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Opinion: Literary Festivals Should Focus On Readers

Opinion: Literary Festivals Should Focus on Readers

ALLi's Advice Centre Editor Debbie Young steps on her soapbox to respond to bestselling novelist Joanna Trollope's call for literary festivals to be focus less on celebrities.
Debbie Young outside her house

“We have to make our own entertainment in these parts”

Yesterday, in an interview with The Independent newspaper given from the Emirate Airline Literature Festival in Dubai, trade-published novelist Joanna Trollope called for literary festival organisers to stop paying high fees to celebrities to headline events, and instead treat proper authors with respect. (Ok, I admit that she didn't really say “proper”, but I suspect she would have liked to.)

Cynics might question the PR tactic of rejecting elitism at a conference held in the hugely wealthy United Arab Emirates, but it's hard to disagree with her plea to shift litfests' focus from lifestyle to literature, nor with the reminder that average author earnings are in decline.

Litfests have come a long way in the short time that they've been around, morphing from events drawing on local talent to universal line-ups.  The world-renowned Cheltenham Literature Festival, claiming to be the oldest event of its kind in the world, actually started life as a local showcase. It was founded by author John Moore from the nearby town of Tewkesbury; locally born actor, the legendary Ralph Richardson, declared the first event open in 1949; a Cheltenham College teacher read poetry. Oh, ok, so that teacher did happen to be C Day Lewis – it helps to have gifted neighbours – but you get my drift.

The Travelling Circus of Modern LitFests

These days, wherever a lit fest takes place in the UK, it's likely to have pretty much the same key speaker line-up (Stephen Fry, Michael Palin, etc), many of the speakers famous primarily for something other than writing books.

I'm not downplaying their undoubted talents as writers. I've really enjoyed Cheltenham talks by both Fry and Palin, and being more famous for their original job doesn't mean their writing isn't up to scratch. But too many famous-for-other-things names do skew the feel of a festival towards celebrity-worship, especially when ghost-written politicians, footballers, pop stars and supermodels share the same bill as Booker Prize winners. What started out as local events have become like a travelling circus – same players, only the stage is different. Any author taking part could be forgiven for forgetting which venue they're at:

 “Good afternoon, and it's great to be here in Cheltenham – I mean Hay – I mean Edinburgh…”

Festival organisers argue that they must buy in big names to raise the profile of their events. This strategy may boost ticket sales, but it also inflates ticket prices, putting the festival out of reach of many people. The cost of attending a litfest extends beyond the ticket price, to include travel, refreshments, and programmes, not to mention the books, which are very often available only in hardback. For many avid readers, taking their family to a litfest would be prohibitively expensive. Want to check the ticket sales demographics of a litfest? Do a quick headcount on pearls, pashminas and grey hair.

Rewriting the Book of LitFests

Photo of The Fox Inn

The modest venue for the first Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival

So what am I going to do about it? Well, inspired by the World Book Night, a UNESCO-led programme of distributing free – yes, free – books to reluctant readers to encourage adults to rediscover the joys of leisure reading, I'm launching a new kind of local literary festival that will focus on readers. I reckon that's what the average reader really wants, and the manager of my local public library and the proprietor of my local high street bookshop agree. Happy readers read more, and buy more books from bookshops, and borrow more books from libraries. In the long run, has got to be the best news for the author community, and for society too. Gosh, now I'm going to change the world…

The first Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival will have the following points of difference from the big, famous festivals:
  • a humble, low-cost venue – the village pub (thus also helping local business)
  • accessibility to local people who can't get to the big festival venues (a lady from a nearby village, overhearing me talking about it in the pub said “Can I come? We haven't got any culture where I live!”)
  • free admission
  • open door policy: no-one will be turned away, even if we have to decamp into the pub garden to accommodate any overspill
  • none of the authors will charge or be paid for their time
  • no VIP treatment for authors: they'll meet readers on an equal footing (though I will take good care of them, I promise!)
  • none of the authors will be celebrities, almost all will be indies
  • only one author present will be a household name: bestselling romantic novelist Katie Fforde, who lives not far from me, and is kindly giving her time and support for free (shortly before I went public about my plan, my mum gave me a copy of Katie's book “Love Letters”, in which a woman faces the challenge of setting up a litfest in a rural community, which I took that as a sign to invite Katie, famously encouraging of aspiring authors and not a bit celebrity-like despite her impressive book sales)
  • every member of the audience will be given a free souvenir – though if they want to buy books, they'll be welcome to do so!
  • there'll be a retiring collection for British children's reading charity Readathon, which encourages children to read for pleasure, thus raising a new generation of readers, for the benefit of society as a whole – and creating new customers for authors of all kinds!
  • the festival events will focus not on individual authors but on stimulating reading-related topics such as “How many words does a story really need?” and “You couldn't make it up: the joy of non-fiction”
  • the final session will be a tribute to readers, bookshops and library services under the title “We'd all be lost without you!”, making it clear that in this litfest, at least, it's all about the readers

I'm thankful to all the indie authors who have volunteered to take part (most of them ALLi members), and to friends in my village who have offered to help with the logistics. I'm hoping to it will become an annual event, offering a great opportunity for local readers and boosting local bookshops, libraries and other businesses.

