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The first queer book festival: proud, diverse and original

The first queer book festival: proud, diverse and original

“I always forgot who brought it up first, but one of us brought up the fact that we both want to do a queer book festival. It’s weird that there’s nothing out there really like this,” Steven Salvatore recalls a conversation with Jacob Demlow, two months ago. 

“Jacob was super enthusiastic about it… And now I can’t live without Jacob and this entire queer book festival.”

Salvatore and Demlow met through the launching of Salvatore’s novel “Can’t Take That Away.” The book, Salvatore’s debut, follows Carey Parker, a genderqueer teen cast in the school musical as the female leading role. Facing discrimination from parents, faculty, and students, the teenager has to “find their voice” and fight for the right to perform the role. Demlow loved the book so much, they insisted on helping Salvatore. 

(They weren’t alone in this: the book has been shortlisted by Buzzfeed as a must-read LGBTQ book, by the American Booksellers Association as one of the indie books of the year, and by Teen Vogue as one of the most anticipated young adult novels out there.)

After doing an Instagram Live together, the two continued to message each other. 

“Between that first DM where we connected about both wanting to do it and its launch, it was less than two months,” Demlow said. “Which is bonkers.”

Pride Book Fest features over 100 LGBTQ+ authors, illustrators, film directors, content creators, artists, and publishing professionals. The festival will contain over 35 hours of content, including 19 panels, two live bookstore events, two Instagram Live events, one trivia night, two drag queen story time events, and four 15-30 minute conversations called “OUTbursts.”

Getting the word out

“When we first started, we were like, ‘Hey. Let’s reach out to the people we know,’” Demlow said. “Steven had some contacts, I had some contacts. The biggest person that we had on our team from the get-go was Becky Albertalli.”

Becky Albertalli is the award-winning author of “Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda,” the book adapted into major motion picture “Love, Simon” and the spinoff television series “Love, Victor.” Albertalli is also the author of “Leah On the Offbeat” and “What If It’s Us?,” co-written with Pride Book Fest panelist Adam Silvera, author of “They Both Die at the End” , “More Happy Than Not,” and “Infinity Son.” 

“Becky has been insurmountably helpful in terms of getting people that were dream people,” Demlow said. “Once we had Becky, once we had… These people that we knew and were really connected with, it was like, ‘Okay. Now we have these general thoughts, let’s start sliding into peoples’ DM’s. Not thinking we were going to get the response that we got.” 

Demlow and Salvatore found themselves in the middle of a very enthusiastic reaction to the event’s concept.

“We can count on less than ten fingers the amount of people that said, ‘No,’” Demlow said. 

“And none of them said no because they didn’t want to, it was that time constraints didn’t make it possible.”

They contacted authors through social media, email, and contact forms. Once they contacted all of the authors they knew, those authors connected them to other authors, and so on. 

“That was very, very helpful,” Salvatore said. “Everybody was super supportive and everyone was like, ‘Sure! What do you want? Where and when?’”

What was throwing the first queer book festival like? “It was a little overwhelming.”

Pride Book Fest has panels on a wide variety of topics, such as: “Magical Worlds, Historical Fantasies, and Retellings: The New Frontier of Fantasy,” “Queer Adventure: Epic Quests, Buried Treasure, and Space Operas,” “How to Craft Complex Queer Characters,” and more.

“We designed this from the start so that any author that we approached and asked: ‘What do you want to talk about? We’re not pre-designing panels. What are the things that interest you? Give us an idea or give us a list of things,’” Demlow said. 

“Some people were like, ‘I don’t want to talk about what it’s like being queer. I want to talk about craft. I want to talk about things I don’t get asked about because I’m a queer writer.’”

“Heavier” panels, like “Writing Through Grief,” made an appearance after asking panelists what they would want to participate in. 

“It’s a heavy topic, but it’s also not a heavy topic that’s about their identity,” Salvatore said. “They’re still able to tackle that through the lens of their identity, which I think people will be really excited about.”

Once 50 or 60 speakers were acquired for the festival, Salvatore and Demlow began matchmaking them with panels that would fit their interests. They both organized panel guests into panels with a maximum of six guests per panel. 

“It was a lot of letting the authors dictate things and us going in and being like, ‘Okay. How do we take these ideas and turn them into something,” Demlow said. 

Don’t judge a Queer Book Festival by its cover: this is a social media savvy event

Demlow runs A Very Queer Book Club, a review channel on multiple social media platforms discussing queer literature from across all age groups and genres. They are involved with both BookTok (TikTok’s community of readers and reviewers discussing literature) and Bookstagram (Instagram’s literature community.) Demlow and Salvatore were then able to source moderators for the panels from both locations.

“I love talking with authors. It’s one of my favorite things to do,” Demlow said. “Because we have a couple BookTokers and Bookstagrammers that were really knowledgeable about the topic, we asked them to moderate and I think that makes conversations that much more exciting and interesting.”

The book communities on social media are more than thriving. #BookTok has 10.8 billion views on TikTok and there are 61.6 million posts for #Bookstagram on Instagram. When Demlow and Salvatore invited moderators into the festival, the moderator enthusiasm when meeting their favorite authors was obvious.

“That’s why we’re doing this,” Demlow said. “To have the opportunity to watch those kinds of interactions happen before you start recording with those people to engage in topics with their favorite authors has been some of the most rewarding experiences so far.”

Pride Book Fest is an event open to the public. The festival will be releasing video content on YouTube and through Instagram Live from June 11 to June 13. You can follow the festival on Twitter and Instagram at @pridebookfest and see their video content on their YouTube channel. Make sure to be a part of this historical event: the first ever queer book festival.

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