By Jerry Waxler
When I was a teenager in Philadelphia in the early 60’s, I rode the subway to center city on weekends. My destination generally involved books. I regularly visited Leary’s Book Store, one of the oldest, largest used book stores in the country. Walking through the door way, peering reverentially at the shelves, I felt like I was entering a cathedral. Then I walked up the Parkway to the main branch of the Free Library, a palace of literary pleasure. After my 18th birthday, I moved west for my college and hippie years. When I returned to Pennsylvania, I moved to Bucks County and disengaged from the city.
In 2002 I became serious about improving my writing and began to look for classes and groups. I attended the Philadelphia Writers Conference, an annual event that attracts writers to Independence Mall. And I attended author appearances at the Free Library. But I thought it was just me who was discovering the city. When I picked up my first copy of Philadelphia Stories Journal a few years ago in the Doylestown Bookshop, I began to wonder if the city was regaining its place as a cultural center.
A regional focus for book people might seem to run against the tide, since most authors are looking for customers without borders, hoping to capture attention from some of the hundreds of millions of people who cruise the internet. But I’ve begun to wonder if we have become so global we have forgotten the “acres of diamonds in our own back yard,” an expression made famous by the founder of Philadelphia’s Temple University. With so many writers and readers gathered in this area, perhaps we’re missing opportunities to help each other grow.
According to marketing guru Chris Anderson, the internet could play a crucial role in such a regional niche. In his book “The Long Tail” Anderson spells out a revolution in the way sales can now be directed in all sorts of imaginative ways. Taking advantage of this idea, we could be celebrating and promoting our community of book people with more reviews and opportunities for authors to reach readers. We could turn the Philadelphia area into a launching pad, an incubator in which we nurture our collective creative passion.
With publishers cutting their marketing budgets to the vanishing point, it’s not surprising that many author appearances are locals. For example, a group of local writers has created the Philly Liars Club to host book signing parties at bookstores, sometimes with a dozen authors swarming to create a critical mass for readers who want to meet writers.
And what about publishers? The first time I thought of regional publishing was in the 1980’s when a friend from Seattle told me about a group of mystery writers who had developed a Seattle writing scene. The second time I thought of it was when I met author Susan Muaddi Darraj at a Philadelphia Stories writers conference. The protagonists in her book of short stories, “The Inheritance of Exile,” grew up in south Philadelphia. One character walked across the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. I knew the exact location. Muaddi Darraj was giving me a regional buzz. Philadelphia Stories, in addition to publishing a literary journal and running conferences, also has a book division that recently published “Broad Street,” by Christine Weiser. The protagonist of the novel plays in a band in Philadelphia.
And nonfiction books present another area of opportunity. If you are writing a memoir about a region, it might make sense to sell your memoir to your community. The same is true for authors who are advocating for local causes and looking for volunteers or donors, or who offer a service and are looking for clients.
I’m not sure how to turn this speculation into a reality, but I suspect such a community might already exist, and I just don’t know about it. Perhaps all we need to do is gather the information and use the internet to band together, sharing regional buzz to develop our writing, publishing, and reading community.
What do you think? What have you done or seen that brings regional writers together with readers? Please leave your own comments about how a regional focus has or could work for you.
Jerry Waxler is Vice President of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and a memoir teacher. He blogs at www.memorywritersnetwork.com/blog.