Tucson Festival of Books: Overwhelming and Amazing

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As a reader and a writer, I enjoy book, writer and reader festivals. Imagine a two-day FREE festival with more than 350 authors, over 250 exhibitors and a “science city”, where people of all ages can get up close and personal with science. I’ve wanted to attend the Tucson Festival of Books in Tucson, Arizona ever since I heard about it over three years ago. The festival takes place on the University of Arizona campus  in central Tucson on a weekend in mid-March. This year I had the opportunity to attend the 2015 festival, the 7th year for the event.

Two streets in the centre of the campus, blocked off to vehicular traffic for the event, are lined with exhibitor tents, featuring publishers, writers’ associations, other Arizona and national associations, individual authors, schools and libraries, spiritual groups, health information and more. I noticed a craft tent and a native story-telling tent. One section contains activities for children. There are food and snack vendors and areas to sit while you eat.

Author panel discussions, author lectures, culinary demonstrations by cookbook authors and writing workshops occur throughout the two days. Five one-hour sessions are scheduled each day at hour and a half intervals, beginning at 10 am with the last session starting at 4 pm. The events take place mostly in various university buildings bordering the exhibitor area, but a few are scheduled outdoors in tents. Authors are available to sign their books after the sessions. And, of course, books are available for sale.

If I had to sum up my first impressions of the festival in one word, that word would be overwhelming. I was overwhelmed when I first looked at the schedule online to determine which events I would attend. I counted 35 different events occurring in each time slot, covering a variety of genres and interests. I eventually managed to get through the schedule and make my list of first, second, third, fourth and, in some cases, fifth choices for each time slot. Each venue had a seating capacity limit, varying from as low as 28 to as high as 600. If I couldn’t get into my first choice, I wanted back-up options. The evening before the festival, I used the online map of the festival to make slight adjustments to my list. I altered the order of my choices to minimize walking time if I had to go to one of the back-up options.

Crowds at Tucson Festival of Books
Crowds at Tucson Festival of Books

When I arrived on Saturday morning and saw the long, long line of tents and crowds of people, I was once again overwhelmed. Even with a printed map in my hand, finding the location of a particular venue seemed daunting. I wished I had come to the campus the day before and got to know the lay of the land. While in Tucson, we stayed at a bed and breakfast with two guest rooms. The guests in the other room were also in town for the festival. They had attended the previous year and offered us some advice. They said the venue that had been hardest to locate was the Integrated Learning Center because it was underground. The first event I wanted to attend was in that venue. Even with their advice, I had some difficulty. Knowing it was underground helped. I found railings bordering an open atrium to the underground but still had to ask where the stairs were. (There was also an elevator for those who have trouble with stairs.)

Tucson Festival of Books
Attendee working on a puzzle at Tucson Festival of Books

Of the five Saturday sessions, I got into four of my first choices. Sessions were generally first-come, first-served. This year for the first time, advance tickets for the six largest venues (seating for 300 to 600) were available online. A small percentage, in the range of 20 to 25% I believe, were reserved for walk-ups. My second Saturday session was one with advance tickets. I did not have an advance ticket. Two lines formed outside the venue – one for those with tickets and one for those without. My first thought when I saw the number of people in front of me in line was that there was no way I’d get in. A couple of people ahead of me obviously thought the same thing and left to find another session. I decided to wait. A second look at the line and I figured I might be right on the edge of the cutoff, but I wasn’t sure which side of that edge. After the people with tickets were allowed in, my line began to move. It stopped two people ahead of me. Volunteers ran in and out of the building to check on numbers of open seats. I got in, as did five to ten people behind me. The session was well worth it.

I heard mixed reactions from attendees about the advance ticketing. Some thought it helped reduce massive line-ups. Others didn’t like it and claimed a larger percentage of seats should have been saved for walk-ups. I imagine festival organizers will be assessing how well the process worked to determine if and in what format advance ticketing occurs next year.

Another puzzle at Tucson Festival of Books
Another puzzle at Tucson Festival of Books

Although crowds on Sunday were slightly smaller than on Saturday, overall I was impressed that so many people of all ages came out to the festival, not to see rock stars or movie stars, but to hear authors and buy books. Over the course of the two days, I was amused and entertained by authors, I discovered new authors I want to read, and I learned a lot from the five writing workshops I attended. If I am asked now to sum up the festival in one word, that word would be amazing.

Festival journal
I bought a journal with the festival logo on it

The festival is organized and run by volunteers. A large number of sponsors make it possible to run as a free event. Even the parking garages on campus are free that weekend. Individuals can contribute by becoming Friends of the Festival. The Festival supports literacy programs throughout southern Arizona.

