Tangled web

Lee Randall

23 April 2020
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Online book events are everywhere at the moment. How do they stand up to the “real” thing? And how will they change our literary landscape for ever? 

Writer and Granite Noir festival programmer Lee Randall finds out.

It’s funny how quickly things change. Back in February, we held the fourth Granite Noir festival in Aberdeen. It was our most ambitious, and best-attended yet, welcoming authors, performers, and readers from around the world.

Yet a fortnight before kick-off, rumblings in the zeitgeist had us on edge. We held our breath when one invited author was advised to self-isolate after returning from Japan with a cold. Would she cancel? We’d already lost a writer from overseas whose physician forbade her to travel because of Covid-19. Might there be a last-minute pile-up of no-shows?

We were lucky, our festival went ahead. Our friends at AyeWrite! were not. They made the sad but sensible decision to cancel their March festival.

For those of us who mark the year by its literary festivals, especially in Scotland, the sharpest punch to the solar plexus landed on 1st April, when Edinburgh International Book Festival—along with all the August festivals—cancelled its 2020 programme.

Suddenly it felt real.

The message was clear: Covid isn’t a temporary glitch in the system, a spring fling destined to vanish by the summer solstice. It’s our new reality, and when we return to “normal,” we’ll have to do things differently.

Why? As Nick Barley, director of Edinburgh International Book Festival points out, “Next August, in 2021, there will still be a significant number of people who are unwilling to breathe each other’s air. This thing, which seemed so natural a few months ago, is going to seem toxic for a long time. Even after restaurants have reopened, and shops, theatre’s going to be the last thing to be unlocked. People will not want to go there. We have got to find a parallel festival experience, which is available even when people are happily back in the front row of theatres. Others will need to access that experience somehow online.”

The international Book Tribe responded to the pandemic swiftly and generously. Our already active social media channels gained momentum. Established authors volunteered to promote debut novels in their Twitter feeds. People have rallied around independent bookshops, sending donations, ordering books, bigging them up in lists of small businesses to support.

Twitter, Instagram and Facebook Q&A sessions already existed, but their frequency increased. Book launches went virtual, by video. There’s been a revival of chain-letter style memes rolling out book recommendations. Existing book clubs migrated into digital spaces, and new ones spring up daily. Meanwhile publishers (cutting out the middle man or woman) and bookshops have leapt into the breach. I’ve identified some of the best of these here.

Perhaps the most game-changing phenomenon is the digital literary festival. There are persuasive arguments in favour of digital festivals. For one thing, no germs! They are planet-friendly: no travel’s required, energy use is low, and a festival’s carbon footprint drops sharply. A virtual festival levels the playing field for smaller outfits with tighter budgets, since there’s no need to pay for airline tickets or accommodation. 

For readers with mobility, child care, mental or physical health concerns, or financial restrictions of their own, a digital festival with free events opens a door that was previously closed. (And let’s face it, many more of us will be struggling to balance our budgets post-pandemic, due to the disruption in our professional lives.)

Therefore, in theory, the digital model offers opportunities for audience outreach, welcoming everyone who previously found festivals too intimidating, expensive, middle class, elitist, and simply “not for the likes of them.”

My argument—admittedly a gut feeling—is that this looks good on paper, but the truth is that we’re still not reaching those new people. I hear about these digital initiatives because I’m enmeshed in the book world, already tuned in, antennae alert to news about my great passion, books, which is also my career, encompassing programming, reviewing, and chairing events.

Presumably there are equally active tribes centred around music, sport, and so on, and undoubtedly they’re rallying to provide terrific innovative events for their people. But I rarely hear about it because I’m not tuned in. On that basis, I’m unconvinced that much “fresh, new” outreach is happening yet.

Alison Barrow, PR director at Transworld Books (part of Penguin Random House), agrees. “I think at the moment we are preaching to the converted, replacing what they would have had normally. They would have gone to festivals and bookshop events. What the industry needs to do is reach beyond that, but we can only do this if we are offering something that is high quality, consistent, entertaining, educative, and that gives you a reason to keep coming back.”

Quality is key. We’re in a transition phase. It feels like a state of emergency, and that’s carrying us forward. There’s freedom to experiment and make mistakes. But what’s happening is reactive, not proactive and that will have to change.

