to hear her talk about it on a big stage.
Something I found interesting — and troubling — was that there were so few white people sitting in the audience for this session. Maybe it was because the session was at a really bad time (it was one of the last of the entire event, on Sunday evening and came on the heels of Maggie Stiefvater talking on the main stage) but I suspect there’s still some belief that a diversity panel isn’t “for” white people. If anything, after this session, I feel completely opposite that. This was a session I needed to go to, even though I’ve heard some of this discussion before. Aside from insight into what publishing is or isn’t doing to bolster the voices of marginalized writers, the biggest take away I got came from Robinson, who talked about why she chooses to self-publish her work and how she thinks that self-publishing is one of the most interesting avenues for marginalized voices and stories right now.
This is something I hadn’t thought about before, and Robinson opened my mind to thinking about self-publishing in a bit of a different light. Like New Adult got its biggest audience via self-publishing, I suspect this is and will continue to be the case for diverse writers. More, it’s not about going this route because it’s the only option; rather, it’s going this route because it’s a way to subvert the gates that are hard to break down and even harder when you’re not white.
Leonicka talked about how publishing itself remains so white because it’s difficult to break in when you don’t have privilege to do so. In other words, going to college, getting an internship in the industry, then taking on a job that doesn’t pay enough to cover the bills — those are things people from marginalized backgrounds can’t often do in the same way that white people can. It was impossible not to look at those two discussions in tandem.
Another really interesting takeaway for me was how the Canadian landscape is different than the American one when it comes to reading and publishing. Perrin, who writes for Harlequin, talked about how in her first books, she was asked to change the setting of her stories, since American readers would be more reluctant to pick up a story set in Toronto than they would be a story set in Chicago. There was a good conversation about how black voices are represented and understood when they’re from Canada, as well — Perrin noted that her readers are sometimes surprised she’s Canadian.
I wish more people were in the audience to hear this panel. Perhaps in the future, a similar panel could be put on at a better time or, even more radically, maybe it could be a main stage event or not be competing with a large main stage event.
TIBF had so many other sessions I wanted to go to and didn’t get the chance to, either because they were scheduled against panels I wanted to see or because I was so drained from other events, I couldn’t get myself there. This is the kind of event, though, I would be interested in attending again — when the schedule goes up for next year, I’ll definitely be looking to see if it’s worth the trip. Toronto is closer, cleaner, safer, and so much more appealing to me as a visitor than New York City. While mid-November is kind of a crummy time to travel north, it didn’t bother me much: there aren’t huge tourist crowds, hotels and airfare tend to be cheaper (I stayed in the nice hotel for an extra night on my own, and it was under $100 with taxes which I consider more than a fair price), and this was a nice time to get away before the holidays consume everything. While I didn’t have to pay for my pass to attend the event as a member of the press, the cost of $25 for the opening night party and three days of events is extremely reasonable.
While the event’s attendance seemed like it waxed and waned — on Friday, for the Kid’s Day, there seemed to be far bigger crowds than on Sunday, though the event competed with the city’s Santa Claus parade that day — it never felt packed and unbearable. I could wander the booths and could always find a chair for the sessions. One of the things I mentioned to a couple others was that the set up lent itself to browsing, mingling, and sitting. The last one seems like it’s not important, but it is: there were seats and chairs and lounging areas throughout the convention center, which made it nice to collect yourself, your stuff, and to just browse through the books you bought.
One of the very last things I noticed at the fair, and something I thought was just a nice touch, was that there was an entire gallery of children’s books illustrations to browse. The event celebrated the entire landscape of the book world in a really accessible and fun way. Also, thumbs up to the publishers who took the little extra steps to make finding books about certain topics easy to find, both through labels (like below) and through being eager to talk about them.