A Bigger Than Ever Author Fest Goes Virtual

Number+of+Authors+attending+Trinity%27s+Author+Fest+since+it+began.+Social+media+and+an+online+format+have+helped+expand+the+audience.

Number of Authors attending Trinity’s Author Fest since it began. Social media and an online format have helped expand the audience.

Large, populated festivals with lots of interaction and travel haven’t exactly fared the best during COVID-19. But with Trinity’s 2021 Author Fest, held on February 5th, the convention is adapting, going virtual and finding new audiences.

Much like the writing process itself, the creators of the original Author Fest wanted to put a spin on previous conventions. English teacher Georgia Parker and librarian Reba Gordon had for years been taking students to YALLFest, the largest young adult book festival in the South. 

“We saw how inspired and excited our students were when they got to meet the authors in person, and we decided that we wanted to bring something like that to the students of Trinity,” Gordon said. 

The beginning of YALLFest and Author Fest can both be linked to a rise in young adult, or YA, fiction in the last 20 years. Books such as Harry Potter and the Percy Jackson series have struck a chord with readers young and old alike, and often offer an escape from more realistic settings.

“Stories reflect our own stories and our own life,” author J.C. Welker said.

Welker published her debut novel “The Wishing Heart” in 2017 and joined the Author Fest the next year. She’s one of over 44 authors now part of the festival.

“That’s one of the reasons I love fantasy, because it’s symbolic of a lot of things that we ourselves go through, just in different ways,” Welker said. “Whether it’s magic, or different things. We’re all the protagonist coming up against a greater evil.”

These discussions, both about other festivals and the popularity of YA, led to Trinity’s first Author Fest in 2016. With 11 Florida authors attending, the event included book signings, panels and meet-and-greets. It was an opportunity for students to meet some of their favorite authors, and for authors to see in-person the effect their writing had on people.

“Writing is such an isolating kind of work,” Welker said. “Because you’re doing it by yourself, you don’t really get to see how your words can affect somebody else, and that’s why festivals are so great.”

However, with COVID-19 putting a stop to large gatherings and festivals, the Author Fest is being forced to adapt. For the 2021 Author Fest, held on February 5th, the convention went virtual for greater accessibility and to fit within social distancing guidelines. Not only was this the first time the festival has focused on virtual access, but it’s also facing many of the unforeseen challenges and opportunities that accompanied the first efforts.

“It’s almost as if we’re doing the first Author Fest all over again, because there’s so many parts of it that we don’t know how to go into,” Gordon said. 

The virtual Author Fest will feature 20 pre-recorded author panels, similar to the in-person ones, published on the day of the event and available for viewing for roughly two weeks. It will also include seven live panels and even more keynote speakers, allowing students to get the same interactive experience they have in the past. 

This online format isn’t just out of necessity, however. Gordon said that the 2021 Author Fest had over 6,000 students take part, compared with just 1,000 from last year. A large part of that comes with the capability to participate from anywhere in the world. Partnerships with both local bookstores and advertising on social media has meant that the festival has a greater reach than ever before, and the increased flexibility given to students means that they are given the option to view as many panels as they want. 

Gordon is aware that some of this attendance has, in the past, been based on bonus points from teachers. But that

doesn’t take away from the goal or success of Author Fest. 

“We are fully aware that some of our attendance is because they want extra credit,” Gordon said. “However, we’ve had several students tell us that because they were forced to go, they discovered a new book genre or new author that they love, and all of a sudden they’re reading. It’s tied between wanting to inspire people to read versus also wanting to inspire people to follow their dreams and realize that they can achieve it.”