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Is the Santa Barbara Literary Scene Dead?

By Melinda Palacio -- April 19, 2011

Gone are the downtown bookstores. We grumbled when two big Box bookstores moved to State and Carrillo. Barnes and Noble, then Borders, squeezed out the Earthling and forced the independent store out of business. The town took years to warm up to Borders, but we took advantage of the space with poetry open mics, book signings, musical and literary performances, and a meeting place for residents and writers. Apparently, these stores were big enough to fail. Soon, talk of bankruptcy replaced book talk.

The idea of being a respected author in Santa Barbara is also fading. Last year, after my eye exam, my optometrist asked me the usual questions. I told her about my various publishing credits and when I paid my bill, she called out, "Author in the House." Her assistants turned over appointment books and scrolled through the computer's database for a patient named Arthur. "Let me know about a future book signing," her words trailed off. The optometrist is across the mall from a closed Borders.

Some might respond that we still have used bookstores left in Santa Barbara and independent, Chaucer's Books. However, none of those well-meaning establishments has the downtown space for readings, meetings, or the coffee shop that big bad Borders had.

The book tour is another endangered dream as more readers buy books online. Why travel a thousand miles to read to a crowd who may not even buy your book when you can do a virtual tour? Unless you're football star who has published a memoir or you're a poet, outfitted by Oprah's magazine team, the book signing audience will most likely consist only of writers who are supporting each other. Perhaps this is why the star-studded town of sleepy Santa Barbara has decided to allow the city's Book and Author Fair to be canceled, with no one stepping up to show that the town values authors and their work.

The internet cannot adequately replace the experience of a book signing and discussion with a handful of people, willing to weather a rainstorm. Daniel Olivas reminds us of the importance of connecting with readers:

"As I've noted before, writing is a lonely endeavor, but when I get to participate in book readings, the loneliness dissipates and I am reminded why I write. That personal connection with readers fills me with energy and inspiration... I wouldn't write another word if I couldn't participate in such literary events."

The roles of agents and publishers are being challenged thanks to the virtual store that cannot be contained: Amazon. Anyone can publish and sell a book on Amazon and a lucky few, such as 26-year-old Amanda Hocking, are making millions. Santa Barbara literary agent, Toni Lopopolo has her own view of these changes:

"Well written novels, at least those with a good story, get published, not self-published. What I do like is that smaller publishers are springing up who publish a limited number of books each season. Some of them have great business plans and put their major efforts into marketing. You don't get that with the major publishers unless you receive a large advance."

There are many writers in this town who keep trudging away at their craft, even though they realize that book advances and seeing their names in print, may be a dream.

After an absence of two years, the Santa Barbara Writers Conference starts up again, June-18-23, and this year, Bilingual Press will publish my novel, Ocotillo Dreams. April is National Poetry Month. Santa Barbara shows there's life in the local literary scene by electing a new city poet laureate, Paul Willis, and by hosting poetry events throughout the month. I will host a free reading by the Santa Barbara Sunday Poets April 23 at the Karpeles Manuscript Library from 3-5pm, 21 W Anapamu Street.