If all goes well, I'll be happy to share a blueprint for the festival to help others to replicate the event in their own neighbourhood. Who knows, this could be the start of a whole new era in litfests…

For more information about the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, please visit its website: www.hulitfest.com

Advertising banner for HULitFest


Do you agree that litfests should focus on readers, or do you find events led by celebrities and household name authors more inspiring?

Do you know of any litfests that already operate on this democratic template?

Do share your views and your experiences via the comments box!


#LitFests should focus on readers not writers says indie author @DebbieYoungBN for #AuthorALLi #HULitFest Click To Tweet


This Post Has 14 Comments
  1. Debbie… well done for setting this up, it sounds like a success in the making. Love the idea of putting together a blueprint based on your experience on setting this up, to help other indie authors replicate a similar event.

    1. I’m really pleased that you’re able to be a part of the event, Orna – another historic moment for indie authors going on here, I hope, which seem to be becoming a habit for you!

  2. It’s time to move away from celebrity worship in all its forms. While any given celebrity may be a genuinely talented individual, treating them like rare marvels lessens everyone else on the program in comparison. They’ve become like tall rampant weeds that shade out the diverse native landscape. Leave them out of the program, please!

  3. I think this is a brilliant idea! You lose a lot when you have major celebrities reading. A huge part of the pleasure of attending a smaller book festival is that the speakers can be seen mixing with everyone else outside of their talk and are generally very approachable. It gives an atmosphere of being in one big ‘family’ of book lovers.
    I was disappointed in my last trip to Cheltenham, I felt like I was watching telly, I wasn’t really part of it at all.
    I’m sure people will love the intimacy of this event and it’ll become a regular fixture in the reading year!

    1. Yes, you’re right, Lynne. The last event I went to at Cheltenham was in such a huge venue that it might just have been at Wembley stadium – you couldn’t even see the expression on the speaker’s face, so no benefit over listening to a radio broadcast and then the queue was so long afterwards for book signings that anyone who had another event to get to couldn’t have risked queuing for fear of being late for the next event, and all the author was prepared to do was sign his name, rather than chat to the readers or write a personalised inscription. All felt far too much of a production line in which the reader was the least important part.

      Really looking forward to welcoming you to Hawkesbury, Lynne – I’m so glad you can come and be one of our guest authors.

  4. Writers’ festivals strayed long ago from writer-reader interaction as their chief goal, and have become all about stage-bound celebrities grandstanding about their latest biog/cookbook. So many feature the same old faces. It would be great to get more new and mid-list authors, isn’t that really what these festivals are for? Good luck with the festival!

  5. What a fabulous list Debbie has produced. It’s we’ll timed for me as my friend, Lynne McDonald, who runs a fabulous bookshop in sunny Elounda, Crete, is putting out feelers to judge the appetite for a litfest. If it goes ahead in September 2016 it will certainly be free to ‘customers ‘ as authors and associated participants will be dotted around this thriving holiday resort.

    Meanwhile, if you are heading to Elounda this holiday season, do pop into Eklektos Bookshop, you’ll probably be offered a brew while you browse.


    1. I am definitely tempted by the sound of a litfest in Crete, Yvonne! Looking forward to hearing how that pans out – do keep us informed of developments, and I’d love a post or news story about it for the blog after the event too.

  6. What a great idea, Debbie! I would certainly have volunteered to come along but have just found out that I’ve been accepted into the first ever Barnes Children’s Literature Festival which also takes place on April 23rd. I’m a bit nervous as I think I’m the only non-famous author there and they are charging for entry…but let’s see what happens. I’ll be doing a blog post about it which I’ll get in touch with you about separately Karen

    1. Thanks, Karen! The only problem with having chosen World Book Night for the event is that many authors are likely to be already tied up with other WBN events elsewhere. Good luck at the Barnes event – I’m sure you’ll be fabulous, and I bet that some of the famous authors will be just as nervous, if not more so! I look forward to hearing about it afterwards and would definitely welcome a blog post from you – thanks for offering.

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