It seemed like such a good idea at the time.
How do we get more readers to come to one of our pop-up bookshops? Panels of authors talking about books! Talking about the genres that readers love: crime, sci fi, romance...!
Little did I know that this was going to turn into six of the most intense, stressful, enjoyable and rewarding months I have ever experienced.
As the idea started to take root, and influenced by discussions that dominated the publishing environment in late 2015 / early 2016, we established a number of core principles.
- put trade and indie authors together on the same platform, but not talk about routes to publication
- include literary fiction – because, yes, that is a genre too!
- invite BAME authors to talk about their books, not about diversity
- pay all speakers a fee for appearing
- keep the festival free and accessible to all booklovers, not just those who could afford expensive entry fees
In short, the festival would be about building bridges – not barriers.
We knew it was going to be quite some challenge – especially financially – to satisfy all those aims, but we were determined to give it our best shot.
In the event, the easiest part was getting authors to participate. Trade and indie authors alike loved our pitch, and accepted our invitations almost immediately. As so often, it was niggling matters of money and admin that kept me awake at nights over the next few months.
So here, for anyone else who might be thinking of putting on a literary event, are a few hints and tips about what to do and not to do.
Plan your budget carefully. Think about your ‘must haves,’ which will determine the minimum amount you need to raise.
Consider your venue carefully. Size and acoustics of the room. How easy it is to get to. Accessibility. What else will be going on around your event? This is likely to be one of our major expenses, so you need to get it right.
Are you paying your speakers a fee? Expenses? The Society of Authors strongly advocates that authors should be paid, but many larger festivals are still failing to do so.
It can be the small things that catch you out. Many venues now expect you to have your own Public Liability Insurance. And when you look for insurance, the insurers are likely to ask that that any exhibitors (such as sponsors with a table at the event) have their own PLI!
Where is your income coming from? Sponsorship? Crowd-funding? Admission charge? How much will be committed before you need to start paying anything out?
You cannot start too early to look for sponsorship – companies plan their budgets before the start of the financial year, so you need to look that far ahead too. What are sponsors going to get out of the deal? Why should they back you? Remember you are going to have to knock on a lot of doors to before you get any responses.
In the UK, the Arts Council provides grants for artistic endeavours, including festivals and other live events. But again you need to plan a long way in advance. You also need to provide concrete evidence of artistic outcomes, public engagement and partnerships – not something you can bluff your way through, so think carefully and do your research.
The chairmanship of the panels is as important as the participants. They will have to be prepared to do their homework – to read books by the authors and work with you to develop questions that are challenging and geared to promoting a lively discussion.
Are you going to sell books at the event? If so, will you have a retail partner (in which case, they may take as much as a 50% cut, to cover their costs)? If not, how will sales be handled? How will books get to the venue, and how will you handle any not sold at the end of the day?
Consider filming / recording your event – potentially another major expense, but one that will give it a life beyond the live event, an attraction for authors and sponsors alike. If so, remember that sound quality is key for capturing discussions.
Publicity is vital – and hard to get for a new, untried event! Think about the balance of print v online, geographically local v targeted to interest groups. Think laterally about articles you can pitch that promote the event without being blatant advertising. (We got articles into blogs with Writers & Artists and The Bookseller by finding things they were interested in talking about that linked to the Lit Fest.)
Take care of your authors! Make sure they are kept informed in the lead up to the event, and know what to expect when they get there. Make them welcome when they arrive, ensure they have what they need to be comfortable, and that they have a chance to meet their fellow panellists.
And most of all, make sure they – and the audience – have FUN!