Writers: Don’t fear the festival

There are more opportunities than ever for authors to appear on the burgeoning festival circuit. Helen Bagnall, Director of The Also Festival and Salon London shares her advice for authors taking to the stage.

For almost a decade I’ve programmed fiction and non-fiction events for literary and music festivals all over the country and for the last three years have built my own festival: The Also Festival in Warwickshire. In that time, I’ve nudged over a thousand authors on to stages across the country and watched as the book festival has changed almost out of all recognition. With author incomes tumbling, festival appearances can be a contentious issue representing another ‘opportunity’ that doesn’t pay its way. While it’s absolutely true they’re not for every author, for those who are comfortable with an element of performance around their work festivals can be a winner.

It’s true festivals do not offer a path to unimaginable riches, but they can provide an easy route to connect with a significant audience.

Like most people working in, or near the arts, Festival Directors have seen their world change from one of creative programming and building relationships with artists, to hustling for money. Yet festivals are booming because audiences for intelligent content are widening and growing. These audiences – new to book festivals – are likely to be steeped in social media and immersive theatre experiences, and so are naturally demanding a similar experience from book events. That old school model of reading aloud from your book now really only works for household names. Festivals have a huge need for eye-catching, experimental, entertaining book content but crucially have less time to curate it.

I write this having just returned from the uber book festival at Hay-on-Wye which has just sailed through its 27th year, boasting 500 events its 10 days, with the down-the-road rival festival How The Light Gets In programming another 700. Just these two festivals combined bring in approximately 125,000 potential book buyers to one small town. But authors shouldn’t stop at book festivals when looking for opportunities. Increasingly, music festivals too are finding that their audiences want to engage with all kinds of clever content. The leading arts and culture festival Latitude has 35,000 people who potentially could buy your work.

Treating an event as marketing exercise also frees an author up to explore backlist.

It’s true festivals do not offer a path to unimaginable riches but they can provide an easy route to connecting with a significant audience. One Head of Publicity told me authors shouldn’t worry about the way their books will be portrayed at festivals or try to exert control over the angle the event takes. From her point of view, if one of her authors is on a panel, particularly with someone with a higher profile, it vastly improves audience size and introduces a new audience to the book, resulting in better sales.

However, the audience has to be the right one for the author. Each festival naturally caters to a different audience and, even if your work is in the hands of the brilliant publicity directors at the best publishing houses, they rarely have time to understand the nuances of each festival so it is worth researching those that cater for your audience and getting to know the team behind them. Festivals often give their programming a theme which makes them easier to promote so, if you can tailor your book event to their theme, it’s going to be a winner and I increasingly hear authors bend their talks slightly so they relate to the exact audience in front of them, making the event feel unique.

It might also be an idea to research if there is anyone notable you could pair up with in your field? What or who is bringing national attention to your field or subject? At one summer festival last year we put Ruby Wax, who was already at the festival to perform her show, together with a psychologist to talk about stress and the brain. It worked like a dream for both of them, but the psychologist sold three times as many books.

…if the audience picks up on the magic you feel about your work they’ll buy it …

Treating an event as a marketing exercise also frees an author up to explore backlist. Book festivals initially sprang up with publishers support, leaving a legacy of focus on newly published titles. But without the publisher’s support you’re freer to design the book event you want to do. Non book festival audiences don’t understand or care about front or back list, spring or fall catalogues or the Frankfurt Book Fair. They care about fabulous narrative, current ideas and being entertained and, if your book is five years old and fabulous, no-one will mind.

How to speak to a festival audience?The answer: ‘You’ll have to read the book’ in response to a question from the audience is one way to lose the room. Similarly, I advise authors to be wary of saying the words ‘my book’ too often. It should be the host’s job to signpost the book and audiences know the deal, they don’t need to be reminded that the book is for sale. There is no need to worry about giving too much away for fear that people won’t buy. If the audience picks up on the magic you feel about your work, they’ll buy it. Also, a significant number of books sold at an event are gifts for someone your audience members know will love your work, and that market is not to be undervalued.

Many academics agree to do music festivals because their partner wants to see the headliner, it makes them feel like a rock star…

Similarly, if you can build any interactivity in to your talk, do so. The dopamine drenched world of social media has made audiences more aware of the pleasure of being involved, and the ever evolving desire for the ‘experiential’ means audiences are no longer scared of getting stuck in. If you can’t build interactivity into an event, or don’t want to, you could make friends with a local booze company. It sounds odd, but adding a free gin fizz to a book event makes an instant ‘Salon’ – it’ll probably be the first event to sell out and the festival will love you.

Once you’re booked, you’ve got a great social media angle to use. Some authors sit back when they’re booked thinking with relief that it’s one event they don’t have to get audience for, but it’s worth getting involved with social media, emailing your friends or handing out a few flyers. This gives your fans extra information about an event they might enjoy and, by amplifying the festival to your wider audience, you might encourage a festival to keep booking you year-on-year.

Finally, don’t dismiss one hugely motivating reason to do a festival: fun! Most writers I work with decide to do a few events a year purely for this reason. Many academics agree to do music festivals because their partner wants to see the headliner, it makes them feel like a rock star or, as one leading neuroscientist said, “it’s the first time my children have shown any interest in my work”. It’s ok to want to do a festival for fun – just make sure you turn up for your event! Taking the family to a big festival can cost over a thousand pounds – doing a festival can be a great introduction to the contra economy.

In short, there’s been a lot of coverage as to why the festival circuit is worrying for writers, but it can also be a winner for those authors willing to package and present their ideas in a new and unusual way. Try it, and you might just find yourself leaving with a bigger fanbase – and a bigger grin on your face – than a straightforward reading of your work has ever produced. See you in the beer tent later?

Helen Bagnall is the co-founder of The Also Festival which takes place this week between 17 – 19 June 2016 in Warwickshire.

She is also co-founder of of Salon London and The Transmission Prize and, creator of Salon North. She works with authors and publishing houses to develop author-led events for Latitude, Wilderess, Festival No 6, Standon Calling and the Soho House Group.

© Helen Bagnall