Nick Barley also expresses concerns about the quality of digital events, saying that the experience needs to feel like an occasion; organisers have to give audiences a compelling reason to stay until the end. That might mean greeting people into the digital space ten minutes ahead of time, or creating a way for them to engage with the author afterwards, as would happen in a signing queue—for instance making it possible for them to get signed, personalised book plates. Maybe the author and chair would set the scene, along the lines of, “Here I am in my living room, surrounded by my favourite things.”

Nick Barley says, “Right now we’ve all been rendered amateurs in this process, but there’s a risk, if we put on free events that are under-produced, if we get it wrong, that we devalue the entire literary festival experience. There will be a sense that these things really aren’t worth paying for if you can get it for free online. I’m being very critical here, playing devil’s advocate, and saying that if we don’t have a quality product we’ll devalue it.”

He added, “I watched one event where the moderator forgot to mention that the book was for sale. Of course that can happen in a live event, but in the digital sphere there are no other cues, such as seeing the author go to the signing tent. The events are free to enter, and there’s zero commitment to the author as a result. The big question is how do we generate that sense of investment, of energy, of ideas, and frankly, how do we encourage people to invest some of their money? We need it to work for us and we have to find that mechanism.”

***   ***   ***

The question of money, which I raised with everyone I spoke to, may strike some as crass, but it’s appropriate. Those of us making festivals happen can’t live on air, and a festival takes money to produce. That’s why established festivals have a slight,  temporary edge, thanks to funders keen to keep them afloat. Newer festivals are operating on a zero or limited budget, relying on a spirit of camaraderie—and the natural wish on the part of authors and publishers to keep titles in the public’s eye.

As Alison Barrow points out, “There’s a lot of goodwill right now on the part of authors and others, because we’re reacting to something. But if we’re rolling digital out for the future, there needs to be that economic foundation. It is people’s time and money and professionalism.”

Sasha de Buyl, Director of Cúirt International Festival of Literature, said postponement wasn’t an option in Galway, for logistical reasons. They initially considered cancelling this year’s festival but realised they could mount a scaled-back digital offering. “Looking at the budget, I had to consider could we afford it, did we have the technology to do it, and would the participants be on board?”

She said, “The first communication we got when we shut down was from the Arts Council, who said that their way of supporting artists at this time was not to ask for any of their grants back. They indicated that they expected us to pay artists, and I said, ‘Great, do we pay them even if their events don’t go ahead?’ because I am totally comfortable with that.” Cúirt is paying their appearing authors and chairs, and offering an honorarium—not the full whack, but more than half the fee—to anyone whose event was cancelled.

“Established festivals have reputations and values they want to uphold going forward,” says de Buyl. “As you said, people were quick to respond to the situation, but it’s all very grassroots and DIY. It makes sense that within a grassroots culture people aren’t able to pay, because there aren’t any budgets. For us, there is a budget, and we’ve had conversations with all of our funders. We’re treating this programme as our core offer this year.”

***   ***   ***

Are audiences as attentive at a virtual book festival? I’ve chaired two events online, and noticed that people don’t turn off their cameras at home (luckily they’re already automatically muted by the host). Good grief, the things they get up to, including “talking” nonstop via the chat box. Guys—we can see when you’re not paying attention! It seems some treat digital events as if they were listening to the radio or a podcast—on in the background while they keep busy. That’s fine, but it undermines the premise and spirit of a festival, undercutting the sense of community spirit.

“We have to develop an etiquette and guidelines around digital events for all participants,” says Alison Barrow. “If you’re joining as an audience member, turn off your video and your microphone. If you are a participant, think ahead. The effect needs to be professional. Be aware of what’s behind you, and that people are looking at you the entire time. It’s fine to look down at a note, but prep beforehand so you’re not reading from notes throughout.”

***   ***   ***

How will book festivals retain their USPs? Since the digital festival model eliminates the cost of bringing in authors from around the world—a prohibitive barrier for some festivals—then theoretically, any festival can book any author.

But a festival is not simply a place to hear authors in conversation, it’s a destination in its own right, playing a significant role in the local community. The revival of Wigtown’s fortunes is a case in point. At live literary festivals—think EIBF, the Borders Book Festival, Ullapool, Bloody Scotland, or Granite Noir—attendees become part of a community in a designated bubble for book lovers. Magic happens. They meet fellow readers, favourite authors, and discover new things to love.

