The year festivals went virtual

Francesca Baker
News - Festivals Thursday, 8th October 2020

It's not as simple as turning on Zoom. Francesca Baker reports

Think literary festivals and you bring to mind soft-lit bars and people gathered around small tables, sipping drinks as they watch a poet take to the stage. Or a tent packed out with people in rows, smiling and murmuring as an author discusses their latest work. What you don't think of is a computer screen and a conference call. Until 2020, because that's when everything went digital.

Covid-19 stopped many literature and book festivals in their tracks, and caused a rethink. Festivals tend to programme far in advance, and had their schedules already planned for a year of events. Then it all had to change.

Generally, it's been a success. From the big guys like Hay and Cheltenham, to smaller regional festivals, the festival community has made a shift and brought its programmes online. But it's not as simple as turning on Zoom and hoping for the best. 

Helen Lewis, director of Literally PR, a books and literature marketing agency, and co-director of Hashtag Press, a publisher focusing on diversity and inclusion, has seen a change in response during the pandemic and subsequent restrictions. "At the start of the pandemic online events were more of a novelty, and we had journalists attending book launches on Zoom who probably wouldn't have made it to an event in London. Then of course it got more competitive. Literary festivals were forced to go online to provide the programmes they'd painstakingly put together over months. Publishing conferences and trade fairs shifted gears and went online. So there is a lot happening out there."

So much love
Cutting through all of this has been a challenge, but in its work for Kent-based festival Margate Bookie Literally PR has found plenty of backing from the literature-loving community. Lewis says: "What we've found for Margate Bookie is so much love and support from book bloggers, readers, the people who truly love literature and engaging with authors. And going online has meant being able to pitch to journalists, bloggers and readers outside the Margate/Thanet/Kent region - we've even got interest internationally.

"As we all know, 2020 has not been without its challenges, but we've seen the true passion for books come out in full force to support events and authors who genuinely appreciate and engage with readers."

Andreas Loizou, director of Margate Bookie, saw that many festivals were following the temptation simply to replicate what would happen in real life and transfer it online. Instead, the Bookie team took the time to reflect on themes and projects. "We have a lot of talent in the team, and I wanted to take those ideas and innovations and use technology as a resource, rather than a limitation.

"One project was a curated literary map that used technology and geocaching to create a vibrant and original tour that engages people. It also keeps growing. A physical map is a moment in time. But this one involves psychogeography and can go very deep."

As well as allowing new ideas, going online has the obvious benefit of extending reach. Margate Bookie has had people tune in to its talks and workshops from Israel, Tangiers and the USA. The core community from East Kent have joined in, being reassured and encouraged to see their local festival still going strong, but they have also been able to reach out and connect with more people. The authors have also come from further afield: today (8 October) Mary O'Hara will beam in from the US, as part of an autumn/winter series of events featuring genres from crime fiction to short stories, on topics ranging from bibliotherapy to diversity and inclusion. 

Learning curves
At Dublin Book Festival, the organisers found that programming was in some ways simpler, because authors and publishers were more likely to be available, ready to commit, and willing to adapt to online events. "The technical side of things proved a challenge," says Julianne Mooney Siron, programme director. "What platform to use, how to present events, how to cope if authors were doing a whole string of online events in advance of the festival. However, with a lot of research, we found the platform that I enjoyed most watching at other festivals. We used our venue budget to create quality production - with authors in venues we would usually use, therefore giving exposure to the venues while recreating the feeling of being at an event - authors and facilitators in one room!"

In spite of the competition for audiences and eyeballs, there has been a supportive atmosphere among the festivals community. Sheila O'Reilly, festival director at Dingle Lit, says: "Our local council, Kerry County Council, along with the Arts Council were incredibly supportive of how we can make an online festival happen. I also got in touch with other festivals to talk through issues. It has been a very large learning curve that I am sure we are not yet at the top of, but when we hit a hurdle people pull together to solve the issues."

Hybrid future
What does this mean mean for the future? It's hard to know. At Margate Bookie, Andreas Loizou says: "The lines will blur, and online and in real life will happen simultaneously."

Lee Randall is working on a research project about literary festivals in the age of Covid-19 for Creative Scotland. It's early days in her research, but she says: "I do believe the future of book festivals will be hybrid, encompassing live events, possibly still socially distanced, and digital events. How we do this creatively is the ongoing challenge."

It's clear that the landscape for live events has changed. But our appetite for literature has not waned. Going online has allowed for greater inclusivity and interactivity, which can only be a good thing. As long as festivals can keep connecting authors and audiences, and providing spaces for stimulating thought and discussion, they are achieving exactly what they should be. Online or offline - it's all real life these days.

Photo: Rebecca Ley at Margate Bookie

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