When we started planning Book Week Scotland 2020, the natural fit for the theme was future: the year was filled with exciting possibilities and interactive, grassroot community projects. At Scottish Book Trust, planning that started in February soon shuddered to a halt: although we didn’t know it at the time, physical book events would soon be impossible – bookshops and libraries would close, threatening the very foundation of our programme. Like everyone else planning literary events, we were faced with choices. To go ahead in a different format, to cancel, to postpone or to wait and see how things played out.
Book Week Scotland is not a book festival but a national celebration. Beginning in 2012, we have worked annually with every library service in Scotland and publishers, booksellers, arts organisations, schools, prisons, hospitals and community organisations. Scottish Book Trust has always been focussed on reaching new audiences where they are, rather than bringing them to us, and therefore we often talk about hyper-local programming – the principle that our partners know their specific audience far better than we do, and therefore are the experts at designing events and activities that audience want to take part in. It feels, we hope, very democratic. We provide a national framework which connects the local programming – marketing, press and a free book that is gifted across the country, and we support our partners with a range of national events and activities, linking their own audiences to Book Week Scotland.
When we started this process, it felt like the big challenge was how to ensure existing audiences for book events could continue to find that experience online. Book festivals have responded well and some like Hay or Cuirt figured out how to do interesting book events online remarkably quickly. Those who had a little bit more time to plan, like Edinburgh International Book Festival and Wigtown Book Festival, made the most of the new mediums we are all working in, and still made audiences feel they were attending festivals with specific identities. They reached audiences worldwide, while feeling rooted and connected to the communities in which they are usually situated. Audiences have delighted in the events festivals, booksellers and publishers have provided this year and have been thrilled to be able see their favourite authors in formats which match their expectations of a quality book event.
For Book Week Scotland, our challenge is a little different. We know that around a quarter of our audience every year is new to any kind of book event – they have never been to a festival or to a book event in their local library or bookshop. Also, there has always been a high proportion of participatory events in Book Week Scotland – opportunities for people attending to do rather than watch – people who engage with the programme are typically split 50/50 between audience members and participants.
So how did we, with our 150 + partners, redesign Book Week Scotland to accommodate Covid-19 realities? The majority of people we work with felt it was important to deliver something in our usual time slot, that by the end of 2020 it would be good to have something to look forward to. So, we made the decision to support partners to either put on a digital event or activity or to find creative, socially distanced ways of encouraging and celebrating reading and writing within their communities. And, recognising the huge impact Covid has had for author income this year, we asked every partner we funded to provide at least one paid opportunity for a Scottish writer to take part.
Our partners have, as they always do, far exceeded our expectations, providing events that offer lots of choice for all ages and interests including interviews with big names like Douglas Stuart and Peter May alongside interactive writing workshops, readalongs and more. But they have also provided bespoke pre-recorded book events for care homes, a poetry safari around a local nature reserve and many community writing projects from a newly commissioned poem for Aberdeen to a community wellbeing writing pack being delivered by a local church. These are sterling examples, we think, of how to go online while maintaining a hyper-local and participatory feel.
To support and amplify our partner events we are also running the Book Week Scotland digital festival for its third year. Here, we’ve decided to accompany more classic online book events in a recognisable format with other ways of using digital platforms. Alongside talks and panel events, audiences will also be able to play a new 8-bit-like computer game or host an exclusive online murder mystery. They can vote for the book that best embodies 2020, solve an online literary treasure hunt or add to a Google Map of what Scotland is reading.
Just as importantly, to recognise that there are plenty of people out there for whom digital is not accessible or attractive, we are still gifting our hard copy book, Future; we have a pack on our website suggesting ideas that people can do in their own communities and we are asking folk across Scotland to put their favourite book in a window for Book Week Scotland, so that whole neighbourhoods can share and celebrate reading together.
Research Scottish Book Trust conducted during lockdown shows that people have been turning to reading to find solace, to support their own mental health and as a way of feeling more connected to others. It feels more important than ever to provide space for all of us to reflect on the year we have had, connect to one another through a love of reading and to share the stories which matter to us all. We’re hoping that Book Week Scotland will enable that to happen, and that our own learnings and approaches can help inspire others in the industry to create events that keep a diverse range of people engaged with books.
Philippa Cochrane is head of reading communities at Scottish Book Trust. For more information visit bookweekscotland.com.