Book festivals: love them or loathe them, they are part of an author’s life. The current best estimate of the number of literary festivals in the UK is 364. One for every day of the year except Christmas Day. I will have done twelve this year, that’s one a month, and by and large I have good experiences of them. Some authors are becoming concerned that the sheer number of these festivals means that they no longer fulfil their original brief, which is to bring writers and readers together in the mutual love of books. So are they worth doing?
Although some literary grandees do get a sizeable fee for doing festivals, most authors do not get paid or if they do, it is a standard fee of £100 to £150. Even then, most festivals that do pay ask that the author considers waiving the fee as a mark of generosity towards the organisers.
We are asked to give up a day of our time, sometimes more than a day if the festival is far away. And believe me, many of them are miles from Oxford: Wigton, Pitlochry, Dartington are just three that need overnight stays. We are asked to perform for free in front of people who have paid up to £10 a ticket and we may, if we are lucky, sell some books. Recently many of us have noticed that festival goers no longer buy books in such quantities as once they did. You used to be able to reckon on roughly one in ten audience members buying a book after the talk. My experience this year is that the number is closer to one in twenty. The benefit of appearing at book festivals, we are repeatedly told, is exposure. This is not something that is easily quantifiable so it continues to get bandied about even though there is no evidence to prove the claim.
Most authors are uncomplicated and enjoy meeting people who read our books and turn up willingly at festivals. What do we expect in return? In my experience, very little. I wrote a list of author requirements for someone who was organising a new book festival from scratch. I unearthed them this morning:
1. Clear instructions about transport, parking, timings
2. A person to welcome the author either at the festival or from the train station
3. Clear guidelines beforehand about what will be covered, ie. expenses, overnight stays (if relevant), a fee plus technical requirements for those authors who want to do a powerpoint presentation or something similar
4. Free sandwiches and soft drinks in the Green Room for before and after the talk
I think those are pretty modest. Most festivals are well set up to meet these requirements and some go way beyond. Hay, which I attended this year for the first time, was stand-out brilliant. It ran like clockwork and despite the fact it attracts huge audiences and big names, there was never a moment when I was made to feel I was in a sausage machine. My friend Mary, who has attended Hay for years as an audience member, was thrilled to see behind the scenes and was impressed by the organisers’ attitude to the ‘artists’ as we were termed. Ways with Words, which runs festivals in Dartington, Keswick and Southwold, is another festival that offers an excellent experience with plenty of food, conversation and fascinating people. However, it is not just the large or well established festivals. Fowey in Cornwall hosts a lovely, small festival in May which is a treat to attend. Not only is the setting glorious and the organisation excellent but the volunteers who help the immensely energetic festival organiser, Brenda Daly, are friendly, helpful and enthusiastic. Wigton is similarly a lovely event with a wonderful atmosphere. With experiences like these it is easy to see why authors are prepared to give up their time to travel hundreds of miles to speak for 45 minutes in front of audiences large and small.
So when this weekend I attended a festival where not one of the guidelines had been followed I felt pretty put out. I drove 240 miles to speak to 11 people and sell 8 books – a good strike rate, I admit but I think the audience felt sorry for me – and I even had to spend 20p to use the public lavatory! Still, I suppose it means I’ve only got 363 to choose from next year…