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Read on, St. Pete: Amended literary festival begins Thursday

Bill DeYoung



"A Time For Mercy" is John Grisham's 42nd published novel. Photo: Doubleday

For its 28th go-round, the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading will look, sound and feel nothing like festivals of the past. It’s virtually an entirely new literary event.

Virtually is the key word here.

The 2020 Festival of Reading occurs entirely online; video interviews with more than 40 authors have been recorded, and will be made available – for free – starting Thursday (Nov. 12). Between Thursday and Saturday, there are four “live” video interviews which require pre-registration.

This Covid-caused interruption in gathering, according to longtime coordinator Colette Bancroft, has affected book festivals and author events across the country. “Book tours have been halted since March,” explained Bancroft, the newspaper’s books editor. “So there’s no in-person anything. It’s completely changed that author/reader interaction to virtual for the time being.”

Not that public interest in books has suffered. Quite the contrary. According to NPD BookScan, which tracks publishing industry trends, print sales rose 6.4% for the nine months ended Oct. 3 over the comparable period in 2019.

While fans won’t be able to see and hear their favorite authors speaking in person, there are, Bancroft insisted, advantages to the taped-interview situation. “You could sit in front of your computer screen and watch virtual events with authors 24 hours a day.”

Colette Bancroft

For Bancroft, too, there have been some pleasant surprises. “I got people I’ve wanted for years because of the ease of them doing a Zoom interview, as opposed to them spending two travel days, plus a day at the festival,” she said.

Near the top of the list: John Grisham, who talks about his latest bestseller, A Time For Mercy.

“He does very few book events – he sells so many books, he doesn’t have to,” Bancroft said. “Normally he does very few events, and then goes for long stretches without doing any.

“This year, doing virtual is easier than getting on a plane. And he and I talked about this in the interview, he’s done more for his new book, these virtual events, many more than he would do in terms of an in-the-flesh book tour.”

Thursday’s “live” interview will be with James Lee Burke, the Edgar Award-winning mystery writer who lives in a remote region of Montana.

“I’m a big fan of Burke’s, and I’ve always wanted him at my festival,” Bancroft explained. “But he stopped doing book tours years ago. And this year he has a new book out – he has a new publisher, too – and he has done a number of virtual events. And it’s the first time a lot of his fans have been able to see him, on screen if not in person, and be interviewed and that sort of thing.”

Others in the pre-recorded interview series include bestsellers Carl Hiaasen, Michael Connelly, Tim Dorsey, Laura Lippman, James Swain, Gregory Maguire, Lisa Unger, Barbara Kingsolver and Sarah Gerard.

The live schedule also includes interviews with Politifact (Friday), Mary Kay Andrews and Kristin Harmel (Saturday morning) and Colson Whitehead (Saturday afternoon). These will also be recorded and made available on the Festival of Reading website.

Virtual and visceral are, of course, two very different things, and along with the absence of the up-close-and-personal comes the loss of the marketplace, where physical book are held – and yes, smelled – and fussed over, and bought and autographed.

“People can buy festival books through the website, through the USF St. Pete Book Store, which has handled festival book sales for years,” Bancroft said. “They do have a limited number of signed books from many of the authors.”

It’s not perfect, but it’s what we’ve got.

“I hope next year we’re back at USF St. Pete,” said Bancroft, “and we’re all strolling around saying hello to each other – but we don’t know.”

WATCH: Colette Bancroft on The Catalyst Sessions, July 21, 2020

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