Woodstock for writers. South by Southwest for scribes. Comic-Con for wordsmiths. AWP Conference & Bookfair, the annual gathering of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, has been likened to a host of cultural touchstones in its 50-year history.
Technically, the celebration of all things creative writing, which took place March 8-11 at the Seattle Convention Center, is a place for literati to meet favorite authors, buy books from indie publishers and attend panels on anything from climate novels to Muslim characters in modern literature. It’s also an opportunity for authors to rub elbows — and drink a glass or two — with publishers and agents.
But if you ask Seattle writer Sonora Jha to describe the latest edition of AWP, she brings up Disneyland. “[It’s] a carnival for the mind, complete with too many attractions … bad food and beverage decisions and a bleary-eyed departure filled with triumphs and regrets,” Jha wrote in an email shortly after the event, in which she sat on four panels and read from her third book, the Seattle-set novel “The Laughter.”
The yearly book bonanza, which travels to a different city each year, was also an economic boon to the city — and an example of the kind of financial and cultural impact such conventions can have. During its four-day run, roughly 9,000 visitors (most of whom traveled from out of state) fanned out over the brand-new convention center and the city to sample more than 300 on-site and 250 off-site events at various bars, restaurants, bookstores and cultural venues.
Visit Seattle, the city’s nonprofit tourism marketing group, said more than 5,500 hotel rooms were booked throughout the event and estimates the total economic impact of the conference to be at least $15 million (based on the number of people per hotel room, length of stay and other factors).
These kinds of high-traffic events are “particularly impactful for our hospitality and dining communities outside of the summer high season,” said Kelly Saling, senior vice president and chief sales officer of Visit Seattle.
That’s true as well for indie bookstores, publishers, authors, small arts-forward venues and nonprofits, who were suddenly faced with a surge of new visitors, fans and customers eager to get new books signed and display their #bookhauls on social media.
“My hand is still cramping from all the signing,” Derek Sheffield, co-editor of the mixed-genre anthology “Cascadia Field Guide: Art, Ecology, Poetry,” said shortly after the fair. “I’ve never experienced anything like it!” Sheffield said more than 200 copies of the guide, published by Seattle’s Mountaineers Books, were sold during the event.
On the first day of the convention, Seattle poet Gabrielle Bates sold out of copies of her gripping debut poetry collection, “Judas Goat,” at the Brooklyn Poets booth (perhaps propelled by a recent, positive New York Times review). By the weekend’s end, nearly 100 copies had found a new home, Bates said — a notable bump for a debut poetry book.
“People are so much more likely to buy a book if the author is right there in front of them,” Bates wrote in an email. “Maybe it’s guilt, maybe it’s excitement, maybe it’s the opportunity to get the book personally signed — but whatever it is, it’s definitely making AWP feel ‘worth it’ from the standpoint of connecting with readers! … Sure, one probably isn’t going to be able to pay their rent with poetry book sales, but passionate readerships are out there, and each enthusiastic reader feels like a huge gift.”
Robert Sindelar, managing partner of Seattle’s minichain Third Place Books, also experienced the power of the in-person factor. As the official bookstore of this AWP conference, Third Place Books had (literally) set up shop at the convention center, with wood shelves, leather chairs and all.
“For some authors, we sold 20 or 30 copies [at AWP] while we sell one book a month in the store,” Sindelar said, noting that the three days at AWP were the equivalent of an “extremely strong” weekend at Third Place Books’ largest store in Lake Forest Park (even when accounting for costs like staffing and transport).
It wasn’t just booksellers present at the fair who fared well: foot traffic and sales at indie bookstores far exceeded a typical weekend this time of year, multiple bookstores said.
Phil Bevis, owner of Pioneer Square bookstore Arundel Books, said the store’s revenue increased by roughly 400% during the span of the fair, compared with a similar AWP-less time frame in March. Those are sales levels normally not seen outside of the holiday season or Independent Bookstore Day, he said.
