It’s been a more than usually interesting week. Last Thursday, the day Josh left London, I was there myself on a pleasure jaunt, though the timing was wrong and we didn’t get to meet. Which was a pity, as it would have made a lovely day even better, but maybe another year.
And now I’m just home from an arts festival at which I gave a talk and ran a murder mystery evening.
And that’s what’s on my mind at the moment. Festivals. Conventions. Events at which people with mutual interests gather. In particular, book festivals, which this one was, at least in part.
It was a small event: the first of its kind, and they have some work to do to make it grow, but nevertheless I met quite a few people who oiled the little grey cells and gave me food for thought.
These are some of those thoughts.
I’ve been to a few over the years. CrimeFest several times, the Harrogate Crime Festival two or three. Bouchercon just the once, and that, let me tell you, was one big experience. Several writers’ conferences too, where the writers were mostly unpublished and in search of advice on how to correct that situation.
At the other kind I met authors, listened to them speak, sometimes bought their books, sometimes didn’t. I made some good friends too. Mostly I tried to raise awareness of the books I was publishing; that, for me, was the point of being there.
But I’m not an author. So today’s question is, what purpose do festivals and conventions serve for authors?
At the one I’m just back from, two authors in particular made me think about this. One was new to it all, and kept apologizing for her inexperience – though her talk, to a dozen or so people, was fluent and entertaining, so there was no call for apologies.
When she fulfilled her advertised function, she had a lovely time simply chatting to people. It was probably the first time a group of strangers had told her, kept telling her, how much they enjoyed her book. There’s only one so far, and she was excited to find it on sale alongside much bigger names – and even more excited when people bought it and asked her to sign their copies.
So for her, a small festival was an ideal introduction to a world which will inevitably become more familiar as her career gains momentum. A huge morale-booster too; writing is a solitary occupation, and sometimes it’s important to be with people.
The second author was well-known: a headline act with a new book just out, so she was on the campaign trail to promote it. Her publicist came too, and their visit lasted little over twelve hours from arrival to departure. Her talk was fluent and entertaining as well, to about thirty people; afterwards she sold a handful of books, joined other speakers and volunteer organizers for dinner, then retired to her room, which, if it was anything like mine, was comfortable enough but not exactly four-star hotel standard. (The venue was a vast, old house with a lot of history and not very efficient heating.)
She left to catch a train before I was awake next morning, and I spoke to her only briefly, but I got a distinct sense that she was less than impressed. When I’ve encountered her at larger, well-established festivals, her audience has been in three figures and the accommodation rather more luxurious; maybe that had raised her expectations. I did hear tell of another author who had pulled out at the last minute; his previous experience led him to expect an audience of three hundred and a four-figure fee for his services, neither of which was available here.
Of course this was a British festival. Here the speakers earn a fee and often stay only as long as they need to do their thing. Festivals and conventions on the American model are slightly different; there, everyone, authors, fans, editors alike, pays to attend, and most people stay for the whole event. Which, if I’m honest, makes more sense to me; after all, authors are there to promote their books, and why should they be paid for doing exactly that? The same talk will do duty at a dozen events, so it’s not even as if a large amount of preparation is required. And there’s the social element; a lot of wine is consumed at book festivals. And the networking opportunities: I’ve seen useful relationships forged. It all feeds in to the career-building which is surely every author’s aim.
So are book festivals and events work, or play? What do authors expect from them? Any ideas?