Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Aunt Agatha's Robin Agnew — and a Day in the Life of the Kerrytown BookFest

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Today I'm delighted to introduce Robin Agnew and Jamie Agnew of Aunt Agatha's New and Used Mysteries, Detection, & True Crime, an absolutely wonderful bookshop (not to mention the 2014 Raven Award winner) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was privileged to meet Robin and Jamie at the KerryTown Book Festival this past fall, an annual gathering of book aficionados, which Robin plans and runs in her role as president.

As an author speaking on a panel and signing with fellow authors and meeting readers, everything at the KerryTown Book Fest was absolutely perfect. Only Robin and Jamie know what really goes on behind the scenes to make such a large and complex (not to mention fun!) event run so smoothly, and I thought it would be interesting to peek behind the scenes with Robin — take it away!

ROBIN AGNEW: Along with running Aunt Agatha’s, I have been involved in running and planning Ann Arbor’s annual Kerrytown BookFest, since 2004.  Through the years of the bookfest I have served as “author wrangler” (my original job), secretary, operations chair, vice president, and I have now served as president for the past couple of years.  

As we are a small, hands on board, and we share duties including obtaining permits from the city, renting equipment, finding a hotel with available rooms during busy football weekends, PR, fundraising, grant writing, finding volunteers, signing up 100 or so vendors each year, poster commission and distribution, programming, set up, tear down, and making sure all parties involved are pleased.  Authors, exhibitors, bookfest visitors - we want everyone to have a great day.

Luckily, a capable board means that while I am part of the discussion of all these things I am not part of the nuts and bolts for all of them.  My central focus is on author programming.  Each year I start with a “seed” – an author I’ve spoken with or met, often at a book signing at the store or at a conference – and from there, the planning begins to grow organically.

Last year my “seed” author was Simone St. James.  I had moderated a panel with her at Bouchercon and was delighted by her.   We actually had two seeds last year, as the year before we had hoped to book Chris Raschka, a two time Caldecott medalist with ties to Ann Arbor, and he was unavailable.  In 2014 he was available so our marquis panel became a panel with 3 Caldecott medalists - Chris, Brian Floca, who won in 2014; and Erin Stead and her husband, Philip.  Erin won in 2011.  

Moderating is tricky, as tricky, I’ve discovered, as the rest of the panel.  For this one I turned to Debbie Diesen, author of the “Pout Pout Fish” books, and asked her.  She’s presented at many of our bookfests in our Children’s area, she’s adorable, and she said yes right away.

And what of Simone’s panel?  I asked her at Bouchercon and she agreed, and then it took a couple more months to hear back as she figured out her schedule.  Meanwhile, I went to the board and said I *really* wanted Susan Elia MacNeal.

Who else?  I asked Tasha Alexander, who lives in Chicago, is beloved by readers, and who has been to he bookfest and the store many times.   She said yes.  And then I read The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig and loved it so much I asked her.  She said yes in an eyeblink and was possibly the lowest maintenance author of the entire day.  

Who to moderate?  I wanted Anna Lee Huber, who lives close-ish, but knew she had a baby on the way.  To my surprise she also agreed and one of the joys of bookfest last year was that many of these women, while fans of each other’s, hadn’t met.  

OK, easy panel out of the way.  What next?  I often do a  
“guy” and a “girl” panel as far as mysteries go (sexist but true) and  the basis for the guy panel was Michael Harvey.  He’d been to the store  and I was so entranced by him I asked him on the spot.  He agreed and I built the panel around him, which eventually included Edgar winner Theresa Schwegel; newbie and local author Elizabeth Heiter, and frequent bookfest speaker and buddy, Loren D. Estleman.  I asked an old friend and mystery fan to moderate and he was on board immediately.  He couldn’t believe all those writers were going to be in the same place, and I have to say, that’s my programming goal in general. So mystery panels set.  

What else?  We often use the Michigan Notable Book Winners list as a template and one of the first people off the list all of us wanted was Matt Phelan, whose book, Bluffton. was a Notable winner.  We built a graphic novel panel around him, eventually including Jim Ottaviani, Dave Coverly of Speedbump fame (Dave and Jim are both local and had been with us before). At the last minute I substituted in Matt Faulkner when another author had to cancel.  As it happened, I had heard Matt on NPR talking about his book Gaijin: American Prisoner of War, and had dreamed of booking him.

Moderator? Knowing he was a comic book geek,  I asked local NPR talent Michael Jewett. Luckily I know his wife, a former bookseller and a mystery fan - she made him agree, and he was fabulous.

The rest of the festival - ten panels, a children’s area, and a book arts specific area - are programmed in a similar way, using the expertise and connections of my fellow programmers; Lynn Riehl, an events coordinator at a large independent bookstore in town (Nicola’s) and my buddy. PR maven Bill Castanier, who has connections all over the state.