Elliott Bay Book Company’s co-owner Tracy Taylor said February and March are usually slow months business-wise, but that the convention brought foot traffic and revenue comparable with a mid-December weekend, “which is the high point of the year for any retail [store].”
And, Taylor notes, it’s not just booksellers seeing an uptick. During the weekend, she noticed the throngs of curious bookworms who had made their way up from the convention center to Capitol Hill and spilled over into neighboring businesses like food and drink establishments Oddfellows, Lost Lake and Barboza (the venue for a literary “hangout” featuring rounds of “drunk spelling bee” and “trivia about bad writing,” hosted by bestselling novelist Rebecca Makkai). “It’s clearly an economic boon for everyone,” Taylor said.
Diana Adams, of nearby Capitol Hill bar and gallery Vermillion, agreed. “These crowds drink a lot!” — including nonalcoholic drinks, she said. “Every venue around us was at capacity. It was impressive how many people came up from the convention center to Cap Hill.”
Vermillion’s neighbor, Queer/Bar, also benefited from the surge. Queer/Bar owner Joey Burgess (who now also co-owns Elliott Bay Book Company) expected maybe a few dozen people to show up for a reading of Sapphic poetry in the venue’s upstairs “mini/bar.” In the end, 200 did. “It was this amazing community of people that came together for this Sapphic-centric poetry and it was lovely,” Burgess said. “And then everyone stayed and enjoyed one of our regular-program shows, a monthly show called Bronze Babez — that’s a POC-focused burlesque night … It was just a queer art spectacle, on a Wednesday night.”
This new “flood” of people, Burgess said, brings more tips for the performers and more drink and entry ticket sales. But, more importantly, “it brought exposure and brought community together.”
Robynne Hawthorne, co-owner of The Rabbit Box, a small theater and bistro tucked away in Pike Place Market, said that while the jump in revenue is welcome, the true payoff was the exposure AWP brought. “It put The Rabbit Box on the map to forward our literary involvement in Seattle for poets and writers.”
It’s this more immeasurable effect that booksellers, authors and businesses stressed: that the AWP effect ripples far beyond just the dollar amount.
“The true benefits are not quantifiable,” Jha, the Seattle author, said. “Meeting authors from across the country, feeling a shared sense of purpose, being inspired by the stories they told on panels — of the solitary struggles of writing and of the triumphs — the lessons in craft, all these on such a massive scale, definitely feed the soul and feed the writing.”
For Copper Canyon Press, AWP was a good weekend, even if the Port Townsend-based independent poetry publisher did not make a profit. The small nonprofit press sold nearly 2,000 books, said Copper Canyon’s publicist Ryo Yamaguchi, but renting a booth can set an exhibitor back around $1,000, he noted. Exhibitors also have to factor in costs for transport and staff.
But it was still worthwhile, Yamaguchi said: The real value of AWP lies in the opportunity to connect with readers, authors, librarians, critics and booksellers. In just three days, Yamaguchi was able to talk to — and in some cases, give review copies to — representatives of the Academy of American Poets and Publishers Weekly, and reviewers from NPR, The Paris Review and The New York Times, “making the conference a de facto week of publicity calls,” Yamaguchi noted.
And it’s not just exposure for authors, small presses and nonprofits, said Arundel’s Bevis. To him, AWP is a chance for Seattle (a UNESCO City of Literature) to flex its literary and artistic muscles and show that things do happen outside of the East Coast publishing bubble.
This will benefit the city’s literary scene (and economy) going forward, Bevis said, by showing publishing companies that the city has the infrastructure and audience to make it worthwhile for publishers to send authors on book tours here; creating literary connections across state lines; and exposing academics, publishers and bookstores across the nation to local talent.
“It’s more than the register, it’s more than foot traffic,” Bevis said. “It’s people from everywhere — Edinburgh, Toronto, every part of this country, Latin America … visiting Seattle, the bookstores and the restaurants and the music, and saying: ‘This is a place I want to come back to.’”
This story has been updated to reflect that Tracy Taylor is no longer general manager at Elliott Bay Book Company; she is still a co-owner there.
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