When the 2020 San Antonio Book Festival was canceled in April, after months of planning, few imagined the 2021 version of the popular downtown celebration of reading and writing would be affected. Surely not.

But like a lot of surely-nots, this one ran headlong into reality.

Faced with the uncertainty of the pandemic, organizers have decided to go virtual, making the 9th annual San Antonio Book Festival a three-day online event April 9-11.

“We’re focusing on ways to make the festival feel as live as possible,” said Lilly Gonzalez, the festival’s executive director. “Should things improve drastically, we could do some live things. But, planning the festival is a yearlong process, and we couldn’t risk a live festival and then in March realize we wouldn’t be able to do it.”

After conferring with colleagues at other book festivals around the country, including the Portland Book Festival, the L.A. Times Festival of Books, and the Texas Book Festival, San Antonio organizers chose an online platform called Accelevents. It offers the opportunity for groups – book clubs, classrooms – to talk among themselves during festival events, which range from readings to one-on-one interviews with authors to panel discussions to special programs for children and teens. 

But there’s also a networking function that allows participants to meet and greet other readers and talk about events they’ve attended, as well as plan their festival schedules.

“We’re hoping that readers will spend more time with us,” said literary director Clay Smith. “They can log in and watch and listen to a session with an author, then poke their heads into a conversation function on the platform. The goal is to make it as much we can an in-person festival by encouraging readers to interact and talk to each other.”

Smith, who oversees the author-selection process, said the 2021 festival will feature about 75 authors, both local and national. While names won’t be released until February, a virtual festival may make it easier to nail down big-name writers.

“Famous authors are more likely to go online than fly in from New York or Los Angeles,” Smith said. “But some writers are comfortable in the virtual world, and some are not, so it’s complicated. At least by the time of our festival, authors will have had a year to learn the basics of logging on and how to light themselves. Most of them are pretty game, so yeah, I’m looking at headliners right and left.”

One of those writers is Amor Towles, author of the popular novel A Gentleman in Moscow, who is the star draw for the festival’s annual Book Appétit Literary Feast fundraiser, now scheduled for April 8. Whether there will an actual feast is up in the air.

“Offering catering at a venue under social-distancing requirements may not be cost-effective, so we’re playing it by ear,” Gonzalez said.

But the festival will be using a professional video crew to shoot both the author in New York City and the moderator for the Towles event, a quality upgrade that could happen with other major author interviews. 

The savings maintained in the live travel budget could also allow for more celebrity moderators, Smith said, much like a September event featuring veteran journalist and Once I Was You author Maria Hinojosa interviewed online by actress Diane Guerrero of “Orange is the New Black” and “Jane the Virgin.”

San Antonio young-adult novelist Kaylynn Bayron – who participates in “two or three” virtual events a week, ranging from classroom visits to panel discussions to a recent interview with the Teen Press Corps – said going online can be viewed as “a silver lining.”

“As a writer, one of the best things that happens to you is interaction with readers, through a book tour or at a larger event like a festival,” said Bayron, 37, whose latest novel Cinderella Is Dead is aimed, according to School Library Journal, at readers “looking for dystopia, queer romance, LGBTQ inclusiveness, and women sticking it to the patriarchy.”

Author Kaylynn Bayron

For Bayron, connecting with readers is important, and virtual events have presented a new way to connect with a broader audience.

“I’ve had the opportunity to reach readers online all over the world that I wouldn’t have reached ordinarily,” she said. “I just had a book-club meeting with a group of readers in Scotland, and I met with a troop of Girl Scouts in Florida. And it does feel personal. I think it’s made big events more accessible because everybody can’t travel to a festival in Los Angeles, for example, and be able to interact with a favorite author and other readers.”

Like almost everything else in our lives, the book festival is in a period of transition, Smith said.

“Honestly, the live book event needed a shot in the arm,” he said. “It’s gotten a little staid. You might have gone to a reading, for instance, that lasted an hour or more, but people’s attention spans have changed radically, especially during the current news cycle. Authors online, I would say, can’t go beyond 45 minutes, and they have to get their point across effectively and succinctly. They can’t meander.”

Readers cutting out of an online reading or discussion – much easier than getting up and walking out of a crowded room – is another concern for the festival, which is funded in part by book sales.

“With an in-person festival, readers will often follow an author they like over to the book sales tent after that author has presented, to speak to the writer or get an autograph,” Smith said. “So, we’re looking at ways to get online readers over to the sales area, including offering incentives like T-shirts or tote bags if you purchase a certain number of books.”

The festival has a new sales partner this year: Nowhere Books, the new independent store on Broadway founded by bestselling author Jenny Lawson (also known as The Bloggess).

Another development is that the festival, formerly associated with the San Antonio Library Foundation, is an independent nonprofit now.

It’s been a challenging year, Smith said, but it’s also been a learning experience.

“Canceling last year was difficult,” he said, “but on the positive side, we’ve had all this time to reach out to other festivals and learn from them. It’s a new world.” 

Steve Bennett has written about arts and culture in San Antonio for more than 30 years.