Byte Experts: Taking Literary Festivals online by Alex Hippisley-Cox

Posted by Justine Solomons on 1 June 2020, in Byte Experts, News

As we enter our 3rd month of social distancing and self-isolation due to the coronavirus outbreak, we are more and more aware of the huge cultural gap left by literary festivals, theatre productions, music gigs, book groups and school visits that have been cancelled or postponed.

Which is why, back at the end of March, I threw my PR hat and knowledge into the ring and joined the team at the Lockdown LitFest, a global literature and culture hub that was born in the time of COVID-19 with the aim of bringing a diversely-curated online literature festival directly to people’s home screens. We are a small group of writing, publishing, broadcasting, tech and social media folk who are burning the midnight oil - all working pro bono right now - to deliver the very best, high-quality content.

We’ve been very fortunate to attract a fantastic line-up of participants so far and we now have over 20 author interviews under our belt. The list includes: BAFTA -winning comedian Robert Webb; co-founder of the Women’s Prize and international bestselling novelist Kate Mosse; British explorer, writer and photographer Levison Wood (of C4’s Walking with Elephants fame); crime writing supremo Mark Billingham; Emirati poet and spoken word artist Afra Atiq; star of the hit TV series All Creatures Great and Small and acclaimed author Carol Drinkwater; and inventive star of children’s literature Philip Ardagh, to name just a few.

Taking physical events online, and delivering an enjoyable audience experience, is not as straightforward as it may seem, however.  Here are some lessons we have learned over the past few weeks at the Lockdown LitFest:

You mustn’t run before you can walk - We are learning as we go along, and developing our offering all the time, but we realise we can’t do everything at once.  We are a very small team, with only 24 hours in a day, so it’s important we don’t rush important decisions and that we take little steps in order to improve.

You need to have integrity - Lockdown LitFest was launched for all the right reasons (to be there for authors who need a platform and for readers who love to hear authors speak) and we strive to always keep that ethos central to what we do.  But we realise that you need to do things the right way, to treat authors with respect, and to represent their work the very best way we can.  We may make the occasional mistake, but if we do we will put our hands up!  It’s all about trust and working collaboratively with our partners.

You need to build an audience organically - As we all know, there is no use producing a beautiful ‘thing’ if there is no one out there to look at it.  That’s why we are investing a lot of time growing our online audience via social media, YouTube and our weekly newsletter.  We realise, however, that this growth needs to be organic and that we need to attract the right people.  People who care about books, authors and the cultural world, and who will stay with us on our journey, wherever that may take us.  There’s no point in ‘buying’ followers and then being surprised when they don’t engage or watch what you produce.

You have to launch with some established names behind you - We are very lucky in having Paul Blezard as one of our co-founders.  With a little black book to die for, he has managed to pull in some really big names to get us off the ground.  Bestselling authors who have generously given of their time, shared their photos, and given us great quotes to help us with our social media and PR.  As a result, we have a lot of important publishers, media and agents watching us with interest, who are being supportive beyond our wildest dreams.

You should always strive to represent as many people as you can - at Lockdown LitFest we are trying to create as diverse a mix of content as we possibly can.  Trying to juggle people’s schedules, and making sure that our programme appeals to all parts of our audience, is not easy.  But our aim is to get as eclectic a range of speakers as we can (from different parts of the world, from different backgrounds, talking about as many different genres as possible) and this list will develop as we go.  We have also introduced subtitles for all our talks, so that those who have difficulty hearing can follow along easily as well.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out, this isn’t a short-term project. We’re here for these tough times and beyond, to deliver interviews, readings, masterclasses and more, for an audience of all ages and interests.

If you’d like to see what we’re up to, do take a look at website LockdownLitFest.com and follow LockdownLitFest on all social media channels. We also have a weekly newsletter where you can find out all the latest news.

The three co-founders of the Lockdown Lit Fest are: Paul Blezard (literary broadcaster and commentator), Wai Mun Yoon (tech entrepreneur), and Palash Davé (filmmaker, writer and former VP of The Hay Festival). 

Alex Hippisley-Cox is the Head of PR for the festival, and also works with Frankfurter Buchmesse, the Daily Mail Chalke Valley History Festival, and Bitter Lemon Press.

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