Sunday, 20 May 2012

Literature Festivals

Don't get me wrong - I love literature festivals. I love being around booky people, talking about booky things. I love hearing people talking about their books, and how they wrote them and why. I love the smell of bookshops. I even love the coffee in cardboard cups if I drink it them surrounded by books.

Last week, I was part of the Life Writers' presentation at the Swindon Festival of Literature. And wonderful it was too, with the group leader doing an introduction, several of us reading short extracts, and then enough questions to make sure we overran out allotted hour. We were - rightly - very pleased with ourselves. Some of us were not used to doing public stuff, so it was a confidence booster for them. And we sold some books.

So - how does one measure 'success', when it comes to a gig like that? The number of bums on seats? The liveliness of the discussion? The reality of laughter (so people must have been listening and not wondering what to have for tea)? The number of books sold?

These days, in spite of all our booky dreams, literature festivals have to be commercial enterprises. They must make enough money to justify running another, and another. Which is quite a challenge when more and more towns are gathering themselves to welcome writers and charging people to see them.

So - do we measure 'success' by the number of tickets sold? The number of books sold by each writer?

I think it's much more complicated than that. The delight I get from wandering around in booky places cannot be costed. But someone has to do the costing - make sure that profits are made. I'm glad it's their job and not mine - but that doesn't mean I'm not aware that it must be done.

How do you think 'success' can be measured at festival? Not just literature festivals - music, flowers, trainspotters ...


  1. In a myriad of ways Jo! Blackwell's is very much involved in the Oxford Literary Festival and, yes, we do make a profit. However for a number of years we, at best, just broke even. For us the Festival is also about supporting the literary community, speaking to authors who we could do shop events with later in the year, raising our profile and having the time to have more conversations with our customers. Over the years we have also seen that the biggest events are not necessarily the ones that create the biggest buzz - personally I still get a thrill from remembering David Mitchell share for the first time some of the story that became Black Swan Green to an audience of no more than 40, Diarmud MacCulloch giving THE most interesting talk on the Reformation and members of the audience running to the book tent to buy copies of the book.
    I guess for me the biggest role of book Festivals is to very publicly show the world that books still matter and that people care enormously about that.
    Here's a link to some of the Festival features on our blog
    Rock on!


  2. Euan - I can rock on!!

    Thank you for such a thoughtful response. It's wonderful to hear from someone who works so hard to make these festivals a success. And Oxford's is a great festival. So if your aim is to demonstrate that books still matter - then, from my experience, you can count that as a success.

    And thanks for the link - I am suspicious of anything that looks spammy, but this is a great site.

  3. I love book and writing festivals but I've never had to think about how they might make a profit. It's a shame we have to think about that sort of thing, isn't it! I know what you mean about the smell of books too!!

  4. That's an interesting question to apply to many areas, "how to measure success?" There's more to success than money, that's for sure.

  5. VEry tricky question - I think I would agree with you - I'm glad I don't have to make the decision. I am a hopeless sentimentalist so if I *had* to say something it would probably be on the lines of measuring success by whether anyone fell in love with something new, or discovered the joys of words afresh.

    I was at the Swindon Slam on the first Saturday of the festival - fabulous atmosphere

    1. Sentimentalista rule, OK Dan!