Annual festival shows that books can still hook 'em

AUSTIN -- Ill portents abounded for this year's Texas Book Festival.

Its traditional main stage, the Texas House chamber, was closed. A headline author, novelist Michael Cunningham, dropped out. Chatter about how books are dead has grown louder.

So what happened?

"From my perspective, it's actually the most successful one we've ever had," said festival literary director Clay Smith.

An estimated 40,000 people, 10,000 more than last year, turned out under sunny skies Saturday and Sunday to enjoy the 15th annual festival. Venues were at capacity, whether the topic was race, science, fiction from small towns or President Barack Obama. About 80,000 books were sold. Each day.

Some highlights:

Sunday's panel on the first year of the Obama presidency built up so much speed that eventually the moderator, Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith, just got out of the way. By the end all three panelists were offering tentative predictions for the 2012 presidential election.

Jonathan Alter, author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One, can see a Republican ticket headed by Rick Perry, an idea that drew a loud groan from the crowd. Ari Berman, author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, thinks it will be Sarah Palin. And William Jelani Cobb, author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress, left open the possibility that Obama might pull an LBJ and not seek a second term.

After a discussion about her forthcoming Wolves of Andover, a follow-up to her novel The Heretic's Daughter, Dallas author Kathleen Kent disclosed that her next project will take her closer to home. The topic?

"It's Texas history," she said Saturday. "It's Reconstruction Era, post-Civil War, in Texas. So I've crawled out of the 17th century. ... I'd been working on those books for seven years -- the first two -- and I needed, I wanted to do something different."