Q&A with Savannah Book Festival leader: Happy to bring 'labor of love' back to Savannah

The annual spring descent to Telfair Square happens this week as the 2023 Savannah Book Festival (SBF) welcomes authors and book lovers to a weekend of literature appreciation.

Kicking off Thursday with "In the Blood" author Jack Carr followed by a keynote address from "The Cabinet of Dr. Leng" authors Preston & Child, the festival comes to a fever pitch on Saturday with the annual Festival Saturday event in Telfair Square with a variety of authors speaking at venues around the square and book singings happening throughout.

In her first year in the executive director post, Tara Setter is thrilled to finally get to festival weekend, calling the process up to this point a "Herculean task" that she, the SBF staff and board of directors have made work seamlessly.

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"I call it a labor of love," she said. "Because our community is so appreciative of what we do in helping to spread arts and culture in our community. A love of reading, the art of writing and the process of civil conversation is really what drives us and it really is an honor to be able to pull it off, but the people enjoy what we do."

Setter sat down with the Savannah Morning News to speak to this year's festival, her first year in the executive director's post and the work being done by Savannah Book Festival's education and community outreach programs.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Shoppers browse the book tent during a previous Savannah Book Festival.
Shoppers browse the book tent during a previous Savannah Book Festival.

SMN: It's your first year in the executive director chair. You've been with SBF since 2019, but what was it like to take over the lead role this year?

Tara Setter: "It was very overwhelming, but I will give credit to my predecessor. I was hired by a gal by the name of Kim Bockius-Suwyn, and she came in and created an enormous amount of structure to the book festival and created a wonderful pathway for us to follow.

"It's been wonderful because there was an incredible foundation laid and how this book festival is run, and how it grew up to 10,000 people, we probably won't look to grow the book festival any larger than it currently is; what we will do from here on is work to continuously improve the quality of the program. We think we're a great sized program for Savannah, we are an incredibly well-respected book festival in the industry; we are one of the highest-regarded invitation-only book festivals by publishers, and by writers, and one of the things that gives us that shining reputation is the experience that the authors have while they're here. They will tell you that it's just incredible opportunity."

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SMN: Festival Saturday generally stands out for locals, and I'm sure authors as well. What have y'all heard from authors and publishers about that experience?

Setter: "We do have a little bit of research that says about 30% of the people that are at the festival are tourists that have come to the city specifically for the book festival. And anecdotally, I'll run across people every weekend in the square, that will tell me, 'I'm from New York City, I've been coming for five years, it's a great book festival.' So that atmosphere that we have built around Telfair Square, creating that festival atmosphere with the food trucks, and the book sale tents and the author signing.

SMN: I'm sure the walkability of the day also plays a factor into people really responding to Festival Saturday.

Setter: "It's a beautiful layout for a book festival. Thanks to our sponsors, we're able to bring 43 nationally-recognized award winning authors this year (that are) free to our community. And to your point, you just walk in, and sit down, I liken it to the Smithsonian expense experience in the National Mall. I mean, there's nothing better on a beautiful Sunday to walk down the National Mall, you pop into the art gallery, and there's a symphony playing in there. I really do equate this with that because we've got Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, we have debut authors, and you can just walk in an experience (and catch) an incredible conversation with an author.

Shown is Savannah Book Festival Children's Tent in this file photo.
Shown is Savannah Book Festival Children's Tent in this file photo.

"(Now), one of the complaints we get (each year) is, 'I want to get my book signed and when I'm getting my book signed, I'm missing out on the next presentation because the clock just doesn't work that way.' But actually, this year, we're trying something new. E, Shaver, Bookseller has offered a concierge service so if an attendee really wants to get that book signed, but isn't as isn't as interested in the interaction with the author, they can go through E. Shaver, Bookseller, and they will get the book signed for them, so they don't miss out on another session."

SMN: SBF at Schools is continuing this year. What is that experience like for authors to get that one-on-one time with the children?

Setter: "The authors will say that it was their favorite part of the festival. The author's excitement coming out of there is just palpable. For example, last year, we had a gentleman by the name of Douglas Wolk, who wrote a book called 'All the Marvels.' He apparently is one of the few people on this planet that has read all 27,000 Marvel Comics, and then wrote a book about it, and it's interconnectivity to the world. But to have this gentleman walk into a classroom with the kids and engage with (them) about what (his) career is; I'm making a living off of writing books about comic books. It's just an incredible experience and the one-on-one time that they get to talk with the kids and see the spark in the kids as they're talking about the process of writing, and the process of researching a book.

"We frequently have authors reach out to us and say, 'Hey, I'll come back next year and do just the SBF at Schools. You don't even have to have me at the festival. It was such a wonderful experience.'"

Readers browse for books at the Savannah Book Festival.
Readers browse for books at the Savannah Book Festival.

SMN: You're also expanding that to First City Pride Center and Hunter Army Airfield this year. What can folks expect with those events?

Setter: "We're really excited this year about expanding it into the community. Usually, it's exclusively the schools, but we were fortunate enough this year to have the opportunity to have two of our military writers, one fiction and one nonfiction, going out to hunter to the Ranger Battalion, and then two of our authors, going out to the First City Pride Center to speak with those communities. So that's sort of a goal for us going forward is how can we bring it more into the community in addition to the schools."

The Savannah Book Festival starts on Thursday and runs through Sunday. For more information, and tickets to the headline events, visit savannahbookfestival.org.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: 2023 Savannah Book Festival: Leader talks this year's festival