What a difference a year makes.
Last year, I went to Crickhowell Literary Festival to hear one of my favourite crime writers, Matthew (MR) Hall interview Matt Johnson, a crime author I’d only previously known as a speaker at the Bristol Crimefest.
This year, I’m going to be interviewed by Matthew Hall myself, as part of a panel of crime writers from the collective, Crime Cymru which I set up with the aforementioned Matt Johnson and Rosie Claverton, both of whom have now become friends.
And the last year has taught me a lot about literary festivals, too. Not just because I’ve appeared at a few but also because I’ve been lucky enough to talk to some of their organisers. I’ve been given an insight into the frankly alarming process of organising the many different strands that go into every event: getting the programme finalised (a hugely complex job in itself which involves author wrangling, design, liaising with printers and webmasters etc) in time to get it printed and out/online in plenty of time for people to hear about the festival, but not too far in advance so they forget about it; organising media coverage of your event – radio, press and on social media; ordering just the right number of books for authors to sign after they’ve spoken; finding the chair or intereviewer who will bring out the best in the panel or interviewee and persuading them that they’d like to take part; meeting people from trains or organising transport; booking accommodation for people; trying to fit in with busy schedules; fielding questions from authors, agents, publishers and publicists; juggling room bookings on the basis of likely audience numbers…the list is endless and I’m in awe of anybody prepared to take it on.
Just on that last one, I’ve realised that festival organisers develop an unhealthily close relationship with the software that allows them to see how many people have bought tickets for any given event. And low numbers as the event gets ever closer begin to give even youthful litfest co-ordinators an unreasonable number of grey hairs. They know the break-even numbers and they don’t want to run things at a loss. Nobody can run anything at a loss, it’s simple economics. Festivals have really stepped up to the plate, recently, in terms of paying authors to appear but they do depend on decent audiences in order to do so.
So, if you’re planning to come to the Crickhowell Literary Festival next Thursday evening (5th October, 8pm) to see M R Hall interviewing a panel of Crime Cymru authors about Welsh sleuths’ status as outsiders, please do consider booking ahead of time. Relying on ‘walk ups’ – ie people who pay at the door – is a nail-biting thing for those in charge and it would be great to spare them those extra grey hairs. If you click on this link, it’ll take you straight to the page where you can buy tickets:
But why have we suddenly got all these festivals, anyway? It seems as if every town and village has one these days. They’re like fetes – de rigeur for a certain sort of place. In the last decade, they’ve proliferated like mushrooms. (In direct proportion, I would argue, to the decline in the number of independent bookshops and the growth of Amazon.)
Matthew Hall came to speak at the little festival in the town where I live, this summer, and he told the audience at the Coleford Festival of Words how much publishing had changed over the time during which he’s been writing the Jenny Cooper, Coroner, series. During that time, publishers have come to depend on their authors going out to festivals like Crickhowell and Coleford not to mention events at bookshops, libraries and schools. The days of big marketing budgets are over and authors are expected to put in the hours – which often means days – in order to publicise their own work and make themselves available to their readers.
If novels are to compete with online media, video games, films, Youtube and the dreaded social media, authors have little choice but to get out there and make a noise about their work.
So reclusive souls who actually quite like sitting at home in our pyjamas/ clothes we’ve had for a decade, writing our stuff, have to turn ourselves, periodically, into performers.
And that’s not easy for all of us. Most writers are happiest when they’re alone, with their pen or laptop, getting on with the work. For some, appearing in front of a crowd can be really daunting. I’m lucky, I enjoy a bit of performing occasionally. I like talking about what I do because I can see that people find the creative process fascinating. (I do too. Fascinating and scary and elusive.) But, for all of us, a balance has to be struck between promoting our work and protecting enough time so that we can actually get on with it.
So, if you ever find yourself looking at the publicity material for a bookish event and wonder whether it’d be your kind of thing, do think about going along and supporting the authors you read. In a very real and tangible way, you’ll be supporting the writing of our books.