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Pittsburgh book festival returns with new venue, expanded lineup

Writing the second chapter of a brand-new book festival is easier when the first was well-received. And so it goes with the Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books, which returns Sat., May 13, after a successful year one.

Last year’s first edition was believed to be Pittsburgh’s first ever large-scale, general-interest book festival. Founder Marshall Cohen said it drew 2,000 or more visitors to six venues in East Liberty, including Bakery Square and the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, to hear authors and poets, among other activities.

While admission was free — and remains so — Cohen said a big challenge last year was that many Pittsburghers had never been to a book festival, whose goals include promoting reading and supporting authors and publishers.

“People now understand what it is, and are even more excited, and the responses that we’ve been getting in the signups [indicate] the interest, and wanting to be part of the festival,” he said.

Still, last year’s experience prompted some changes. Chiefly, the multi-venue setup “didn’t work as well as we had hoped,” Cohen said. Despite shuttle buses, some visitors found traveling between venues difficult. This year’s event takes place entirely on the pedestrian-friendly East Liberty campus of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, whether indoors or in tents on the lawn.

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The festival is hosting more authors and other presenters than last year. There are also a full day of children’s programs, workshops on writing and publishing, and more.

The more than 40 authors include New York Times best-selling novelist Jeannette Walls and critically acclaimed, Pittsburgh-based novelist Stewart O’Nan. Also of local interest is an on-stage conversation between author and former Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker and Leon Ford, whose new memoir, “An Unspeakable Hope,” explores the aftermath of the 2012 shooting by Pittsburgh police that left him a paraplegic and led to a career in activism.

Other guests include novelist Vanessa Riley, nonfiction authors Russell Shorto and Joseph Sassoon, Pittsburgh-based horror writer J.D. Barker, and Pittsburgh-based young-adult novelist Sara Shephard (“Pretty Little Liars”).

Poets reading include nationally known Ross Gay, a National Book Critics Circle award-winner, and such Pittsburgh-based poets as Jan Beatty, Lynn Emanuel, Charlie Brice, Sarah Williams-Devereux, Bonita Penn, Lori Jakiela and Michael Simms.

Exhibitors range from local publishers like University of Pittsburgh Press, Autumn House Press and Lefty Blondie Press to local comics collective Comicsburg, literacy initiatives like Buzzword PGH and Reading Is FUNdamental Pittsburgh, and even Heinz History Center.

Cohen said several local indie bookstores helped organize the festival, including Riverstone Books, Mystery Lovers Bookshop, Penguin Bookshop, and Stories Like Me. “They really went in all out on this, securing authors, helping us do the planning, really advising on this, and that makes a huge difference,” he said.

Though the festival is bigger than last year’s, Cohen said, its budget is actually smaller, in part because planning for the inaugural festival was stretched out for two years by the pandemic. (The budget is about $200,000 this year, down from $260,000 last year, he said.)

The long list of festival sponsors includes the Heinz Endowments, KDKA-TV, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Duolingo, the University of Pittsburgh Library System, the Juliet Lea Hillman Simonds Foundation, and the state Department of Education.

Registration for the fest is not required but is recommended to reserve seating for limited-attendance events.

A complete schedule is here.

Corrected: May 8, 2023 at 9:03 AM EDT
This story originally had the incorrect date for the book festival. It has been fixed.
Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: