In changing publishing world, Miami Book Fair celebrates old-fashioned tech and face time with writers

November 21, 2014 at 6:20 PM EDT
More than 30 years ago, a festival was launched to bring prominent writers to an audience of avid readers in downtown Miami in order to help revitalize the neighborhood. Now it's said to be America's largest literary event of its kind: eight days, more than 600 authors and a quarter-million bibliophiles. Jeffrey Brown reports on how authors see the festival as part of a changing book world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: the end of books?

Well, not in Miami, and certainly not this week.

Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s part street festival, part excuse to enjoy that it’s 70 degrees in Miami while blizzards blanket other parts of the country, and all celebration of that old-fashioned, hold-it-in-your hand technology, the book.

The Miami Book Fair International is said to be the largest literary event of its kind in the nation, an eight-day affair that attracts some 250,000 book lovers and more than 600 authors to the downtown campus of Miami-Dade College. But people weren’t exactly flocking downtown 31 years ago, when it all began.

EDUARDO PADRÓN, President, Miami Dade College: There was very little activity, commercial and otherwise.

JEFFREY BROWN: I have seen you describe it as a scary place.

EDUARDO PADRON: A very, very scary place, and people wouldn’t want to come downtown.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eduardo Padron is the president of Miami-Dade College and a co-founder of the book fair.

Today, this urban campus is part of a hugely diverse institution. It enrolls more than 160,000 students.

WOMAN: Violence erupted again.

JEFFREY BROWN: But in the early 1980s, this area was home to crime and drugs. Riots had devastated parts of Miami, and “TIME” magazine asked if the region was America’s paradise lost. Padron, though, saw an opportunity.

EDUARDO PADRON: I’m an avid reader, but it wasn’t my main motivation, if I’m going to be honest with you. It was to do something to bring people downtown, and have a good time and feel at ease in downtown. It was important for the city. It was important for the college.

JEFFREY BROWN: One requirement, of course, the people who write the books, the authors who give readings and are the stars of the affair. The first year, that included two young local writers who would go on to literary fame, one of them Dave Barry.

DAVE BARRY, Author: I had a — some little humor book, and they set up a card table for me. I didn’t go do a big indoor thing. Card table out on the main street there. I think it’s Second Street.


DAVE BARRY: And my card table was on one side. Directly across from me was Carl Hiaasen with his cart.



DAVE BARRY: So he sat behind a little pile of his books, and I sat behind a little pile of my books. And, you know, every now and then, somebody would come by and — and buy a book.

MITCHELL KAPLAN, Books & Books: And this is a book that’s being talked about.


The fair’s other godfather was Mitchell Kaplan, then the young owner of a fledgling bookstore called Books & Books. He recalls having to overcome the city’s reputation.

MITCHELL KAPLAN: When I would ask for an author in the early days, it was often, the publisher would often say, well, you know, we have this new nonprescription drug book out.


MITCHELL KAPLAN: We’d be happy to send that author down. And I go, no, no, no, you don’t understand. I want Richard Ford, or I want Russell Banks. I want somebody who really is going to have some sway down here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ford and Banks eventually did come and kept coming. They’re both here this year with other leading literary lights such as Joyce Carol Oates and Ann Patchett, and hundreds of other writers in all genres and styles, with a major emphasis on writing in Spanish.

Today, the fair is supported by numerous local and national foundations and corporations. As the fair has grown, so has the city and its cultural life and, says Michael Spring, head of the Miami-Dade Office of Cultural Affairs, there’s a direct connection.

MICHAEL SPRING, Director, Miami-Dade Office of Cultural Affairs: The book fair sort of instilled in Miami a certain confidence about itself, that we could aspire to things like an international literary event here, and not just be credible, but be incredibly successful in doing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: If hundreds of thousands of locals would attend a book fair, that is, then why not a concert or the ballet? And just the last decade has seen the opening of the Arsht Performing Arts Center, several new museums, more on the rise.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT, Novelist: Every third Friday, there’s something called Big Night in Little Haiti.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the Little Haiti Cultural Center, acclaimed novelist Edwidge Danticat told us part of Miami’s cultural energy comes from its immigrant population.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: This is where a lot of people land, whether they come by boat — and a lot of people do come by boat — or whether they come by plane. It’s a lot of people’s first homes. So that brings with it a lot of voices, but also a lot of voices — how the voices merge, how they interact, how they don’t interact. And that’s always exciting for literature.

JEFFREY BROWN: The fair this year featured an evening of Haitian music, along with authors and publishers from around the globe. Most of all, though, Danticat says, it allows passionate readers, herself included, to rub shoulders with authors they love.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Sometimes, it feels like a religious experience, because it’s people wait in really long lines to get in to see the writers, and it’s really one of those opportunities, also to have an exchange, I think, with the rest of the literary culture of the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, all this is happening at a time when the main narrative about books is that, well, they’re dying, aren’t they?

MITCHELL KAPLAN: Books are alive and well. I can absolutely say that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mitchell Kaplan will have none of it. He thinks independent bookstores like his — he now has three — have learned not only to survive, but in some cases to thrive, even in the world of e-books.

MITCHELL KAPLAN: Most people who are readers read in a lot of different formats, and the preferred format seems to be the physical book.

JEFFREY BROWN: The actual book lives.

MITCHELL KAPLAN: The actual book. It’s a pretty perfect — if you think about it, the physical book is a fairly perfect little machine without a plug.

DAVE BARRY: We don’t think that much. Men don’t..


DAVE BARRY: We’re just — like, if you were to look at the brains of men, like men in this audience right now, lot of them are just going, hmm.


JEFFREY BROWN: That doesn’t mean all is rosy in the book world. And even successful authors like Dave Barry have to find new ways to gin up sales. At this year’s book fair, he bantered and joked on stage with author Sandra Tsing Loh before an appreciative audience.

DAVE BARRY: Selling your book is — turns out to be as important and lately more important than whatever the book is.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you see yourself as, what, part writer and part performer?

DAVE BARRY: I would say, in my case, more performer.


DAVE BARRY: Because, you know, you write the — honestly, see, it feels like you spend more time in the end talking about your book than writing, than actually writing your book. I don’t — I don’t think that’s the way Marcel Proust did it, but I think that’s the way I do it, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Proust, Barry pointed out to me, didn’t make it to this year’s fair, but thousands of others did.

I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour” in Miami.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can hear from some of the authors themselves. We’re live-streaming events all weekend from the Miami Book Fair. Those details are on Art Beat on our Web site.