Isla Rosser-Owen is the cultural producer at Wigtown Festival Company. With a hand in the Wigtown Book Festival, a literary tourism programme and the Scottish Book Festivals Network, Rosser-Owen reveals how Covid has hit events.
What have the main challenges been for book festivals in Scotland over the past year?
One of the main challenges has been having to navigate a constantly changing situation, in many cases without a compass. A number of festivals planned physical events and then had to postpone and redraft their plans, only to eventually cancel. Many book festivals went down the route of holding online events, so there were all sorts of challenges involved; learning new skills very quickly (and making a few mistakes!) and working out how to translate a festival’s unique selling point to a digital format... How can destination festivals like Wigtown still communicate that sense of place online?
The elephant in the room is the loss of income from ticket sales and the difficulties involved in trying to monetise online events. Smaller and newer festivals in particular have concerns about how they can keep up momentum and continue to engage with their audiences while not necessarily being able to compete with the bigger players in a now very busy digital landscape. The transition to digital has in itself highlighted new challenges, from digital poverty to access requirements, as well as the issue of cannibalisation of events and questions over digital rights and fees. It’s been a steep learning curve. There are a lot of conversations to be had now to establish a new set of standards, which is something that the Scottish Book Festivals Network hopes to play a key part in.
Have any positives come out of the lockdown for book festivals in Scotland?
Our entire team has had to upskill very quickly, and I know that’s been the case for many others, so from a skills development point of view it has been a very interesting time. It’s also been an opportunity to form new partnerships and collaborations, including internationally, and to grow our audiences and reach out to authors who wouldn’t normally be able to make it to rural Wigtown. I think the pandemic has enabled our organisation to develop in unexpected but very positive ways. One of the main positives to come out of this period is that it has highlighted and increased awareness of a number of issues surrounding access. Feedback from online audiences who, for various reasons, would not normally attend a festival in real life has shown that digital events can increase acces- sibility and offer a more level playing field, and that’s a conversation we need to take forward even when returning to physical events.
Why has the Scottish Book Festivals Network been reconvened? What are its aims?
Creative Scotland had been looking at ways to support the Scottish litera- ture sector beyond being a source of funding, so reconvening the network was on the cards pre-pandemic. However, it took on a new urgency as book festivals started trying to adapt to the “new normal”, so Wigtown was approached towards the end of 2020 to reconvene and administer the network. Its main aim is to be a vehi- cle for providing knowledge sharing, networking, advocacy, collaborative working, as well as guidance on best practice across the spectrum of Scotland’s literary festivals.Creative Scotland also commissioned Lee Randall to look at ways the pandemic has impacted on Scottish book festivals. Exploring the Post-Pandemic Landscape of Scottish Literary Festivals, which can be found on the Creative Scotland website, raises a lot of important questions and these have informed and shaped the early discussions of the network. The network has just commissioned a report to advocate for the sector and to showcase the many beneficial impacts Scotland’s book festivals have on social, cultural, educational and economic levels.
What are Wigtown Book Festival’s plans for this year?
As we’re an autumn festival, it’s a little too early to say definitively. However, we are planning to run physical events, although our capac- ity is likely to be less because of social distancing, and of course they will be held in line with restrictions and government advice at the time. We’re looking into the possibility of running more outdoor events. We anticipate there will be a digital aspect to the festival, and our directors are considering options for live-streaming events from Wigtown, so essentially we’re planning for a hybrid model.
Do you think Covid-19 has changed how Scotland’s literary festivals will be run?
It definitely has. I would say that digital events are here to stay, certainly for the larger festivals who have been in a better position to fully embrace the opportunities this format can offer. How we can monetise them and create a sustainable model will be the next challenge. I also think the experiences over the last year have opened up conversations that are overdue, in particular to do with equality, diversity and inclusion, and I hope those will continue. This whole period has been one of reflection and reassessment. It will be interesting to see where that takes us next.