Festivals encompass activities beyond book panels. At Granite Noir, for example, we programme drama, music, and film events, and held one talk in the refurbished Aberdeen Art Gallery. Research has shown that festivals increase tourism, provide spending opportunities, and provide employment. Their effect is much bigger than what happens in the auditorium.

Feedback from Open Book, a charity working to widen access to literature by running shared reading sessions across Scotland, often for marginalised communities, speaks to the importance of this live experience. Asked what they enjoyed about a day out in Wigtown, visitors replied: "Contact with writers. Sharing interests. Stimulating. Thought provoking. We laughed and had a good day.”

An Open Book group visited Granite Noir this year. Shared feedback was: “This is a group who wouldn’t have made it to the festival without your support and Open Book guiding them through it.” Attendees said: “This was such a great event, thank you very much for fixing it for us! Paretsky/Mina a perfect combination, very entertaining, thought-provoking, and we lined up for signatures afterwards.”

For the audience, being on site affords opportunities to encounter the unexpected. I liken it to the difference between bookstore browsing versus online shopping: online, you go directly for the title you know you want. In person, you may arrive with one idea, and find myriad other treasures to add to your reading list. Similarly, at a festival there’s every likelihood you’ll wind up going to something on the spur of the moment. Maybe you met the author in the cafe, caught wind of the buzz around the festival village, or had an hour to kill between already booked events.

In that way, ideas and themes are threaded through the experience, says Nick Barley, “People realise hey, people were discussing this very thing at the event I attended earlier in the day. That’s what good programming’s all about.”

The importance of meeting face to face is valuable for authors, too. Writing is a solitary occupation—even with the support of social media connections. For many, book tours and the annual festival circuit provide a welcome, dare I say necessary way of connecting with their peers, as well as their readers.

“Something that happens at really good book festivals is that the authors spend time together, and have meaningful experiences with each other,” says Barley. “I can’t tell you how many book deals have been struck by publishers in Edinburgh, probably about midnight, outside the Spiegeltent, over a glass of wine. What happens in authors’ rooms and green rooms is part of what makes a festival a festival, and not just a series of discrete events happening one after another. All good festivals do this but I don’t think I’ve seen anything online that’s begun to go anywhere near that stuff.”

Programming is at the heart of a festival’s USP, and it’s too soon to say how this will evolve in the digital arena. Barley says, “One of the things that’s helped EIBF have a reputation over the years is that we champion debut authors more than other festivals might  be able to, and we champion lesser-known international writers. One of the things I’ve seen about digital festivals over the last few days is that they’ve tended to contract back to the safe zone. There’s a risk that this safe core consists of people who’ve been on the telly, famous folk and famous writers. For Edinburgh I want us to drive forwards on the slightly out there, unusual programming.”

Sasha de Buyl says, “When we decided to take this year’s programme online I decided to work almost entirely with the authors we had already approached. That is one thing a digital festival will do, it will change how people curate, because suddenly travel is no barrier. To take that limit off—could be overwhelming. Our programme this year was really strong—it’s been a bumper year for quality Irish writing. I was excited about this, so almost all of them are appearing in the digital festival.”

Alison Barrow says, “I’m reminded of how podcasts have evolved. The ones rising to the top have consistency and quality of format. I always go back to the exquisite format of Desert Island Discs, which has never been matched, and the way a story emerges through the structure. I think the cream will rise. Digital festivals that tick these boxes will have longevity. I hope they do. This is a bit of a dress rehearsal. Some things will work, some will not work. You are even more in the hands of the people participating. Never more was a robust, articulate, professional moderator needed. You can’t wing it.”

***   ***   ***

How do we make digital festivals commercially viable? It remains to be seen whether people will value events enough to pay to attend.

At  Wigtown - who like many festivals around the countryhave been thrown a financial lifeline to support digital engagement by Baillie Gifford - sign up sheets for all events and the chat box on the day, display links where visitors can make donations and buy books from the festival shop. In America, the Quarantine Book Club lets readers “have spirited discussions from the privacy of our own quarantined space!” Tickets, sold through Eventbrite, cost $5.  

