Report: Making Your Way: How Can Authors Navigate Events and Festivals?

Posted by Justine Solomons on 1 February 2019, in Event reports, News

 Words by Chris Russell, photos by Justin Spray

Byte The Book’s opening event of 2019 tackled the topic of events and festivals, and how authors can best navigate the live scene in order to boost sales and reach new audiences. Helen Bagnall, co-founder of Salon London, chaired a panel comprising Tania Harrison (Latitude Festival), Sharon Canavar (Harrogate International Festivals) and broadcaster and author Natalie Haynes.

The panel from right to left, Tania Harrison, Natalie Haynes, Sharon Cavanar, and chair Helen Bagnall

Helen turned to Tania first, asking her about the obstacles that authors and festival organisers face when planning events. “Whatever you’re presenting,” began Tania, “the challenge is to find a format that’s engaging”. There are numerous ways an author can connect with live audiences, she suggested, and discomfort with public speaking (which is extremely common amongst writers) needn’t necessarily be an impediment to taking to the stage. “We had an author once who did their interview in the dark,” she explained. “And then there was the visual artist David Shrigley, who told us he was happy to appear at the festival as long as he didn’t have to speak. So, instead, he simply drew.”

Audience listening intensely to our panel discussion at the h Club

Natalie then offered some anecdotal experience from the front line, having herself battled through over a decade as a touring comedian before becoming a novelist. “These days,” she reflected, “everyone expects us to be performing seals as well as writers, even though those two things are almost opposite jobs. You have to be ‘extra you’ on stage, and ‘not-at-all you’ in your book. It can be very difficult achieving both”. When asked for her advice regarding how authors might decide which opportunities to take on, Natalie was unequivocal: “For me, if they don’t pay, it’s a no. I am not a charity. My mortgage is not paid by exposure”. Beyond that, she said, if you’re unsure whether an appearance is worth committing to, “consult your publicist. They have a pretty good instinct for these things”.

Natalie used to be a stand up comedian - she's still very funny!

And what about during the events themselves? What advice did the panel have for writers? “It’s not just about ‘plug the book, plug the book’,” counselled Sharon, “but about working out what’s truly interesting for your audience. So don’t just read from your novel; draw out concepts from it that inspire discussion. Communicate with your chair in advance so they know what you’d like to talk about”. Tania agreed, stating that, for her, the key was to “find the essence of each project”. “The aim is to bring the idea out of the book,” she said, “and into real life.”

Another full house

When the discussion was opened to the floor, one audience member — admittedly with his tongue firmly in his cheek — questioned whether, in a world of social media, there was even a place for live events anymore. The panel were unanimous, pointing out that a Twitter feed, or even a TV special, will never replace the frisson of a live show. “Social media is curated,” argued Sharon, “whereas at an event, you can actually get to know someone. You can un-peel their layers”.

As always lots of great networking at Byte The Book

Finally, Natalie summed up the mood of the evening with a few concise words on the unique, if elusive, appeal of the live experience: “Sometimes, during live shows, something magical happens. Not always… but sometimes. And that’s why we do what we do.”

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