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Books The inside story behind Inspire!, the new ‘fan expo for books’

The INSPIRE! team from left, Steven Levy, June Dickenson, Rita Davies, Jesse Bernstein and John Calabro, have created the INSPIRE! Toronto International Book Fair is Canadaâ™s book exposition for all things print and digital. This yearâ™s instalment takes place November 13- 16, 2014 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

Brian B. Bettencourt/The Globe and Mail

The creation of Toronto's new book fair reads like a Canlit classic in-the-making. That this may seem like a precarious time to launch a giant Canadian book-selling venture only serves to thicken the plot.

The story begins in Toronto when Rita Davies, at the time executive director of culture for the city, hears from an editor in Ottawa. Antonino Mazza is working on publishing a volume of work by the late poet Saro D'Agostino and is contacting Davies, who lived with D'Agostino in the 1970s (in Toronto and Greece), to see if she has any old correspondence to contribute. She does indeed – and in the process uncovers a poem that has never been published.

Some time later, at a celebration for publication of the resulting book, Immigrant Songs, Davies has a conversation with two of the people running Quattro, the small press that published it. The two, including John Calabro, tell her about the need for a book fair in Toronto.

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"I was surprised there wasn't anything," says Davies, recounting the story. "I said, 'Wow, I think that's a big missing piece and I'd like to look into it from my vantage point as head of culture in Toronto.'"

Plot twist: By the time the three get together to further discuss the idea, Davies is leaving her job at the city. Her departure takes her away from the municipal halls of power, but it also means time on her hands and an opportunity to redirect her legendary cultural energies. Excited by the book-fair idea, she decides to pitch in. She secures a grant for a feasibility study and gets to work on it. "That was our call to action," she says.

One of the people she speaks to for the study was Steven Levy, the veteran producer of consumers shows who co-founded the One of a Kind event phenomenon. He not only has a lot to say about the idea, but also offers to participate. While Davies and Calabro hadn't initially intended to produce the fair themselves, they team up with Levy to do just that.

Some 15 months after that study was completed, the inaugural Toronto International Book Fair, called Inspire!, opens this week at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

"It's a romantic and a real story," says Davies, one of the fair's three directors, along with Colabro and Levy. "If it weren't for Saro, there would be no book fair and I think that's remarkable. It was as though he wanted to say, 'Hey, here's something I can also contribute.'"

The book fair is an ambitious event targeted at consumers, rather than the publishing industry. With a large marketplace, programming on five stages, and plenty of book-signing opportunities, the fair will be like "a fan expo for books," says its director of programming and operations, Nicola Dufficy. The hope is that it will appeal to book lovers eager to get a jump on their holiday shopping.

The numbers are of the go-big-or-go-home variety: 120,000 square feet, more than 400 authors, and more than 300 programming hours. It features an impressive lineup of genre-spanning authors flogging everything from poetry to cookbooks. There is a long list of big names from the literary world (Margaret Atwood, Miriam Toews, David Bezmozgis), commercial (Anne Rice, Sylvia Day), science fiction (William Gibson), crime (Kathy Reichs), non-fiction (Chris Hadfield, Elaine Lui, Amanda Lindhout). There is a particularly strong children's component that includes Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney and Captain Underpants creator Dav Pilkey.

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"The vision of the directors is so ambitious," says Dufficy. "They're really not dipping their toes in the water – they're planning a world-class event in its first year."

If it seems a long shot that a massive book-selling undertaking might succeed at this point in publishing history – particularly after the cancellation of Book Expo Canada in 2009 and what was to be a consumer book-fair counterpart – Davies says that by targeting the public rather than the industry (at least initially), the event can thrive.

"Book Expo was business to business – booksellers and publishers in a landscape where increasingly there were fewer bricks-and-mortar booksellers," she says, adding that "it was a no-brainer" that this new fair needed to focus on consumers. "We're starting with a massive consumer component and we're going to add the trade element slowly."

The industry reaction has been hopeful, but mixed. It's easy to read the non-participation of publishing powerhouse HarperCollins as speaking volumes, but the publisher cited fall commitments that were made earlier, and budgets set accordingly.

"After meeting with representatives from the fair, reviewing the opportunities for our authors and customers, and considering the investments which would be required of us, we decided to maintain directing our resources and efforts toward promoting our authors in local bookstores, public libraries, and existing venues across Canada," according to a statement from Rob Firing, senior director of communications at HarperCollins Canada (which recently announced that its Toronto-area warehouse will close next year). The company indicated it is open to participating in future.

"We believe that this fall's schedules, already in place through December, provide more varied promotional opportunities for authors, help encourage library use, and reinforce the profile and sales for our booksellers in their communities."

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House of Anansi and its children's arm, Groundwood Books, are not participating in the fair, either.

Industry observers have also adopted a wait-and-see approach. "The proof's in the pudding," says Rowland Lorimer, founding director of the master of publishing program at Simon Fraser University. "There's a certain amount of skepticism in some quarters, but I think there are people who wonder if this can't work given the demise of independent bookstores and the candle-ization of Chapters/Indigo."

He says it may be that people are "starved" for this kind of book-buying experience. "The other element is that it does work elsewhere," Lorimer adds, citing the consumer event at the end of the Frankfurt Book Fair, as well as book fairs in Jaipur, India; and Latin America.

The fair's organizers are looking at this as a long-term commitment; Dufficy has a "hit list" of authors she plans to approach about next year. And while it may seem counter-intuitive, Davies says the age of Amazon and the e-book, this may be just the right moment for the new fair.

"There are other ways people consume books these days, whether it's through e-readers or direct purchase online," she says. "But what we knew from our research was that there's a real hunger as well. Toronto used to host a lot of bookstores. People are big readers here; they haven't stopped reading. And there is still a hunger for that experience of being there with their favourite authors."

Inspire! Toronto International Book Fair runs Nov 14-16 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre (with an opening party the evening of Nov 13).

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