Sunday, March 15, 2009

Festival Envy

It’s festival season again - if there is such a thing as a festival season. The Bath Literature Festival has already finished, the Oxford Literary Festival takes place at the beginning of April, Hay is in May, and then after various other festivals in Edinburgh, Harrogate, Dartington, we finish up in Cheltenham in October. So which one is pre-eminent? Well, mischievously, I typed ‘Literary Festival’ into Google and you get the following order: Hay, Oxford, Ilkley, Manchester, then - interestingly - Henley (not bad for a festival in its 3rd year). Of course, type in "literature festival" and Bath comes out on top. "Book festival" delivers Edinburgh, but when you type in "Reading (rhymes with 'leading') Festival", and you bump up against the marvellous ambiguity of the English language... Anyway, I think it's safe to assume that Hay is the Daddy. But like every other area of publishing, the growth in book events and literary festivals has been nothing if not explosive since Hay began twenty odd years ago. (If you want to see the frightening number of festivals that do take place every year - go take a look at the British Council's master list - it's by no means comprehensive). The outcome of this has been increased competition for authors, and whilst the top-tier events probably have their pick of all the hot authors, those lower down the pecking order probably have to work incredibly hard to entice authors to come. Especially if they have no budget to pay them. In a world in which something like 95% of published authors ‘can’t give up the day job’ literary events must seem a great way of making a bit of extra cash, and get your name out there. The reality must be though that the big names get the fees, the lesser known names are obliged to do it for free. It will be interesting over the next few years if squeezed budgets mean some of the smaller events have trouble getting the authors in. Anecdotally, I know this has happened with two festivals elsewhere in Oxfordshire. From the festival side, having a track record of staging good events definitely helps. Pretty much every author I've spoken to about this has a 'war story' of some horrendous event they attended - badly organised, badly attended - which has left them scarred and reticient about saying 'yes' automatically to anything that comes up. Even the bigger festivals can sometimes be guilty of scheduling snafus, and it can be bad luck you if you find yourself scheduled at the same time as a Melvyn Bragg or Jodi Picoult. As in retail (and business generally I guess), if you are not a big or established player, the key is going for a defined niche - and ensuring that you are firmly plugged in to the local community. We have our own Abingdon Arts Festival which kicks off this Saturday, and is relatively middle-aged in festival terms, having been established for over ten years. Last year we dipped our toe into the water with a series of events - including the wonderful Barbara Trapido - and this year we have an equally great line up. Not only are we selling books at one of the kick-off events this Saturday (the extremely funny Dr Phil Hammond) but we also have events with Professor Richard Fortey, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher author Kate Summerscale and an evening of Cornish language poetry and song with Tim Saunders - with backing singers! (Thanks to the boys at Wood Green for that introduction). We're particularly chuffed with the two children's authors coming over the fortnight. Tommy Donbavand is an ex-clown and author of Scream Street (he's coming this Saturday at 12.30pm) - and we will also have Mousehunter author Alex Milway, last seen covering Crow on the Hill with his weird and wonderful mice. That's on April 4th... Anyway, PR puffs aside, and despite the current economic climate, everyone seems to be very happy with ticket sales for their events. Even though we won't have the promised Festival banners flying in the market square (due, apparently, to unforeseen 'planning' restrictions - ho hum), the Abingdon Arts Festival committee have done another superb job, and I hope you - reading this - can find something to titilate and amuse amongst all the events on offer over the coming fortnight...

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