Each of us get wild hairs, are approached by authors we know with ARCs, run into people at parties or conferences, and before we know it we’ve programmed the day.  I was happy to include newbie mystery author Sam Thomas as a moderator on an historical biography panel, for example.  Another example: having drinks with Tim O’Mara after the Edgars in May, he suggested being a “writer in residence” at the store for the day.  We transferred his idea to the bookfest and Tim was booked all day talking to would be writers.

The day of the festival (this coming year September 13, 2015) we welcome about 4,000 visitors with our panels being vigorously attended.  For me the day passes in a flash as I run around trying to make sure everything goes smoothly, along with selling books.  Thankfully we divide bookselling duties - several stores share out the panels.

Then I go home exhausted at the end of the day and somehow, start to think about the next year.  This coming year my “seed” is Denise Swanson.  Tune in and see who joins her!

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Robin, thank you so much for giving us a look backstage! What else can you tell us about the 2015 KerryTown Book Fest? 

Readers, have you ever been to a book festival? Are you surprised by how much work goes on behind the scenes to pull such a complicated event off? Please let us know in the comments!

Aunt Agatha’s

213 South Fourth Avenue

Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104

Hours of Business:
Monday - Thursday 11-7

Friday & Saturday 11-8

Sunday 12-5


  1. The Book Festival sounds amazing and wonderful!
    I don't think anyone has a real feel for how much work is involved in putting together this sort of program unless they've been involved in such a venture themselves. The greatest thrill is when everything comes together and appears seamless to the participants; there's a wonderful sense of accomplishment after all the work that went into putting it together. Having everything fall into place and seem effortless is the greatest feeling . . . .

  2. Robin is a gem. She and everyone else involved in planning the Kerrytown BookFest do an amazing job, year after year. It's a great BookFest!

  3. I've never been to a book fest, but this one sounds wonderful. I have been involved in setting up programs of a different sort and realize that they are much work and need many people pulling together.

  4. The Kerrytown Book Fest is fabulous! I was there on the mystery panel with Julie Kramer , and Brian Gruley and...someone else--who, Robin? Anyway, it was endless fun, non-stop, and such a treat to be included!

    LOVE to come back! ANd let the Reds know what we can do. A Red panel, perhaps? Just saying...

    ANd I love your "seed" idea--that's how the universe works, right? Amazing... and love to all. Is it FREEZING there?

  5. I've helped out with and attended a local fesival, The Festival of Mystery hosted by Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont. It is much smaller (maybe 40 mystery authors) and was on hiatus last year, but I was amazed at the amount of work. Last time I volunteered, I drove authors to the airport after the event and it was a hoot because I hit an unexpected construction detour. "I promise, ladies, I will not get lost. In the meantime, enjoy the sight of Pittsburgh at night and hang on."

  6. Robin, I am exhausted from just reading about how you pull it all together! I have an idea of how much it involves from watching my sister and brother-in-law run a different sort of festival for many years, and helping out in just a very small way on the day of the event. It was a 365 day process for them. Yours sounds like a wonderful event to attend. Too bad I live so far away!

  7. Oh yes, a Red panel! I'm dying to visit your shop in Ann Arbor Robin, you are on my bucket list!

    Having helped with the New England Crime Bake programming for a number of years, I know how much work this is--and how much fun the results can be!

  8. Having been involved in some smaller events, I can only imagine what a full on book festival is like. CRAZY is the word that comes to mind.

    Thankfully, people like Robin who do it so well make it looks so simple. I have never been to this festival, but is sounds great.

    I love the idea of having a "seed" to inspire the planning of panels.

    Also, having moderated at Bouchercon, I can definitely agree that it is an art unto itself. But also great fun!

  9. That is a lot of work. I've worked on conferences, setting up speakers and panels and workshops, but it's been a long time.

    The Festival of Mystery a few years ago was my first book festival, and it was fabulous. Since then I've been to two local ones: IceFest, in Hamilton, OH, my hometown. IceFest includes BookFest, going on at the same time as the ice sculpture demos all around town. That happens next weekend.

    The other is a fabulous event here in Cincinnati, Books by the Banks, jointly produced by the amazing Cincinnati Public Library and Joseph Beth Booksellers. Only one day, but this past year they had well over 100 authors, and many workshops and panels. I love the selection of local writers that are included, too, and have met a lot of new authors this way. One year Judy Collins was there signing her autobiography.

    And I attended the Tucson Festival of Books a few years ago, by the suggestion of Reine, who I went there to meet. We ended up having coffee together at her local Barnes & Noble, but she couldn't get a van ride to the festival, which was a shame. The Tucson festival is incredible, too.

    Aren't we lucky, to have so many ways to celebrate writing and reading?

  10. sounds like a fabulous festival, and what a mammoth undertaking! We're all drooling...

  11. It was such an amazing and wonderful experience to be part of the KerryTown Book Fest — I was so proud to be part of it. And Robin and Jamie could not have been more lovely. What was really great was how Lauren Willig, Tasha Alexander, Simone St. James, and Anna Lee Huber and I were/are all fans of each other's work and got to meet in person! And so many great book people! It was simply marvelous and Robin made everything look so easy (which, as you can see, it takes an ENORMOUS amount of behind the scenes preparation....)

