Writers' festivals: serious business or luxury getaway?

A new festival is appearing on the publishing calendar: writers’ festivals. Bustling with hopeful writers and eagle-eyed agents, as well as others who work in the publishing industry, these festivals provide a space where important contacts are made and, more importantly, literary talent is found. But with expensive packages (some costing up to £500 plus, excluding accommodation), jam-packed programmes and writers considerably outnumbering agents, editors and publishers, do these festivals really contribute value for trade publishing, or are they merely luxury getaways for writers who can afford it?

Writers’ festivals are popping up around the country, from the general Festival of Writing in York to the boutique Write by the Beach two-day event in Brighton. I was among 10 lucky enough to receive a scholarship to the recent Winchester Writers’ Festival, spread over a weekend and packed with lectures, workshops, speeches, readings, open mic nights and, of course, appointments with agents, editors and publishers. They are, unarguably, an excellent opportunity for writers and publishing professionals to meet, make connections and even establish successful careers, benefiting both the writer and the industry.

One success story was Deborah Install. She was approached by agent Jenny Savill at the Festival of Writing in York before bagging a six-figure deal with German publisher Fischer Verlage for her debut novel A Robot in the Garden. Deborah comments: "I can’t stress enough how instrumental was the role of the Festival of Writing in making this happen. Without the Festival’s decision to choose me to read out, I would not have met Jenny, nor produced this novel." For the serious writer seeking representation or a deal, and the publishing professional looking to find new talent and suitable content, the festival can be of tremendous value.

However, with festivals thronged with hundreds of writers at varying stages competing to attract attention - and a schedule busy enough to veer them from this aim - are festivals doing enough to ensure productive business opportunities? Moreover, what about those writers who are swayed by the "perfect getaway" advertising, with manuscripts not ready for the market? It is a challenge for the agents, editors and publishers attending, their only opportunities limited to one-to-one appointments or open mic events (if the writer has the nerves), squeezed into the empty space of already demanding programmes. With so many writers begging for attention, it’s easy to understand how some gems get lost in the noise.

"What’s your elevator pitch?" is a popular question at a writers’ festival - and too rightly. With so much going on, no one has the time to sit down, read your chapter or discuss the saleability of your work, because you might miss the key event. And if you cannot capture your listener in a few words, you may have missed your golden opportunity - but then again, there’s always another festival.

The idea of a writers’ festival is wonderful, a welcoming and supportive place for writers to meet other writers, come in touch with the publishing industry and potentially leave with a deal. It’s a win-win for both. In reality, however, engagements with the industry are limited, leaving writers with the hope they might have a meaningful encounter and get the deal that originally brought them there. It is not until these festivals allow plentiful time and space for doing business at friendlier prices that that they can truly add value to the industry.

Niall Cunniffe is production editor for IWA Publishing. He is also working on a novel, Elm, and a vampire trilogy for boys. He tweets @niallcunniffe.