For Scott H. Spencer, doodling square-jawed robots and wide-eyed, bubble-bodied aliens was a hobby, not a way to pay the mortgage. But when Spencer hit 50, he worried he might regret it if he didn't "do something" with his sketches and characters.
After a few failed attempts at marketing his work, he found a self-publishing Web site that allowed him to upload his comics and see them in print.
"After trying to sell these things and not getting anywhere, it was such a terrific lift to just make a book I could hold in my hands," said Spencer, 60, a full-time librarian at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.
He is one of 75 authors whose works are on display this weekend at Chestnut Hill's first book festival. Some, like Spencer, hold full-time jobs and are taking their first crack at selling self-published books. Others write full time, including former Inquirer reporter H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger and L.A. Banks, who has sold more than a million copies of her vampire-series novels.
When the Chestnut Hill Business Association dreamed up the festival last year as a way to draw people to the neighborhood in the summer, it decided to feature authors with a local connection.
"We thought, 'How are we going to get authors?' And all of a sudden we have 60!" said Fran O'Donnell, Main Street manager for the neighborhood and owner of O'Doodles toy store.
The festival began Friday evening and continues through today, with author readings, writing workshops, and panels.
Yesterday, Banks, whose first name is Leslie, spoke to a crowd of about a dozen in a former Ford showroom on Germantown Avenue. She told them how she had started writing to try to win an Esquire magazine short-story contest that offered a $2,500 prize. She worked full time as a sales representative, so she wrote for several hours in the evening after putting her children to bed.
Soon, the West Philadelphia resident had more than 60 pages of a wild romance that featured a "black James Bond"-type character who, along with the female lead character, faced an odd enemy: a 500-year curse. When she asked her friends to help her whittle down the pages so she could enter the contest, they sent her manuscript to publishing houses instead. The story ended up in her book Sundance.
Thirteen years later, Banks has written 40 books.
Her advice for aspiring novelists? Write. "You've got to get it on paper," she said. Aspiring writers are "afraid to take it from their head to the page."
The festival also features a number of children's-book authors, including Tom Warburton, an Ambler-raised animator whose first book was published in May.
Warburton, 40, created Codename: Kids Next Door, a show that ran for six seasons on the Cartoon Network. He said he had gotten the idea for his book, 1,000 Times No, when his son Parker started using the word a lot when his parents wanted him to do something. His second book, 1,000 Times Why, is in the works: Specifically, it's sketched in color pencil on pages held together by tape.
"When I talk to kids, I say anyone can do a book," Warburton said yesterday before a reading at O'Doodles. "All you need is paper, colored pencil, tape."
At the toy store yesterday, clowns made balloon animals for children while parents browsed the authors' tables and the store racks.
Ethyl Treatman of Jenkintown heard about the festival when she, her husband, and her daughter stopped for lunch. Yesterday, she bought two books, including Sir Ryan's Quest, by Jason Deeble, an author featured at the festival.
Her daughter, Harlane Burns, 8, explained why she liked the book: "That one is good because he's trying to find something, and then what he found was his mom."
Spencer, who spent $378 for 100 copies of his comic book, Invasion of the Bozobots, will be available for signings from noon to 2 p.m. today. He said that no matter how many books he sold, he'd be happy.
"If I don't break even, that's OK," he said. "It's too much fun."
Most events at the festival are free, and the business association plans to donate proceeds from book sales and paid events to the Friends of the Philadelphia Free Library, O'Donnell said. Organizers hope to make the festival an annual event.
"We feel," said Peggy Miller, a member of the business association, "there's enough talent here now that perhaps we can stay with the regional theme."