Festival Tips

  • Take time ahead of the festival to review the event schedule to determine what and who you want to see. Have a list of backups for each time slot in case you don’t get in to your first choice. Plan your backups with location of venues in mind. You’re unlikely to get into your second choice if you have to race from one end to the other.
  • If you are concerned about finding your way around, consider visiting the campus in the days before the event to learn where things are. It is a beautiful campus with several museums to visit. You could make a day of it.
  • Wear good walking shoes. For those unable to walk much, volunteers on golf carts were available to ferry people between the festival area and parking lots and within the festival area itself. Most of the venues had elevator access and special handicapped access areas.
  • Bring a hat and sunscreen. Even though the events themselves are indoors or under covered tents, you walk outside between sessions or if you are exploring the exhibitor’s tents. The other guests at the bed and breakfast told us sunscreen was available in the National Parks tent, but I didn’t go there to confirm that.
  • The weekend Arizona Daily Star papers have festival inserts with pages of information, including a map and a full schedule list. The Arizona Daily Star, a festival sponsor, has a tent at the event. You are likely to find copies of the insert there.
  • Unless you want to bypass one of the sessions to take time to eat, bring food or snacks to get you through the day. There were some great food options, but there were also often line-ups. By the time you get your food, there is a good chance you won’t make it to the next session, never mind taking time to eat.
  • Don’t be afraid to take in a session you hadn’t planned to. You may be pleasantly surprised and discover an author you were unfamiliar with, but now wish to read.

Have you attended the Tucson Festival of Books or a similar event? What did you think?

Tucson Festival of Books: Overwhleimg and amazing #festival #books


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38 Comments

  1. jacquiegum said:

    I have always wanted to do this particular book festival Donna. It really gets high marks! But I know what you mean about being overwhelming! I felt that way in Miami too!

    March 20, 2015
    Reply
    • Donna Janke said:

      Overwhelming was the word the other guests at the B&B used to describe their first impressions as well. I didn’t know about the Miami festival – might be worth checking into some day.

      March 22, 2015
      Reply
  2. lenie5860 said:

    Donna, I would have loved being there, surrounded by all those books and authors – even the library can’t compete with that. I can imagine that it would be overwhelming, it would be so hard to choose what to see and what not. With the great attendance it just goes to show the continued interest people have in reading and related activities.

    March 23, 2015
    Reply
    • Donna Janke said:

      Lenie,it was certainly great to see the continued interest people having in reading.

      March 23, 2015
      Reply
  3. Mina Joshi said:

    Wow I would have loved this festival of books. So lovely to know that it was attended by so many people too. I often see book festivals advertised in UK but never been to one.

    March 23, 2015
    Reply
    • Donna Janke said:

      Mina, I don’t know what the book festivals you’ve seen advertised are like, but if they are anything like the Tucson Festival of Books you should try and attend one. Great fun for a reader.

      March 23, 2015
      Reply
  4. First of all what a fantastic improvement of your website, Donna. Congratulation!

    Went to a couple of book festivals when I lived in London, UK. Loved browsing and sometimes I found new and interesting books.

    March 23, 2015
    Reply
    • Donna Janke said:

      Thanks Catarina. This is actually a new site – my author page. I’m still working on the redesign of Destinations Detours and Dreams – in the final stages I hope, but dealing with a few issues at the moment.

      March 23, 2015
      Reply
  5. Erica said:

    I am very excited to hear there are big book festivals like that in a day and age when bookstores are such a dying breed. It is especially nice to hear that parents are still buying their children physical books.

    I’m impressed with how many speakers there were in such a short amount of time. I’m glad you got into so many of your first choice options. Thank you for sharing!

    March 23, 2015
    Reply
    • Donna Janke said:

      Erica, it is exciting to see big book festivals like this our current age. I was pleased that I got into as many of my first choices as I did. I was fully prepared to go to second or third choices.

      March 23, 2015
      Reply
  6. Patti said:

    Another interesting read. Great to hear you were able to attend so many events over the two days. It looks like a great place to visit.

    March 23, 2015
    Reply
    • Donna Janke said:

      Patti, I really enjoyed my time at the festival.

      March 23, 2015
      Reply
  7. I’ll be honest I’m not a fan of crowds and never (ever!) go to sales, but since I’m also a reader and writer a book fair would be the one event that would draw me out. This looks absolutely marvelous Donna and I’m more than a little jealous that you have this wonderful event in your backyard. 🙂

    March 23, 2015
    Reply
    • Donna Janke said:

      Marquita, this festival is worth braving the crowds. The workshops I attended were in smaller rooms (less than 50 people) in one building that felt a lot less hectic than the rest of the festival, so, in addition to being good workshops, they gave a respite from the crowds. The is the first time in the 3 years I’ve wintered in Arizona I’ve had opportunity to take in the festival. I’d like to attend next year, but as we haven’t decided yet on what we’re doing and where we’ll be next winter, it’s a bit uncertain at the moment.

      March 23, 2015
      Reply
  8. Ken Dowell said:

    Really looks like a great event. I always have an ambivalent feeling about crowds at events that I really enjoy. You want to see the event be successful and a big crowd means it is. On the other hand, it’s a whole lot nicer to not have to wait online.

