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The Future of (Book) Festivals: West Port Book Festival, 26 November 2012


A trip to Inspace is always a treat – they put on a series of events that are broad in their scale, ambition, range and content, yet always intimate. Back in November I went along to an event which was being produced as part of the West Port Book Festival, focusing on the future of festivals, with book and literary festivals to the fore. Nick Barley was on the panel, representing himself and also the Edinburgh International Book Festival. We were also joined by Claire Squires of Stirling University and, live and direct from Melbourne via Skype and a very early alarm call, Lisa Dempster. The notes that follow are not a full minute of the event, but hopefully flag up some of the topics that came up and the opinions of the key contributors. The theme of 'change' was in the air: the size of the book festival market growing; the influence of ebooks; the place of social media in the festival experience; the need for festivals to find/retain their sense of personality and character.

Please read on and note any questions in the comments.

And happy new year!


The Future of Festivals
Part of West Port Book Festival

On the panel...
Claire Squires (University of Stirling)

  • Nick: future: festivals will have to be better, know their speciality, have a personality
  • Nick: festivals coming to rely on passion: of organisers and audiences
  • Claire: in a digital age festivals have a role in providing a connection between authors and readers, while high street shops close down, etc.
  • Lisa: agrees with Nick that the current festival boom won't last forever
  • Lisa: festivals bring people together, a focus for debate and connections, a site for fun too – leading to a more relaxed type of event with more engagement and a move away from the lecture plus q and a model
  • Lisa: festivals need to know what they're for and who they're working with, what their expectations are
  • Claire: commenting on uses of social media to widen the audience for an event, even though it breaks the physical link
  • Nick: says he has a journalistic role, editing an event to meet a variety of different audiences and interests; but also present a world view that brings some degree of consistency and focus to the event
  • Nick: flags up the differences between festivals of different scales, what can you achieve with the larger festivals?
  • Lisa: Emerging Writers Festival in Australia: lots of work with social media, redefining the structure of the event in order to bring in the audience and their expertise, alongside a Twitter audience
  • Lisa: Twitter has facilitated a community around the festival, giving people a chance to contact others – including enabling Twitter users to meet each other
  • Lisa: resistance to Twitter? Festival board brought some resistance to the idea, so needed convincing, but once it was shown to work it built up steam; recommends not apologising and just going for it
  • Nick: resistance: notes that some feel that tweeting during events is annoying; Nick appeals for the joy of losing yourself to the experience of an author and an expert chair – tweeting is great, but the key to the event is the quality of the conversation on stage
  • Claire: financial sustainability: different models of book sales – giving it over to a company like Waterstones, or doing it yourself? What sort of revenues are possible through digital books?
  • Nick: envisaging that festival boards are likely to be asking their festivals what their ebook strategy is... such as eibf who are trying to delay the switch to move to digital. Switches focus to production rather than consumption: what do authors demand of their authors and will this change as people's commitment to reading changes?
  • Lisa: believes that festivals and bookshops should provide means by which customers can get hold of books
  • Nick: media driven by what people have written, whether it be social media or mainstream news, which helps reinforce the value of the book as a generator of these news cycles
  • Lisa: books as an antidote to the sound bite; sophisticated audiences who can engage with numerous ideas through different media
  • Are pure festivals dead? More cross genre festivals to reflect our lives? Lisa: maybe yes... cites Latitude, though it's still a way away; though notes Adelaide writers festival is part of the wider arts festival
  • Nick: doesn't see an end to the literary festival, examples exist of successful festivals around the world which have their niche
  • Nick: reflects on 2012 Writers' Conference as a shift in focus from books to writing, authors talking about why they write
  • Claire: what of those who don't want to engage with all the new event types? There will be some authors who are not as effective on stage, whose work is effectively less favoured in the festival model
  • Lisa: agrees that festival producers need to reflect on what works best for each author
  • Nick: it's about giving each author the opportunity to present their work; programming is about a conversation with authors – what works best for them?

Image: 'Mini Book II: Inside cover'  |  flickr.com/photos/bzedan/107727353/

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Dr Simon Gage: Edinburgh Napier University, 27 September 2012