Interview: Serenity Gerbman–The Southern Festival of Books

The Southern Festival of Books is a large annual book festival that is celebrating its 33rd year in Nashville, Tennessee this year. Today on the blog, we’re sitting down with Festival Director Serenity Gerbman to learn more about how virtual events have transformed the literary event circuit, the secrets of running a successful book festival, and how authors can make the most of festivals and events.

Serenity Gerbman

1). What is The Southern Festival of Books?

The Festival is a celebration of reading and the written word, bringing together readers and writers both in person and online. Our mission is to engage readers of all ages and interests in the joy of reading and in lifelong education. It is entirely free to the public.

2). What is your role with the festival, and how did you get involved?

I am the Festival Director as part of my job as Director of Literature and Language Programs at Humanities Tennessee. My first career was in journalism, where I spent 10 years working for local newspapers. A good friend recommended me for a position at Humanities Tennessee, and my role there has evolved over time.

3). What challenges and new opportunities did the pandemic create for the festival, and how did you adapt?

Everything changed! Rather than our usual three-day Festival in person, we held a 10-day online Festival in 2020, and will hold a hybrid Festival of both online and in person events in 2021. The big challenge for us, like many, was in getting educated as a staff quickly in how to hold online events. We have an incredibly talented program officer, Patrick Shaffner, who guided us through that process and made the online Festival work seamlessly. The opportunity for us has been in seeing how successful online events can be. We are now partnering with a different library in the state every month for an online author event that they present. Many people can now attend these events who were limited before by time, distance, and finances.

4). What kind of planning and work goes into creating a book festival?

It’s a year-round process. Beginning in the winter months, we’re reviewing catalogs, meeting with publishers, reading forthcoming books, and thinking about programming that will be exciting and engaging for readers. Beginning in early spring, we meet regularly with our full events team on site logistics and preparation. As is probably true with all events, we do our best to attend to every tiny detail in advance, as preparation makes an event run smoothly. When the Festival begins, we go into event mode and handle and adjust to issues and changes as they happen.

5). What advice would you give to authors and aspiring writers to get “the most” out of a book festival, signing, and/or speaking events?

If you’re new and haven’t yet built an audience that knows you, be realistic in your expectations and remember that you are there because you’ve already accomplished something tremendous. Be courteous with your co-panelists and moderator. Watch your speaking time. And then, relax and let the audience see the passion that drove you to write your book. Readers are generous and curious souls.

6). Will you do the festival online again this year? Was attendance still pretty good at the online event?

We had really strong attendance for the online event last year, and we will be doing a hybrid event this year, with both online and in person programming. Although attendance at online events is dipping this spring as people experience screen fatigue and are able to go back out into the world, we think that online events have a lot of potential and will continue to be with us in some form or another. The in person dates for us are Oct. 9-10.

7). In your opinion, what does it mean to be a “successful” writer?

To me, a successful writer is anyone who has created the circumstances for themselves that allow them to keep writing. It is a difficult, solitary creative process. If you’re doing the work and are determined to keep getting better, you’re successful. Most people don’t get that far. Everything after that, from finding an agent to pitching to sales to bestseller lists to awards, is business.

Learn more about The Southern Festival of Books here:

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