It’s that time of the year again – wherever you look there seem to be Instagram snaps of authors getting merry in tents, tweets from readers exalting at meeting their heroes and headlines about the latest controversial comments about genre or diversity or the death of the novel (yawn) made on yet another panel. Yes, the book festivals are here – but for many, they remain a spectator sport: intimidating, expensive and elitist.
Three authors are setting out to change the game with My Virtual Literary Festival. Deborah Carr, Kelly Clayton and Gwyn GB are three Jersey-based writers known as The Blonde Plotters who have spent the past few months developing a free 3D virtual festival which will launch on 22nd June with authors including Peter James, Nicola May, C.L. Taylor and Cecilia Aherne.
We sat down with the trio to discover the story, the technology and the ambition behind the project.
Why this festival, why now?
MYVLF was born out of a love of books and the desire to connect readers and authors without the need to travel or spend a fortune attending a literary event. We wanted to create a cosy, welcoming online space where you could see and hear your favourite authors and ask them questions – and stay in your pyjamas – a place with free books and giveaways and a community of readers.
Critically, the festival can be truly global. Now is the perfect time to create an online venue like this because of global connectivity. It is accessible to anyone from anywhere in the world, whether you live in outer Mongolia or Brighton. Within days of launching, we had subscribers from the UK, New Zealand, Canada, the USA and various countries in Europe.
We appreciate that most people are not yet ready for full virtual reality, but it isn’t that far off now. Therefore MYVLF is a hybrid website, combining the functionality of a standard site, with a virtual event space that looks and feels like the real thing. When the world is ready, MYVLF can take that next step too.
The growth of indie publishing and boutique publishing houses alongside the big traditional companies, means that the industry is also in need of new avenues to reach out to readers. We are not aligned to any specific publisher or retailer, the only criteria is quality.
Who’s the team behind it?
We are three authors and avid readers who love going to literary events, but living on a small island ourselves, we know just how difficult it can be to find the time and money to attend them. We wanted to create a platform that wouldn’t discriminate against anyone. As long as you have access to a computer, you can attend our literary festival and you will be able to see/hear from authors around the globe, whether they are published by major publishing houses or independently published.
We have funded the site ourselves from our day jobs and it took us 18 months to bring our dream to reality, working with a talented local team of developers and designers. We are not only authors, but our day job experience includes television broadcasting, journalism and PR/digital marketing, finance, company administration and experience in running our own businesses.
What’s the gap in the market?
Most of the major websites that cater for readers and/or authors, are aligned to a specific retailer or publisher, or focus on free books. We wanted a site that added value to both authors and readers and was independent.
There is nothing else in the world like MYVLF, from both the technology point of view and in terms of the concept. We have started by catering for around ten different genres, but intend to grow this list as the site develops so there really will be something for everyone.
MYVLF was born out of a love of reading and wanting to find new books and authors, as well as our own needs as authors to reach out to readers. We understand both needs and the challenges authors and publishers face in knowing how to access new audiences.
What have you tried to improve on from other virtual festivals you’ve seen?
This is a virtual festival venue, not a standard 2D website. It really is a community meeting place. We are also one step away from being fully virtual where readers will be able to step inside and meet authors from the comfort of their own home.
There are very few ‘virtual’ literary festivals online and most are genre specific. We also wanted ours to be highly professional and polished, to reflect the standard of the authors we are showcasing. Our site is a purpose built virtual event space and not just a series of embedded videos on a standard website. We have included a host of extras, including the exhibition hall, where readers can browse publisher and authors stands, and the café area. We also have further ideas that one day we hope to add to the site.
In what ways will it be better than a real-life festival?
It’s completely free to attend and always will be. There are no travelling costs involved and you can take part wearing your pyjamas if you want. This is a global platform giving readers access to authors no matter where they are in the world. Geography is no boundary for author or attendee. It isn’t an inconvenience for busy authors and is accessible for all readers.
People nowadays are used to watching videos and listening to podcasts, it has become an accepted and accessible form of both entertainment and learning. Whilst we would all love to sit right next to our hero authors, the reality is that few of us will ever get the opportunity to ask them that burning question we have, or watch them talk about their writing. At MYVLF it doesn’t matter if the author is in Australia and you are in the UK, we can connect you.
Many of us are also time poor, juggling work, families and busy lifestyles. MYVLF enables both readers and authors to dip in and out at their convenience and not have to take an entire day or weekend to attend an event.
What failures or pivots did you make along the way while designing the festival/site?
Initially, we considered using an ‘off the shelf’ virtual conferencing platform, but these are aimed at big businesses and we found them to be impersonal and too ‘corporate’. We wanted our venue to look and feel welcoming and be specific to the book world.
One of us worked in the digital industry and so we engaged a team of young developers and designers to bring our concept to reality. It took a little time to get across to them our vision, because it really was something unique, but once they had fully grasped the concept, they were a wealth of excellent ideas and suggestions and MYVLF took shape.
We are still learning because the project is so new and innovative. This is new combination of technology that hasn’t been done before. We also appreciate that as we scale up we will need to make some changes to cope with the volume of authors who will be featured on our site.
What would success look like for you?
To have built a vibrant reader and author community that is known globally as the place where readers and authors can go to connect. We want our members to thrive on the joint need to both find new books and new readers. Readers discovering new authors and writers finding new readers.