Beyond the tent

A couple of weeks ago, John Howkins wrote a piece for us on the value of invisible work. Ever since, as news of one cancelled literary festival after another has hit my inbox, it's been resonating hard.

It is tough for those outside the publishing industry to understand the sheer volume of under-the-radar graft that goes into keeping authors, booksellers and publishers (particularly the indies) afloat. The festival scene is an outstanding example of this. Every month throughout the year, from Guernsey to Guildford, organisers, authors, chairs, venues, tech staff and volunteers show extraordinary passion and dedication as they create gatherings of all sizes and shapes where people can celebrate, promote and buy books. In fact, past years have been something of a golden age for the UK lit fest, with enterprising booklovers identifying and filling gaps in the market covering everything from women writers to authors of colour to LGBTQ+ literature.

Until now.

But as the C-that-shall-not-be-named rips through the country, festival teams are showing extraordinary tenacity and creativity in keeping their content alive. Hay has crowdfunded over £96,000 to secure its future and bring its programme online. Others are pulling out all the stops to find ways to keep their artists and audiences connected remotely, from Twitter chats to video streams. And book launches are being given a whole new digital lease of life, too, with publishers, booksellers and authors running their own events (you can see our rolling list here).

Then there are the people trying to launch whole new virtual festivals. I've got together with Kit de Waal, the BBC and Arts Council UK to launch the Big Book Weekend, designed to help salvage and showcase the best of the cancelled fests. The author C J Cooke has launched Stay At Home, a feast of online book-themed events including readings, panels, open mic nights, workshops and more. BookBound 2020 (formerly HouseBound), founded by author Georgie Codd, promises live author-to-author conversations, pre-recorded readings and children's storytimes, all streamed free on YouTube. And Lockdown LitFest, organsied by literary commentator Paul Blezard, will feature both live-streamed and archived sessions with writers, thinkers, scientists and historians. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and more are bound to pop up in the weeks to come.

Of course, these digital festivals are hugely valuable for the trade in the current moment. But they also promise to have lasting value, by proving that the book trade is more than capable of shaking off its historic challenges - slowness, opacity, exclusivity, inter-publisher politics - when needs must.

For one thing, the speed with which these events have been pulled together is startling. "On 13th March, I tweeted that it would be a good idea to have an online literature festival," Cooke explains. "I had a huge response to my tweet, and decided to run something that I called the Stay-at-Home! Festival. Paper Nations got in touch, and I decided to partner with them. Within a week I had over 150 authors signed up and 110 events programmed. The festival started on 27th March - four days after the PM called for us all to stay at home."

Then there are the outside-the-box collaborations. "We are fundraising in aid of Mind, the UK mental health charity to support their essential work during this period of crisis," says Codd. "While all our events will be free to watch on YouTube, we would love our viewers to make a donation in aid of Mind, however small, if they can afford to. We are also proudly partnered with London's own Wasafiri Magazine, who are helping us to make the festival as fully inclusive as it can be."

Fresh tech is being harnessed to the cause, too. MyVLF, the startup hosting the Big Book Weekend, offers an immersive 2D experience designed to emulate the feeling of being part of a real-life festival.  "Our site is a purpose-built virtual event space and not just a series of embedded videos on a standard website," explains co-founder Gwyn Garfield-Bennett. "We have all the extras you’d expect from a festival, including a cafe, a bookbag full of downloadable freebies for each attendee, and an exhibition hall, where readers can browse stands from the participating festivals.”

An eagerness to reach new, previously marginalised or alienated audiences is another common hallmark. "I see [Stay At Home] as a pilot for a larger and ongoing project that creates radically innovative ways to engage audiences with literature, and which mitigates against accessibility issues, caring duties, and other issues that might prevent someone from attending a face-to-face literary event," Cooke reports. "The tech is improving all the time and I foresee much smarter and eco-friendly ways of connecting writers with readerships via events."

Finally, initial response to the virtual fests suggests a huge appetite for them from both authors and readers, and a willingness to put any politics or agendas aside for the greater good. "[It has been] utterly astonishing and completely humbling," admits Blezard. "My inbox is flooded with offers of content, support and assistance from around the world. We’re still a small team, working 20 hours a day and hoping that as we launch with live content we’ll attract a loyal following, a Lockdown tribe that will grow and be able to participate with us."

It all begs the question (as do so much at the moment): why haven't we done this before?

Well, because - as all the veteran organisers know - it takes a hell of a lot of (invisible, often unpaid) work. Also, unprecedented initiatives have emerged to accelerate such projects, such as the Arts Council's emergency funding package and the BBC's Culture in Quarantine season. It's still to be seen how many of these existing-festival alternatives and brand new events will survive once lockdown unlocks. After all, there's still nothing quite like the experience of real people bonding over books in a puddle of mud.

But even if every one of these scrabbled-together solutions vanished into the cyber-ether post-Covid-19, they will have left an indelible mark on publishing's new normal. Let's hope the golden age of lit fests has only just begun.