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Romance, Mystery--It's All at the Festival of Books

April 17, 1996|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The way to have a happy ending in Los Angeles is for the place itself to be enough. It's not New York--but that's the point. . . . We've given the world its dreams, beauty and romance.

--Local writer Eve Babitz, from the introduction to "Los Angeles Stories."

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We also buy books. More than any other metropolitan market in the country. But you wouldn't know it from the East Coast laugh track that colors America's literary debate.

For years, the literati have sneered at Southern California, dismissing the place as a brain-dead tanning salon with beauty--not books--on its mind. Well, get a clue, New York.

According to publishers' statistics, Los Angeles County readers spent $550,428,036 on books in 1995, some $50 million more than the Big Apple. It's time to drop the La-La jokes once and for all, and this weekend's Los Angeles Times Festival of Books--a two-day event at UCLA--is a good way to begin. It will be the largest such book event ever held in Southern California.

Like Manhattanites, who have long enjoyed an annual New York Is Book Country festival, Southland residents will be able to participate in a festival filled with famous authors, panel discussions, children's events and food celebrating the region's culinary diversity. They'll be invited to check out new titles and--perhaps most important of all--they'll have a chance to mingle with kindred spirits.

Indeed, the Festival of Books acknowledges something that publishers and merchants have known for years: Literacy is alive and well west of the Mississippi. A 1994 survey by the American Booksellers Assn. showed that readers in western states were more interested in getting books as presents than in any other section of the country.

Asked what titles they enjoyed, customers in Los Angeles and other western communities led the nation in their preferences for science fiction and fantasy tales. But hold the cliche: These same readers also led the United States in their appreciation of cultural and classic literature.

"There's a tremendous vitality in the Los Angeles book scene and publishers are recognizing this more and more," says Michelle Abbrecht, a Random House vice president for special marketing. "That's why the [Festival of Books] is so important . . . it's long overdue."

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The Los Angeles event will be held Saturday and Sunday at Dickson Plaza. Dedicated to the joys of books and reading, the festival will offer a greater variety of panels than its New York counterpart and, beyond a $5 parking fee in UCLA lots, every event is gratis.

So where do you start in a festival that includes writers such as Amy Tan, Dean Koontz, Judith Krantz, Richard Reeves, Dennis Miller, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Joseph Wambaugh, Abigail Van Buren, A. Scott Berg, Ray Bradbury, Carolyn See, E. Lynn Harris and others?

Where do you go first in a celebration of culture ranging from black mystery writers and the craft of modern biography to the latest trends in romance fiction and alternative medicine? There's no easy solution, and that's because the Festival of Books--like the Southern California reading market itself--is rich in literary diversity and competing tastes.

The event is taking place amid an unprecedented battle for book business in Los Angeles and the nation as a whole. In the last five years, Southern California has been inundated with superstores run by Barnes and Noble, Borders, Crown and other firms. They've tried to lure customers with deep discount prices and large inventories; they've also tried to one-up each other--and their independent competitors--with espresso bars, free music recitals, computer classes, comfortable reading rooms, child-care programs and other amenities.

Meanwhile, independents have fought back, offering more personalized and friendly service, and targeting specialized customers. Although superstores have grabbed a huge share of the market nationwide, the book wars continue. And in the end, it will be the readers who decide where to spend their time and money.

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In that spirit, the UCLA event offers a book lover nothing but choice.

For mystery buffs, a 1:30 p.m. Saturday panel on Mystere Noir: Black Mystery Writers Come of Age celebrates one of the fastest-growing genres. Moderated by Paula Woods, who has written on the phenomenon, the group includes Eleanor Taylor Bland ("Slow Burn" and "Dead Time"), Robert O. Greer ("The Devil's Hatband"), Gar Anthony Haywood ("Bad News Travels Fast"), Gary Phillips ("Perdition") and Valerie Wilson Wesley ("Devil's Gonna Get Him").

Also Saturday, a 3 p.m. panel will focus on The Power of Love: Romance Writers in the Spotlight. Some pundits may scoff at the romance novel, but loyal readers spend an annual $885 million on such books, making this far and away the most popular genre in the literary marketplace. In the past 10 years, romance fiction has expanded to include ethnic and multicultural characters, making it more inclusive a read than ever.

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