Virtual, hybrid, live: what next for book events?

As has been widely reported over the past few weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has caused continued closures of theatre and performing arts venues, with potentially catastrophic effects across the industry. 

At Fane we started by postponing our March - May shows to the Autumn, but with the outlook for theatres seemingly no brighter, we have had to postpone these already-postponed shows to 2021. Over 700 shows in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland have now been cancelled or rescheduled to 2021, including two “Words Weekend” festivals. The impact has been devastating.

Across the industry, events stopped overnight and it’s been very interesting to see how that has changed the Nielson charts. How influential were bookstore events, festivals and live events in the charts before COVID-19? Hugely, it seems.

In terms of the next few months and the autumn it appears very unlikely that live events will be able to take place in a format that we recognise. Of course, great alternatives are already springing up; the online initiatives of At Home with 4 Indies, Hay Festival, How To Academy and countless others have been incredible to see. This summer, there are also plenty of drive-in theatres opening and we hope to host book events at these where audiences will receive a book with a ticket 'posted' through their car window. Looking to this autumn, theatres may open but with a socially distanced capacity. Under current guidelines, a 900-seat theatre would be reduced to around 250 seats. The revenue from audience ticket sales alone won’t be enough to cover the costs of either the theatre or producer, but the potential for partnerships with streaming platforms and sponsors may help to make these new, hybrid ‘live’ shows financially and creatively viable. 

There are many questions surrounding the virtual events offering. Do they sell books? Is it financially viable? Will it have a damaging effect on live audiences when events return? Should authors be doing more than one virtual event in the same period? Many of these are yet to be answered. At Fane we are taking the approach of partnering with companies who already have a virtual platform in the short term, before moving this autumn to the model of a socially distanced show that is then live streamed, as mentioned above. My main caution to authors is to be mindful about where their content ends up – if dozens of their talks are widely available for free online and they take the same form as their live show, then that may indeed lower their live audience potential when events return.

Naturally, we are all wondering whether audiences will return and how quickly. I’ve been greatly encouraged by recent surveys in Australia – where 23,000 were surveyed and 85% said they would plan to attend as much or more than they did prior to the pandemic – and in the UK (depending on which surveys you trust) 86,000 theatregoers were surveyed and 93% said they had missed live events and would return. Personally, I believe audiences will rush back as soon as they can, especially for book events as they are not like the theatre; they are more appealing to the individual fan. Critically, they benefit from scarcity of opportunity; a one-off chance to be in the room with your favourite author. 

At times like these it becomes more important than ever that we come together to support all aspects of the industry. I’m delighted to announce that at our future events Fane will be partnering with the four independent bookshops from At Home with 4 Indies, for all book sales in their territories. I have taken great inspiration from them during this time and am very excited about what lies ahead. We welcome further partnerships in other regions and with festivals, so please do get in touch.

For now, it’s a game of patience and creativity. What novel ways of generating book publicity can we come up with and how long can we wait before we can return to a bookshop event, a festival or a live event? We will bounce back and we trust that audiences will follow.