After the pandemic, books festivals have to reassess their viability, say new organisers hoping to engage more diverse audiences.
iterary festivals could “risk waning interest” and some may no longer remain viable if they remain inwardly focused and don’t attract audiences from marginalised communities, especially in the wake of the cost of living crisis, organisers have said.
This is the first year since the pandemic began that many festivals have been able to put on full in-person programmes, with some returning for the first time after reduced or postponed events in 2020 and 2021.
But nervousness around the continuing prevalence of coronavirus and concerns about the increased cost of living means the festival landscape is still full of uncertainty, with attendance down on pre-pandemic levels.
In addition to big national issues affecting festival attendance, events also need to be more innovative with their line-ups, ticketing, format and venues in order to attract audiences who have previously felt excluded, some believe.
Cristina Fuentes La Roche, international director at Hay festival, said nervousness around the pandemic has had an impact on “audience appetite”, with “lower numbers booking than in pre-pandemic times, though this was balanced out in the end by a later bookings surge in the spring”.
Hay – known as one of the “big three” three literary festivals, alongside Edinburgh and Cheltenham – did have lower attendance this year than it did in 2019, its last full festival before the pandemic. But, said Fuentes La Roche, this was partly because Hay 2022 was “designed with around 20% lower event capacity in mind” because plans were drawn up the autumn before, when “the possibility of social distancing and attendance caps had to be considered”.
Lizzie Curle, festival director at Capital Crime, which will be held in September, said festivals were “dealing with the psychological impact” of coronavirus, and people’s nervousness around the illness. To mitigate this, Capital Crime will be moving from its previous venue of the Grand Connaught Rooms in London to “fully aerated” tents in Battersea Park. Although the pandemic meant Capital Crime had to take two years off from an in-person event after its inaugural festival in 2019, Curle said the crisis “forced independent businesses like Capital Crime to get creative”.
Leah Varnell, managing director at Ways With Words in Dartington in Devon, said that “audience numbers were low across all events” at this year’s festival, something she has put down to the cost of living crisis.
“The mood music seemed that ‘leisure’ activities had to be jettisoned due to the already felt increased cost of fuel/food,” she said, “and there was a palpable anxiety about how much more expensive life may yet become and for how long the cost of living pressures would be felt.”
Varnell said Ways With Words faced a “serious discussion” about “whether the long 10-day festival is viable and whether a shorter weekend festival and standalone individual events” might be a better path going forward.
“We are by no means out of the woods,” she added. “Speaking to other organisers of literary or summer festivals, they are considering pulling festivals and actively wrestling with the issue of viability. I would expect to see a significant number cancel and perhaps close over the coming months or year.”
Book festivals are also taking cues from other industries. At a music festival, for example, ticket holders can see multiple artists for cheaper than it would cost them to buy individual concert tickets. On top of that, festival-goers spend full days together and find a sense of community with many things going on besides the musical performances. “Music festivals, I think, are brilliant,” said Curle. “They’ve been going for years, they’ve survived. Look at the success of Glastonbury this year, it’s incredible.”
Capital Crime, like most music festivals, is selling weekend or day passes rather than ticketing each event. “I think it’s the model that creates a sense of community, and in crime fiction there is such a strong sense of community among readers,” explained Curle.
That community is important not just for readers, but for authors as well. Writer Ayisha Malik said festivals gave her the chance to meet other authors and discover new books. “For me, the discussions that take place in green rooms and festival dinners are just as important as the ones that take place on the panels,” she said.
Author Patrick Gale, founder of North Cornwall book festival, said he often encouraged authors to stay the weekend for the festival, so they had a chance to connect with each other. He and his colleagues try to ensure the “festival environment has lots to offer besides the events themselves”.
Despite uncertainty, a number of new festivals have launched in 2022 often helmed by local independent bookshops. Aware that traditional middle-class, white audiences for literary festivals are ageing, many new festivals have put an emphasis on attracting younger audiences and those from marginalised communities.
Among the new events is Brighton book festival, which was set up by Carolynn Bain, owner of independent bookshop Afrori Books, and Ruth Wainwright.
“When you say the word ‘literary’ to many people, they immediately have an image of an old white man in a wing-backed chair,” the pair felt. “We made a conscious decision to not even call our festival a ‘literary’ festival because we wanted to make it clear from the outset that this was a festival for everyone.”
While the cost of living crisis has ramped up in recent months, Bain and Wainwright said “there have been people struggling to meet the cost of living for decades”.
“There are many in Brighton for whom a book festival has always been out of reach,” they said. “We started to engage those people. The forgotten people, families and individuals missing from book festivals up and down the country.
Traditional literary festivals, they felt, “could risk waning interest for as long as they remain inwardly focused and push an image that many cannot connect with.”
Also targeting audiences who have previously been left out of literary festivals was Free Books fest, set up by Sofia Akel, founder of the Free Books campaign. The two-day festival, held for the first time in April in Peckham, included a series of free events and a bookshop where people could “buy” free books.
Akel said: “Creating the Free Books festival was about bringing literature into the heart of communities that we aim to serve, so that means putting community at the centre of everything – in essence, the festival was created with accessibility at the forefront, from the location which saw us reclaiming gentrified space, to the cost of events and books, which were given entirely free.”
Literary festivals, said Akel, “can be exclusionary across many lines, but perhaps some of the more prominent ways this manifests is in terms of class and marginalised identities”. But events like Free Books fest and pop-ups put on by publishers such as #MerkyBooks, create “open, free and accessible spaces for book lovers and creatives”.
She warned: “If literary festivals continue to cater only to very specific demographics and refuse to open them up, then their position is clear, and we’ll continue to see amazing organisations creating new, more inclusive and transformative spaces for lovers of literature.”
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