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Mississippi’s Literary Lawn Party...

Mississippi’s Literary Lawn Party returns to the State Capitol

By: Susan Marquez - August 1, 2023

The annual Mississippi Book Festival will be held on August 19, 2023, from 9am to 5pm. 

Those who write books and those who love to read them will gather once again this August on the grounds of the Mississippi State Capitol Building in Jackson for what has been dubbed a literary lawn party. The annual Mississippi Book Festival will be held on August 19 from 9am to 5pm. 

The book festival is the brainchild of a group of book enthusiasts who were concerned that Mississippi, a state with more writers per capita than anywhere in the country, was lacking a book festival. The group gathered in 2013, determined to correct that issue.

Malcolm White, who was director of the Mississippi Arts Commission at the time, Steve Yates with University Press of Mississippi, Jere Nash among others met in the atrium of Banner Hall to figure out what they could do to present a book festival that Mississippians could be proud of. When it came time to hire a director, they were told if they wanted to get something done, they should hire Holly Lange, and they did. Holly had a history of successful event planning and management. The Austin, Texas native had lived in Jackson for many years, so she knew the area and its people well. She also had the Texas Book Festival, held on the state Capitol grounds in Austin for 25 years, as a frame of reference.

Holly knew just what to do. Book festival directors from around the country were contacted to get their input on what makes for a successful book festival. One of the best pieces of advice came from Serenity Gerbman, director of The Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, who said that above all else, make sure the authors are happy.

“The writing community is small, and they communicate with each other,” says Ellen Daniels, the current executive director of the Mississippi Book Festival. “If word gets out that authors are treated well here, they’ll want to come back, and they’ll tell others who will want to come.”

The first Mississippi Book Festival kicked off in August 2015 with famed Mississippi author John Grisham as the headliner for the event.

“We had 2600 people come to an outdoor event in Mississippi in August,” says Ellen. The timing of the festival was one of the biggest questions she had when coming on board as director. 

“It’s the question people ask the most, and I wondered about it myself,” she said. “It is a very hot time of year in Jackson. But at the first board meeting I attended, it all made sense.”

The main two reasons were football followed closely by hunting.

“No one wants to compete with SEC football or hunting season,” says Ellen. “So that knocks out the fall.”

The second reason is that authors can only be in one place at a time.

“We are not in competition with any other book festival in the country. As a matter of fact, we follow a few large festivals, so we catch authors who are still on tour. It works out great all around for the festival to be held in August.”

While it is hot outside, there are plenty of activities indoors as well. The festival is held on the grounds of the Mississippi State Capitol Building, and inside the building panel discussions are held all day.

“Not only is this an opportunity for people to come listen to their favorite authors in air-conditioned comfort,” Ellen says, “It is an opportunity to see one of the most beautiful buildings in the state.”

As a matter of fact, the State Capitol Building is a very important location for the book festival.

“The people who work there are all very excited about it. They give us free reign and the legislators are huge supporters.”

Additional panel discussions are held across the street in Galloway Methodist Church.

“It sends a great message about Mississippi to have the buy-in of a downtown church and the statehouse,” says Ellen. “This is a community-focused event with something for everyone.”

As the festival has grown, more venues have been added.

“We now have eight panel venues, and we can do 48 panels in one day,” Ellen says. “We also have additional writing workshop rooms.”

Besides the festival being held in the heat of August, the second most common complaint is that there are so many great panels that people can’t possibly attend them all.

“That’s a positive problem to have.”

To be on a panel, an author must be discussing a book that has been published within the past year. However, authors are welcomed to apply to be in Author’s Alley, a long, tented area on the Capitol grounds where authors who have books too old to be considered for panels or who have been published on their own have an opportunity to participate in the festival. They can rent a table for a nominal fee and sell their books.

The festival is a huge tourism event for Mississippi, with an estimated forty percent of the audience coming from outside the state.

“Many of the authors have never been to Mississippi,” Ellen states. “They have a preconceived notion of what the state is all about – until they meet us. There is a magic and intimacy to the Mississippi Book Festival.”

Just as the festival was gaining speed and making a name for itself, a worldwide pandemic hit, and the decision was made early in 2020 to cancel that year’s festival. There were some virtual events, and that helped to keep the brand alive, and keep important partnerships going. The event was again canceled in 2021, but a podcast was established with Mississippi Public Broadcasting, and nearly thirty virtual Zoom sessions and fifteen additional podcasts were recorded.

Ellen came on board in September of 2021, so last year was her first festival as executive director. Prior to that, she had been with Lemuria bookstore for 13 years, and Fisher Galleries. She worked with the book festival as the literary director in 2019.

“I am a photographer, and I took head shots of the staff one year and I thought I should be working with these people. Not long after that, Holly invited me to coffee and asked if I’d like to join them. It was meant to be.”

Last year the festival generated $100,000 in book sales, and 6,400 people attended panel discussions.

“The day is just so much fun,” says Ellen. “From my point of view, I don’t even notice the heat. My adrenaline is pumping, and it just makes me feel good about the world. It’s awesome to see people come together over the common love of books.” 

About the Author(s)
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Susan Marquez

Susan Marquez serves as Magnolia Tribune's Culture Editor. Since 2001, Susan Marquez has been writing about people, places, spaces, events, music, businesses, food, and travel. The things that make life interesting. A prolific writer, Susan has written over 3,000 pieces for a wide variety of publications.