From Big Ideas To Diversity: How To Plan A Successful Literary Festival – LBF 2015

Bidisha talks to Suzi Feay at LBF 2015

Attending London Book Fair as a freelancer for the first time, rather than as a publisher, meant that for me this year was all about authors & events. Neighbouring the fair’s official bookseller, Foyles, English PEN’s PEN Literary Salon offered an expertly curated programme of events over the 3 days including interviews with Ali Smith, Valeria Luiselli, Bidisha, Anthony Browne & Lydia Cachosi. Away from the hubbub of industry news, developments & deals, that corner of Olympia was a staunch & simple reminder of the crucial freedoms of expression the industry facilitates & of the reasons why we were all there: authors, books & readers.

A new addition to the LBF programme this year was The Literary Festival Forum on Thursday 16th April; an afternoon of insights & advice from some of the key players on the literary & arts festival scenes. The conference room on the third floor played host to some brilliant speakers in a room packed with experience – including the audience which was a mixture of authors, publishers, arts organisations, booksellers & also of festival directors from the likes of Borderlines: Carlisle Book Festival, Stratford Upon Avon Literary Festival, Marlborough Literature FestivalAustralia & New Zealand Arts Festival & beyond. The need for a festival forum like this, where knowledge can be pooled & shared was palpable.

Whilst individuality is an essential trait for a successful book or cross-arts festival, some common themes came up across the afternoon about how to make your literary festival a success. Here are the 5 keys points, drawing on the wisdom & insights from panellists which included Tania Harrison Arts Curator of Latitude & Reading & Leeds Festivals, Nick Barley Director of Edinburgh International Book Festival & Fiona McMorrough Founder & CEO of FMcM Associates, who are doing all the press for Hay Festival this year.


  • IDEAS RULE – it was unanimous that whilst big names are important for attracting to a festival & may sell out individual events, only big ideas will engage & attract people to your programme & sell the festival as a whole.  Nick Barley used the analogy of a literary festival as a banquet- that whilst the main act is the main ingredient in the main course, big ideas will sustain you. Keep culture rather than celebrity or controversy at its heart.  As Fiona McMorrough stated “festivals are for conversation”.
  • LOVE YOUR AUTHORS – understanding, respecting and working with authors is the cornerstone of the work I do at Bigmouth. Happy authors are everything and will make or break your reputation as a festival (a publisher, a bookseller, an agent….continue ad infinitium).  Fiona McMorrough suggested one route to this is to plan your festival by first of all mapping out all associated author costs- travel, accommodation, fees, catering. She added, & I wholeheartedly agree with this, that “we owe it to authors to run businesses that can pay them well”.  Whilst not all festivals feel they are able to pay authors, it was conceded across the afternoon that authors should be paid for their time- whether you offer a flat fee (e.g. everyone is paid £150 per event) or staggered fee scheme (more money for bigger names), or even percentage of box office takings. Nell Leyshon author & member of the Management Committee of The Society of Authors passionately laid out a case for this in the ‘Where is the Money Going?’ session. TSOA publish full guidelines as to industry rates for author appearances which can be found here.
  • KEEP IT LOCAL – where the festival is run & offering something that engages the local community are key to a successful festival. Tania Harrison cited that whereas people might think of Latitude as a ‘Londoncentric’ festival, in fact 79% of Latitude goers are from the Eastern region. Get local businesses on board to supply assets, if not cash sponsorship. Get them to subsidise accommodation, thank you gifts, sponsor the green room. Fiona McMorrough made the essential point that you should always consider the competition for festivals in the local area & that if the local community aren’t on side, then the festival won’t export to other audiences well.
  • USE YOUR IMAGINATION  – when it comes to programming, be imaginative & playful- think hard about how a fiction event can jump off the page and attract people to it – especially bearing in mind that not all authors are natural performers. Tania Harrison of Latitude said she starts by thinking of the person least likely to go to a book event & then thinks ‘how can we get them in that tent?’. When I did publicity and events for Owen Sheers’ Pink Mist we commissioned a bespoke soundtrack that played behind his readings, which brought the page to life and turned solo events into a dramatic live performance piece. This in turn made itself an immediately attractive offering for arts and literature festivals. Offering something different, bringing the pages to life are after all, what it’s all about.
  • DIVERSITY – the afternoon session concluded with a question to the panel by an author from Hackney Writers group who raised the burning issue of why there is such a lack of diversity in literary events & publishing. That day had seen the publication of a damning new report commissioned by Spread The Word, titled Writing The Future: Black and Asian Writers and Publishers in the UK Market Place,  which examines in detail, the lack of diversity in the publishing industry. In the section devoted to diversity in literary festivals ‘Side Show or No Show’ the report found that only 4% of authors appearing at literary festivals in 2014 were Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic authors.

In the report an unnamed journalist sums up this urgent need for more open discussion ‘We need a conversation where people say, ‘this is a bit strange that we have incredibly non diverse events and programmes (…) it’s not a desirable situation to have a mono-culture.’ This issue is worthy of an entire blog post in itself & is one that I will come back to. In the meantime I urge you to read the report in full. As event programmers, publishers, agents, prize judges, reviewers, booksellers everyone carries responsibility for making radical changes as outlined in the report. Diversity of voices, of stories, of narratives, of experience, of cultures, an equal platform for all, is – as LBF celebrates – the only way to a ensure a truly representative & enriched future for publishing.