Literary festivals – from the other side

June 6th, 2011

There are ongoing rumblings about how authors are treated at literary festivals. I am usually at the author end, but I recently had an illuminating experience on what it’s like to be the organiser.

 I offered to put together a literature event under the umbrella of a major national arts festival. I invited three panellists who I will now call Mega Author, Best Seller and Critically Acclaimed. Mega Author’s PR responded immediately to my invitation, establishing the size of the venue, the likely number of attendees and what kind of publicity the event might expect. She referred the information back to Mega Author, who immediately accepted. Best Seller sent a charming ‘yes’ after one follow-up email, and Critically Acclaimed eventually said ‘yes’ after numerous unacknowledged follow-ups.

Delighted to have three such good names, I asked them all for biogs and photos for the brochure. Mega Author’s PR sent both immediately, and asked the name of the bookshop selling books at the event to ensure that all the right titles were ordered in good time. I got Best Seller’s details off his website, but even after several emails, there was no reply from Critically Acclaimed and he doesn’t have a website, so I had to research him on the Internet. I have no idea whether the information I wrote for the brochure was correct.

Six weeks away from the event I emailed Best Seller and Critically Acclaimed to say that I was doing pre-publicity, and needed photographs, and also to ask if there were any titles they particularly wanted sold at the event. (I didn’t need to contact Mega Author as all this was already in place). I got a photo from Best Sellers’ agent, but no reply from Critically Acclaimed. I tried his agent, who seemed surprised – even incredulous – that he’d accepted, and was rather grumpy about sending a photo. Mega Author predominated in the brochure entry and publicity – not because he is more famous, but because we actually had everything from the start.

 By now I was worried that Critically Acclaimed might have forgotten, so I managed to hunt down his telephone number. After several attempts I got through, and he confirmed that everything was fine. No, he didn’t need anything in particular. He would see me there. By this time I had spent hours chasing Critically Acclaimed, compared with just minutes dealing with Mega Author’s PR. 

Mega Author’s PR also asked for details of the event so that it could go on his website, and he and his agent subsequently tweeted and blogged the event in advance, helping to stimulate interest. I asked Best Seller and Critically Acclaimed if they could add it to any website or blog they had, but received no reply. Best Seller’s website hadn’t been updated in months, and not only does Critically Acclaimed not have one, but he has stated publicly that tweeting is stupid.

 Both I and the Festival Organisers pulled out all the stops to get the debate maximum publicity both nationally and locally, calling in precious favours from media friends. Considering the Festival had several hundred other events to organise and publicise over two weeks, they went beyond the call of duty. We double-checked that books from all the authors would be on sale at the event (although we still hadn’t heard from Critically Acclaimed as to which titles he wanted sold). We were determined that if Mega Author, Best Seller and Critically Acclaimed – all of whom had busy schedules and would be travelling some distance – were to give up their precious time, then we would do everything in our power to maximise attendance. This, in itself, took a huge amount of time and effort, and ticket sales at £8 a head don’t cover the costs or the time involved. The literary events at the festival are subsidised by the more popular music and dance ones.

Ten days in advance, I sent out a schedule to all three authors, including timings, train schedules and parking arrangements, and asked them if there was anything else they needed. Mega-Author’s PR and Best Seller sent cheery emails saying ‘fine’. No reply from Critically Acclaimed. Mega Author’s PR came back to me with a short page of ‘how Mega Author likes to be introduced.’ This was very helpful – a common complaint from authors at literary festivals is apparently that they are not introduced properly, or sometimes even at all. Composing my introduction for Mega Author took just a few minutes, while I had to hunt through the internet yet again for extra details on Critically Acclaimed.

On the morning of the event, I got my first call from Critically Acclaimed’s agent. CA was ill and would not be attending. No details of the illness were offered. We wondered if he had perhaps fainted on finding out that the city where the festival was taking place was more than an hour out of London, although we’d sent him lots of travel detail well beforehand.

On the evening both Mega Author and Best Seller turned up on time. They were fascinating, professional and charming, and worked hard to make the event a success, even though the expected turnout of 80 had dwindled to around 50. I know they picked up some new readers as a result, and sold a few books, although undoubtedly not enough to justify their time. Of course no evening with under 100 people is going to propel you to stardom, but Critically Acclaimed had proportionately far more to gain from the event than Mega Author.

If you don’t have the time for a literary event, say ‘no’ when you are asked. Otherwise ask for details on how big the event is, where it is and how it will be publicised before you make your decision. Then have a biog and photo ready to email (it will be useful for all your publicity efforts). Check that your books have been ordered, and include the event on your website or blog. Many authors also tweet their appearances. Send a friendly suggestion on how you could be introduced and ask for details on how the evening will be run. And if you are genuinely ill, give some detail or it will sound as if you’re dropping out.

Although I agree that authors should be paid for their appearances, as the royalties from a few books sold at a festival are not an adequate reward for what may be up to a day of your time, literary events are not as profitable as, say, concerts. And it is your choice as to whether to accept or not.  To claim that everyone else is profiting while the authors do the work is not correct. It is a huge amount of work to put on a single event, and even when organisers are paid, it often doesn’t reflect the hours and effort they put into it.

 All three authors have very busy working lives and packed schedules, but I would rank Mega Author, Best Seller and Critically Acclaimed as first, very close second and third in terms of professionalism, with CA trailing a long way behind the other two. It is interesting to note that that’s how they rank in sales terms too.

3 Comments already, do join in...

  1. Griselda Says:

    June 6th, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Very interesting to read this behind-the-scenes account of a contemporary lit fest.
    I ran one almost single-handed for 5 years (unpaid) and almost all the authors were very helpful and seemed to be grateful!
    That was some years ago before websites & twitter.
    Some lugged piles of books along themselves.
    The publishers’ PR departments varied a lot in helpfulness, ranging from v organised to downright rude.
    Well done for your efforts & for sharing this info.

  2. adele geras Says:

    September 26th, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Found this absolutely fascinating and a good glimpse of the other side of the equation. I like to think I’m a very low-maintenance writer for any festival I’ve been invited to, but I do still feel that anyone taking part should be paid…even if very little! As for an audience of 50 people…LUXURY, I’d call that!

  3. Nina Bell Says:

    September 26th, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    I agree in many ways about being paid, but I know that quite a few festivals wouldn’t exist if they had to pay writers (or indeed anyone!). I also agree that an audience of 50 is pretty good going these days, but having done some much smaller turnouts as a writer recently, I found that the interaction with a smaller group (by which I mean six people!) can be quite inspiring. So I don’t regret doing the smaller unpaid gigs, although it’s pretty miserable if it’s just three people who have come in out of the rain. It’s all a question of balance because it’s unpaid (or barely paid) time out of a working day, which wouldn’t be expected of most professions, and I guess we have to juggle the benefits of interaction with our readers or prospective readers against getting the next book finished. Thanks so much for commenting.

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