    March 23, 2015
    Reply
    • Donna Janke said:

      Ken, I can relate to your ambivalent feeling about crowds at events you enjoy. It really is a bit of double-edged sword.

      March 25, 2015
      Reply
  9. Beth Niebuhr said:

    I love book fairs and this one looks like a real winner. Not so far from where I live, either. I’m glad to hear they have advance seating for some events and I definitely agree that figuring out where you want to spend your time before plunging in is a good idea.

    March 24, 2015
    Reply
    • Donna Janke said:

      Beth, I think this event is a real winner.

      March 25, 2015
      Reply
  10. Oh my God, this is so cool.
    Never heard or been to a book festival or fair.
    I bet it was fun Donna.
    I will research online to see if they do one in London, will love to experience it.
    Thanks for the tips as well, will bear it in mind x

    March 25, 2015
    Reply
    • Donna Janke said:

      I hope you find a similar event in London. Great fun.

      March 25, 2015
      Reply
  11. What a great event to attend. I liked your tips about going to a place like this. I know sometimes it get overwhelming, and having a plan to see a specific item helps a lot.

    March 25, 2015
    Reply
    • Donna Janke said:

      William, I’m glad you appreciated the tips. The event could easily have become too overwhelming to enjoy, so I had to find a way to approach it.

      March 25, 2015
      Reply
  12. I’ve not been to a big book festival, just a few small ones for teaching-related books, but they were still fun. That’s great you got so many of your first choices, but even second and third choices are often well worth it at such events. My first choice at last years PNWA conference turned out to be not the best, but at least I could just get up and wander into another session which did end up bringing a pleasant surprise.

    March 25, 2015
    Reply
    • Donna Janke said:

      Jeri, sometimes we need to be open to what might not be our first choice in events like these. As you said, we could be in for a pleasant surprise.

      March 25, 2015
      Reply
  13. It sounds like a pretty amazing festival though to be honest I get overwhelmed by the crowds at these events now. But I would think definitely check out the program before you go otherwise you waste valuable time while there.

    March 25, 2015
    Reply
    • Donna Janke said:

      I didn’t want to waste any time there so I wen in prepared. Although a bit overwhelming at first, the crowds turned out not to be too difficult to deal with.

      March 25, 2015
      Reply
  14. Pamela Chollet said:

    Donna, the University of Arizona, is my Alma mater! It looks exactly the same since I attended back in the “Flintstone Days”. I attended a songwriters festival in Louisville that was amazing because of the direct contact with writers. So I can imagine how thrilling, although hot, this must have been for you. I remember deplaning in Tucson for the first time and feeling that sun I had never felt heat like that in my life. Believe it or nor, as Freshmen we used to go to the rooftop of the dorm, smear baby oil on and bake in that sun for hours! God what were we thinking?

    March 25, 2015
    Reply
    • Donna Janke said:

      Pamela, you certainly went to school on a beautiful campus. It is amazing how our attitude and behaviour to the sun has changed.

      March 25, 2015
      Reply
  15. Oh, my stars! We have a number of similar events here in Toronto – one is called “Word on the Street” and there are always so many attractions. Like the Arizona festival, this is totally volunteer-run. There are readings, seminars, meet-and-greets, and of course, books and magazines and you name it for sale. Your tips are right on! Organization and pre-planning is key, as are comfy shoes, water and snacks. We cannot live on books alone: ))

    March 25, 2015
    Reply
    • Donna Janke said:

      Krystyna, I can’t believe I’ve not heard of Word on the Street before. I looked it up and saw that it is held in several Canadian cities (unfortunately not my home in Winnipeg). Now I want to get to one of the festivals.

      March 25, 2015
      Reply
  16. Meredith said:

    I’m putting this one on my bucket list! Anything with “festival of books” in the title has my attention. I can see how it would be overwhelming, and you’d hate to miss something. I’m glad to have your advice for whenever I can make it to one of these.

    March 25, 2015
    Reply
    • Donna Janke said:

      Meredith, I hope you get to this item on your bucket list. I’m sure you’d enjoy it.

      March 25, 2015
      Reply
  17. Anna Khan said:

    First of all Congratulations for the website.

    Recently I have attended International book Festival and it was a great experience to see a lot of books and the best thing was, prices were very reasonable. The difference I feel is that, it was an indoor event.

    I hope to hear from you about the difference between Blogspot and WordPress and which you feel better.

    March 27, 2015
    Reply
    • Donna Janke said:

      Thanks Anna. Indoor or outdoor, these festivals are great. By the way, I am finding WordPress is a lot harder to learn than Blogspot. I have more options with WordPress, but that also comes with a lot more things to worry about.

      March 30, 2015
      Reply
  18. Tim said:

    I used to attend the big book fair in Chicago every year and although there was rarely the blue sky or palm trees you have here it was definitely a fun day.

    March 27, 2015
    Reply
    • Donna Janke said:

      Tim, I don’t think I’d care how blue the skies were – it was a fun festival. Although running from venue to venue in the rain or cold would not have been fun.

      March 30, 2015
      Reply

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