What happened to the Decatur Book Festival?

When the festival's board announced its decision to cancel the 2023 festival, it wasn’t a complete surprise. Here's what's going on.

AJC Decatur Book Festival

Photograph by TW Meyer

When the Decatur Book Festival launched back in 2006, founder Daren Wang remembers thinking that if 10,000 people attended, “we would have hit it out of the park.” More than four times as many showed up. “Somebody grabbed me, as I was rushing from one venue to the other, and said to me, ‘I didn’t know these people were here. This is my tribe,’” Wang says.

Over the next decade, the festival continued to grow, eventually drawing as many as 80,000 visitors across three days (usually Labor Day weekend). Famous authors such as Jericho Brown, Joyce Carol Oates, Natasha Trethewey, Roxane Gay, and Isabel Wilkerson packed venues around the Square. DBF became not just one of Decatur’s biggest events, but one of the largest independent book festivals in the country, featuring live music, children’s programming, and parades.

The agenda in 2021 and 2022 was less ambitious. And when the DBF board announced its decision to cancel the 2023 festival, it wasn’t a complete surprise. So what’s been going on over the last few years—and will the festival return?

What have been some of the festival’s challenges?
Initially, Wang says, the problem was getting the literary world to take Decatur seriously. “I remember one publicist saying to us, ‘Atlanta is not a book town, this isn’t going to work.’” He calls DBF’s first year the Rolodex episode: “Everybody that was working on the festival said, ‘Okay, well, I know whoever. I can give him a call and see if he’ll show up?’”

There were also some unforced errors in the festival’s early years: “We went to New York and started begging for writers,” Wang remembers. “They offered us this time-traveling-romance writer.” Festival organizers put her in a hundred-seat venue at a slow time, expecting poor turnout. The writer was Diana Gabaldon, author of the bestselling Outlander series, which later became a show on Starz. There were hundreds of people in the venue and waiting outside in the lobby, “yelling at me because we put this superstar in this slot,” Wang says, laughing. (Gabaldon graciously signed books for several hours afterward, says Wang. She would return to the festival and attract hundreds to the much larger Decatur Presbyterian Church.)

The looming problem was always funding. Wang was the executive director—“and the de facto development director”—for 11 years. “My Rolodex ran out after a couple of years.” (He stepped down in 2017, as fatigue started to set in. He also published his first novel that year.) When he was at the helm, Wang says, the organization wasn’t able to expand its funding base or get enough donations from attendees to make a difference. (The festival was free to attend.) “We had one anonymous donor in Decatur who every year would write us a $10,000 check. I still think of her as a saintlike figure because it would always show up and I would be like, Oh my God, this is just what I needed.”

Why cancel the festival now?
By most accounts, the trouble started—for this and every other live event—in 2020, when DBF celebrated its 15th anniversary virtually. Before the pandemic, tens of thousands of people would attend the festival each year to see more than 200 presenting authors; 900 or so volunteers were required to keep things moving across more than a dozen venues. The last two years’ festivals—2021 and 2022—on the other hand, were limited to fewer events over the course of a day. So the organization decided to cancel the 2023 festival altogether, promising to come back stronger next year.

According to Decaturish, Leslie Wingate—the vice president of DBF’s board of directors—posted on social media earlier this year (to quell rumors the event wouldn’t return) that the festival, which reportedly can take several hundred thousand dollars to produce, “is in the strongest financial shape it’s been in in a very long time.”

But the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which sponsored the festival during its heyday, reported in March that DBF’s sponsorships have dried up, and that it doesn’t have any full-time staffers or an executive director. (The last one stepped down in 2020.) Treasurer Adam Rosenkoetter told the paper it could take a year to secure sponsorships and rehire staff.

How might a revived festival be different from the original?
Wang says he’s not sure how he would stage the festival if he were organizing the event today. “In this political climate? Decatur is known as a bright blue dot in Georgia. That creates something of a target—and then it’s a book festival,” he says. “Culturally, we’re so wrapped up in this kind of point-scoring. In order to have the book festival be vibrant and open moving forward, you automatically make yourself vulnerable to conflict. People are angry, and they’re going to talk about things that make them angry.”

So what’s in store for next year?
The festival’s board declined requests for comment on what kinds of changes might be ahead and instead referenced its announcement from March of this year: “Our goal is to create a sustainable and thriving organization that will continue to bring the best in literature to our community for years to come. We appreciate your support and understanding during this time and look forward to coming back stronger than ever.”

When Wang considers what he as a fan hopes to see next year, he mentions the festival’s founding documents: “One of the central mandates is that we’re supposed to have fun,” he says. “I hope whatever it is, it’s fun.”

This article appears in our September 2023 issue.