Scot Lit Fest: dispatches from a virtual festival

Scot Lit Fest: dispatches from a virtual festival

Scot Lit Fest is a virtual book festival that took place over last weekend, presented by the Saltire Society - a non-profit organisation that supports and celebrates Scottish heritage and culture, with awards across architecture, civil engineering, history and heritage and, of course, literature - as part of their 80th anniversary celebrations.

As one of the two coordinators, I gained real insight into how running a digital-only festival can be used to celebrate publishing, and how rewarding it was for both us and those taking part.

We’re certainly not the first celebration of Scottish literature, but then our version was virtual - from Scottish authors, to books published here, to Diana Gabaldon, who has brought Scotland to a whole new audience worldwide - across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google Hangouts, livestreamed events, videos, podcasts, emails – the lot. From the off, we wanted a programme that covered a lot of topics and venues, but in ways that people could dip in and out of. If they had an internet connection, they were in. If they missed it, they could catch up.

What we couldn’t have anticipated was the B word: Brexit. It was on the horizon, but we didn’t consider the implications of it happening, and certainly didn’t expect to be able to compete amidst the noise, making for a rather edgy Friday morning. But compete we did – people across the weekend started saying how nice it was to have a distraction, how they wanted these new books we were sharing, how much fun it was to have this unfolding on their timelines.

Jim Tough, Executive Director of the Saltire Society, said of the aim of Scot Lit Fest: “Our commitment to supporting writers and publishers in all literary forms is in our DNA. When thinking about what we might do during the Saltire Society’s 80th anniversary year the idea of a Scottish virtual literary festival fitted perfectly – it allows us to reach a different, younger and more diverse audience for our work and the work of the great writers in the programme; it gives us a chance to challenge the image that we sometimes have of being an organisation that is elderly, academic and male!”

It’s only been a few hours, so there’s still a lot of digging in the statistics to do, but at a glance: we reached over three million people from the launch on June 23rd to the end of Sunday evening – these are just what we can account for on our tracked hashtags. We had over 35 million impressions, which shows how widely our humble Scottish tag was being spread. Our blog had readers from over 80 countries, including a strong presence in the USA, Brazil, Europe and Australia. We moved far and wide beyond the Saltire Society’s usual demographic and followers.

But what’s the point of these numbers?

Yes, Scot Lit Fest mobilised a lot of people across the world to celebrate Scottish literature for a weekend, to buy and sell a few books and showcase great authors. But oddly, thanks to a political climate we hadn’t anticipated, we also got to remember the most fundamental reason why social media and online platforms could and should be used more for events: whether listening to podcasts in their gardens while soaking up the rare June sun, or remaining glued to thier Twitter feeds as another politician walked out, people found real joy in our easily, instantly accessible content and conversation.

For us, all the numbers fell to the wayside for a moment when another person simply sent a thoroughly nice thank you.

It is in fact deceptively easy to get people interested in something you’re genuinely excited about, although it does take a willingness to commit a lot of your own time and passion, rather than 'doing a marketing campaign'. Beyond the set up costs for a .com and an errant tenner to boost an important post on the weekend itself on Facebook, it just took shouting into the Twitter void until people started to shout back. We broke outside the potential Scotland bubble to have people from all over checking in – with thousands of tweets using our tags, and many more that didn’t.

There was no 'secret' to our digital success; no elaborate strategies, fancy microsites or bespoke apps. There was just months of using a consistent hashtag, posting blogs that people would want to read, and keeping our pending event in people’s minds. Talking. Being part of a community, not just trying to 'engage' them, but being there, being present, on the digital ground.

Once in a while when talking about Scot Lit Fest, someone would say, “Oh, so it’s just the internet then?” And proudly, we say: yes it is. Because the internet isn’t lesser, it can bring a unique reach and atmosphere, and unexpected but fruitful cultural collisions, to your event. These kind of events have barely started to reach their full potential, and they’re only going to get bigger and better.

So they're pretty simple, yes - they just take time and passion and perseverance. There is no trick. But then maybe that's what deters big organisations from making the most of the wonderful, hungry, noisy virtual world at their fingertips.