  12. Kathy from Michigan:
    Robin and Jamie are amazing booksellers, better hosts, and the best friends a reader can have. I have been to the Kerrytown Bookfest several times and always, always enjoy the day. Such a great place to be a fangirl. And I appreciate all the work Robin puts into it. The grant writing alone would give me fits.
    And yes Hank, it is freezing here in Michigan. Winter has arrived.

  13. Oh, yes, and the store is amazing! Ann Arbor is a fabulous town and Aunt Agatha's is the cherry on the sundae!

  14. What an amazing amount of good work you do, Robin! I visited your bookstore a couple of years ago when visiting Ann Arbor for the first time. It is a such a welcoming place I did not want to leave.

    Now that I've read this, I'm determined to plan another trip out there for Kerrytown some year soon.

  15. Book festivals are so much fun to attend as either an author or reader because they are gatherings of those who love books and words and join together to talk about them.

    As a Michigander by choice rather than by birth, being able to do an event for one of my novels at Aunt Agatha's is my list for potential "made it moments!

    Thanks for all the work you do within the mystery community. I'll have to pay attention to the dates of future KerryTown Book Festivals and plan to drive down from the U.P. for it.

    ~ Jim

  16. If you haven't yet attended the Kerrytown Book Fest--GO!!! It's wonderful!!! I've attended as both a fan and as a moderator, and I always have a wonderful time. Robin and Jamie and the committee work hard at making the Festival easy for the rest of us.

  17. Hi Robin!!! What fun to see you here! And I can't imagine how much work it must take to put on a book festival.

    Seems like I did a bunch this last year, starting with Tucson (hi, Reine!) which is amazing. I think they are vying with LA for the biggest festival in the country. Then, on book tour, I did the West Texas Book Festival in Abilene, the Wisconsin Book Festival, Books in the Basin in Odessa, Texas, the Texas Book Festival in Austin, and... I think I've left some out. Festivals are such fun. Authors not only get a chance to meet readers, we get a chance to meet other authors and discover new books!

  18. I discovered Simone's books last year and I really enjoy them. Anna Lee Huber is in my top five historical mystery authors.

    I wish I lived closer to "hub" book events. Montana is a leeetle too far away from everything (and no one comes here). But I justify not attending by saying I can therefore buy more books. :)

  19. This bookstore has been on my list to visit for a while, and I think I'm on the list to be part of the festival this year. Can't wait to meet Robin in person.

  20. Hank, you were my "seed" the year you came - I think the other panellist was Kelly of PJ Parrish fame. And I would LOVE to have a Jungle Red panel!! 2016, ladies??

  21. I lived in the Toledo area (just south of Ann Arboer) for 45 years; how did I miss this wonderful shop?!

    Kerrytown BookFest is definitely on my calendar.

    Thanks so much for the introduction!

  22. Aunt Agatha's has been one of those author-centered bookshops that I've wanted to visit for some time. Robin, you have the life that I would love to have, with the bookstore and the involvement in the Kerrytown Bookfest. Call me crazy, but I think it would be loads of fun to get together the authors and panels, even though it has to be labor intensive. A labor of love, I think for you, Robin, and it would be for me, too. The "seed" author idea is genius. It appeals to my sense of theme and connections. I would love to attend this amazing festival, so I will have to put it on my bucket list of book events. Thank you for sharing the behind-the-scenes look. I found it fascinating.

    My favorite book event I've attended is Bouchercon, where I met the Reds and so many other authors of mystery that thrilled me so. Talk about a kid in a candy store. I've also been to the National Book Festival in D.C. a few times. I attended the Virginia Festival of the Book last spring. I took in The Southern Festival of Books in Nashville a few years back. I've been quite a few times to the Southern Kentucky Festival of Books in Bowling Green, KY, and I will be there with bells on this year, as Jamie Ford and Diana Gabaldon are the featured authors. It's only an hour away. How lucky am I?

    Karen, I've thought about attending Books by the Banks in Cincinnati, but I just haven't gotten to it yet. It's on my list. The Tucson Festival of Books is one I'd love to experience, too.

  23. Kathy, it is a labor of love though some types of writers are higher maintenance than other types - mystery authors are about the easiest to deal with - they have websites, they understand PR, and they answer e-mails right away. Most difficult: poets and literary novelists. Probably reverse order.

  24. Robin, that doesn't surprise me:-)

    Karen, you know I missed Books on the Banks by a couple of days? Boo!

  25. KerryTown Book Fest was my first book festival, so it was a really special and wonderful experience.

  26. Robin, I'm not surprised that mystery authors are the easiest to handle, as I found them to be so open and truly appreciative of fans. I hadn't thought about the high maintenance that some authors probably require. That could be a bother indeed. I hope to get to your wonderful festival in the near future. A Jungle Reds panel would certainly be a big draw for me.

  27. Debs, maybe next year? You would love it.

  28. I've never been to Ann Arbor, but this sounds like an excellent reason to go there