How to build a relevant book festival now

I have attended many festivals in the last few years. Posh ones with open bars, white leather sofas and Janet Jackson head-mics. A beloved one in the Highlands with a Caleigh and delicious communal meals. One in Eastern Europe where homebrew plum brandy was the post-breakfast digestif and another in South Korea where us writers were costumed in traditional dress and then whisked off to meet the Mayor.

I’ve also been at ones where my event was never promoted anywhere — not even the website or brochure. Where I had to ask one, twice, seven times to be paid and reimbursed for travel many months after the festival. Where the event was three hours long and unpaid (though ticketed and costly for the 100 strong audience).

I have seen the brilliant, bonkers and, well, more questionable from literary festivals and had no intention of starting my own. There was no big idea. But, as you will all know, a tweet can take on a life of its own and that’s what happened here.

Having met so many emerging writers who couldn’t afford money for classes or workshops and inspired by Sabrina Mahfouz’s Great Wash Workshops, helping working class writers access UK arts funding, I decided to offer a free workshop over the summer on Twitter.

The idea was met with enthusiasm by writers and then, slowly, more and more people offered help. Louise Doughty said she had a narrative tension workshop she could offer up. Emma Flint had another one on first pages. Jessie Burton, Joanna Cannon, Christie Watson and many, many others offered to come do everything from give talks to help pour the tea. Organisations started to offer support in kind: The Society of Authors, New Writing South, National Centre of Writing, Kickstarter, Spread the Word and Writers and Artists’. Stephen who runs @indiebookshopUK offered to build a website and Steph Coathupe donated some of her beautiful bespoke illustration skills.

Next came offers of donations for a travel bursary, spare rooms for out of towners to stay in and locals to guide any attendees who needed help making their way around the city.

Finally, Twitter UK contacted us and offered us a full day use of their Soho offices and it seemed the Breakthrough Festival had made itself.

Once I started to think of it as something bigger, I saw it as a huge opportunity to answer some of the difficulties that I know marginalised or underrepresented writers face when trying to attend writing festivals or development opportunities.

First, the cost. We’ll make it free. Speakers will self-fund (this isn’t the ideal — writers need to be paid — but since it was all volunteered and not requested for one day it feels OK).

Next, one of the biggest obstacles to attending events, not the cost of tickets but the extortionate travel to them. So in the coming weeks we’re launching a GoFundMe page which the National Centre of Writers will generously manage for us along with applications for financial support for travel.

Many parents feel automatically excluded by these events and so we’re working on a pop-up onsite creche.

For those travelling further afield I’m working out a CouchSurfer buddy system – and if I can ensure it can be done without the danger of delivering writers unwittingly into the hands of axe murderers then I will.

Finally, for those who, for many good reasons, just can’t attend, the sessions will be recorded and streamed for viewing anywhere at all in the world in real time or when they’re able.

It should be said that these weren’t my ideas. This came from years of speaking to emerging, underrepresented writers and hearing what barriers they faced. Really it’s those this festival is designed for who have designed this festival. The aim is to secure sponsorship for coffee, teas, lunch and goodie bags so each attendee feels they’ve had an incredible day and haven’t had to find money they don’t have to do so.

We’ve some way to go yet. There’s plenty of goodwill but no budget at all which means that everything extra that needs to be paid for, right down to name badges and printing, comes out of my own not particularly deep pockets. Because our writers are giving their time for free we’re working around their schedule. Mainly, I want to ensure that those who are attending truly, genuinely need the opportunity.

The Breakthrough Festival will take place on Saturday June 29th and will see a full day workshops, talks and one to ones all with the aim of breaking down barriers to access, inclusion and representation for writing and I’m ready for the challenge. We all are.

Here’s hoping this will prove to be a blueprint for an annual festival where, for one day at least, the playing field is levelled and everyone has the same access to the industry.  

Kerry Hudson is an author. Her first non-fiction book, Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns, will be published by Chatto & Windus on 16th May 2019.