How virtual literary festivals are breaking down diversity barriers

How virtual literary festivals are breaking down diversity barriers

It’s not exactly ground-breaking to say that digital platforms bring down barriers and connect readers, but in terms of events and book festivals, there’s still a lot more potential waiting to be discovered.

At Scot Lit Fest, the Saltire Society’s virtual book festival celebrating Scottish literature in particular, we’ve been able to programme events with local and international authors in the form of Twitter chats, live video chats, Facebook events, pre-recorded live events, podcasts and interactive storytelling. We wrote a wrap up of 2016’s inaugural festival for Futurebook and have carried the same ethos through to 2017.

‘So it’s just the internet?’ Yes, it is, it’s the internet, and it’s one of the most gloriously accessible facets of twenty first century life. Why isn’t it being used more for the book community?

For context, way ahead of the curve was StAnza who hosted their own virtual poetry festival Distant Voices, in 2009. From 2012 – 2014 saw the Edinburgh eBook Festival which held a staggering 177 events in 2013 across one month. Stepping up a notch in 2014, HarperCollins collaborated with BFI for a virtual sci-fi festival and then with Harlequin Mills & Boon for a virtual romance festival in 2015.

Touching on a range of genres and demographics, these virtual celebrations exemplify the potential for publishers to both promote and genuinely engage readers, new and established. However, they have sadly not continued beyond their inaugural jovialities for various reasons, leaving gaps in virtual literary engagement to be filled. This means tackling diversity and accessibility from all angles, from the ground up.

What Scot Lit Fest attempts to do is fully make the most of this relatively clean slate and not be susceptible to the diversity pitfalls so many in-person literary festivals land in, such as; high ticket costs pricing out the unemployed and low-earning, poor payment for authors, panels lacking BAME diversity, venues only accessible to local city-dwellers and the able bodied, the young, little online coverage for those with anxiety and so the list goes on. The very nature of the digital festival means a lot of these issues are immediately avoided, but some must still be confronted head on.

Digital festivals make the literary world a more equal playing field for both authors and readers. There are a number of excellent examples of in-person literary festivals working to make their festivals more accessible to those of lower income with discounts or even, as crime writing festival Bloody Scotland does, free standby tickets for the unemployed. When it comes to the digital realm, the gap is further reduced. All that is needed is access to the internet in some form, be it via phone, laptop, internet cafe or, we particularly encourage, a local library. Accessibility is a key step towards new, engaged audiences and is a priority for Scot Lit Fest.

As a digital festival we archive all of our events so they can be revisited at a later date to combat the restriction of location or FOMO. Every Twitter chat, video, and story is collected on the Scot Lit Fest website in various forms. As Twitter attracts a specific pool of demographics, archiving on Storify also allows those who might not be physically or mentally able to follow the fast-paced nature of the platform to re-read the chat at a later date at their own pace and leisure. We found a high uptake of older users who primarily use Facebook diving into our Twitter archives as opposed to following live. The events we have hosted in-person and later uploaded to YouTube have seen a high percentage of 50+ year-olds in the audience but are then watched by YouTube’s younger demographics.

In terms of programming, there’s still some left to be desired in making even the most accessible of festivals more representative and fully inclusive in regards to BAME participants. That’s something we hope to constantly improve as the festival develops while we are yet to reach the necessary fair balance.

However, where we have found success is in attracting festival ‘attendees’ who don’t necessarily identify as readers. By removing the hierarchy of ‘the Festival’ that hosts ‘the Attendees’ after they have paid their fee, anyone who stumbles upon the hashtag #scotlitfest feels welcome to join in with the conversation whenever they want, whether they are a reader or not. A number of participants from the 2016 festival said they discovered new authors that they wouldn’t have necessarily found otherwise.

As bringing authors to readers is what the festival is about, while championing Scottish culture with the Saltire Society, we’re proud of Scot Lit Fest’s accomplishments and hope to see virtual opportunities fully realised and utilised by others in the near future.