Mar 14, 2024 - Things to Do

After doubling attendance, New Orleans Book Festival returns Thursday

A full auditorium of people watch a conversation between two people on a stage on the far end of the photographed space.

Within just two years, events at the New Orleans Book Festival drew standing-room-only crowds. Photo: Courtesy of New Orleans Book Festival

The New Orleans Book Festival returns to Tulane University today, bringing with it a mix of big-name writers and regionally focused conversations.

Why it matters: In just three years, the festival amassed a devoted following while carving out a unique reputation amongst literary events nationally for casual but candid conversations.

  • "Authors feel comfortable here," Book Festival co-chair Cheryl Landrieu tells Axios New Orleans. "They let loose a little bit, they relax a little bit. … They can have a good sense of humor here and talk about their books in ways they can't in places that might be more buttoned up."

The big picture: New Orleans has long had a reputation as a culturally rich, literary town thanks to writers like Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner and Anne Rice.

  • "But lately, it's been more defined as a place to have a good time, so what we're trying to do is build something that is intellectually rich," Landrieu says.

Flashback: The festival technically started back in 2010 as a children's book festival, but the Tulane partnership and the addition of New Orleans-born author Walter Isaacson as co-chair came only recently.

  • In 2022, the first year of the relaunch, a conversation between John Grisham and Jenna Bush Hager came like a lightbulb moment.
  • "That set the tone for what we were going for," Landrieu says, especially in the months after pandemic lockdowns ended for good. "I remember people in the hallway saying it feels like a renaissance: We're back. It's like we're alive again."
  • Between the festival's first and second years, attendance doubled, Landrieu says.
Jill Biden sits in the front row of a New Orleans Book Festival crowd as everyone around her turns and applauds.
Jill Biden attended the New Orleans Book Festival in 2023. Photo: Courtesy of the festival

With Isaacson's connections and New Orleans' reputation, the festival has attracted people like Jill Biden, Bill Gates and Carl Bernstein.

Yes, but: That quickly growing reputation came at a cost.

  • "We got more people coming from outside the New Orleans community," Landrieu says of the 2023 event. "New Orleans had to sort of fight for their spots."

State of play: That'll change this year, as Tulane opens up its largest venues for the festival's programming.

  • Also new for 2024 is a partnership with the New Orlean Entrepreneur Week, which started Monday, as Landrieu and Isaacson explore expanding the festival's programming into bigger ideas around innovation and culture.

If you go: The festival opens tonight with a conversation between Isaacson and The Atlantic's editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg as the magazine searches for great novels of the past century.

  • Events continue Friday and Saturday with appearances by Stacey Abrams, Steve Gleason, Ken Burns, Kwame Alexander, Jake Tapper, Jesmyn Ward and others.
  • The event is free, but popular sessions can fill up.

Go deeper to see the full schedule of events

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