And the business model for MvLF, partnering with Big Book Weekend, makes content free for readers by charging publishers booth space in their virtual exhibition hall, and to host events. Will publishers find this more cost-effective than a book tour? Will the eventual adoption of VR technology provide a truly three-dimensional feel? I don’t know if at-home VR will get widespread uptake anytime soon. I’m unlikely to sit in my flat wearing a headset, but maybe that’s a function of my age and lack of capital to invest in the equipment.

***   ***   *** 

Finally, will publishers want to travel their authors in the future? Will digital kill the book festival?

It seems to me, and it’s early days, that the answers are Yes and No. Just as ebooks and audiobooks didn’t kill off print, it’s most likely that digital events will become the “adjacent to,” rather than “instead of” option. It will always be important for authors to meet booksellers, and they gain much from meeting their readers face to face. Similarly, readers will always want to be in the room, amid like-minded people, will always want to snaffle that signature and selfie post-event. While it’s true that many authors these days are savvy social media users, maintain websites, and have daily interactions with their readers, it’s simply not the same as a close encounter. 

***   ***   ***

It comes back to community. Millicent Weber, in Literary Festivals and Contemporary Book Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) explores the idea of being part of a greater entity: “Motivations for attending literary festivals are complex and varied.  . . . Seeing, hearing, and being in the same space as the creator of a work adds an extra, valuable dimension to some individuals’ enjoyment of creative work. Their  satisfaction [comes] from encountering the author ‘in the flesh,’ and particularly the way in which this encounter is believed to augment, rather than undermine, enjoyment of the written work.”

Weber’s research determined that, “Social engagement with other audience members, regardless of their taste in literature, is the strongest motivator to attend. Literary festival audiences seek experiences that combine engaging leisure activities with cultural, intellectual, and professional development.

“Being physically in the space meant that the audience member had undertaken to provide their full attention to the event. Listening and responding to the same cues as a group of other people, in the same physical space and within the same set of social and cultural norms, offers a unique sense of interconnection.”

Sasha de Buyl says, “There is a special magic being in the room with one of your favourite writers and having them discuss things with another voice. There is a creative process to an event. You bring two or three voices together and they are having thoughts they never had before. They are creating new ideas and new works right before your eyes. That is a magical experience.”

This idea resonates with Alison Barrow, who echoes the sentiments of everyone I spoke to, saying, “There is something about the theatre of community and everyone being in the same place at the same time. It can be a gorgeous atmosphere or a provocative atmosphere, or something shocking happens. It’s theatre. That will still be compelling. It’s a social thing, too. It’s about sharing, going with your book group or your friends. You don’t get the shared experience online. There may be 100 people watching but we don’t know who they are. It’s a disconnected feeling.  If your author is witty and tells funny stories, you can’t hear laughter rippling across the room.

“As a publisher, I’m thinking there will be room for both digital and live events. I hope the best of them endure. It will be about having the right blend of content, host, and the right authors, who feel comfortable in front of a screen, which is harder than in a room where you can feed off an audience, the encouragement an interviewer gives you, and so on. A lot of nonverbal communication takes place throughout an event.”

Nick Barley says, “What I would like to see, without pre-empting what we’re going to do in August, is to create a kind of space where—given we are in a slightly weird zone this year—there is a space for experimenting with ideas, and looking at how we can do things online. One or two might be spectacular failures, one or two might be unforgettably brilliant. In the process of learning how to do that in the safe space of 2020, we will find some things that work, not only for Edinburgh’s festival in the future, but for all people who are trying to put on events online. We can create a vocabulary that’s successful for all of us. It’s about trying to help all of us to survive. We’re here to battle for the survival of writing and books and publishing.”

These are scary, sad times, and books are more important than ever. We escape into books for solace, for distraction from depressing headlines, for education, and as a way of travelling to destinations that will be off limits for the foreseeable future. For the book community, this is both a worrying and an exciting time. We have an opportunity to examine what we do and how, to experiment and innovate, to use this time to discover which technology and platform to use and when. Looking around, having spoken to some of those involved, I’m convinced that while our future looks bright, it will never look quite the same—which is no bad thing.

Lee Randall is a freelance writer and event chair and programmer for Aberdeen’s Granite Noir book festival.

Read Lee's Guide to the best digital book events

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