Literary Festivals in Lockdown and Beyond

It’s fair to say 2020 has been a challenging year for the arts in general, with theatres, cinemas, concerts and other public events forced to be shut, cancelled or postponed during lockdown. 

Literary festivals are no exception and organisers have faced difficult decisions, including whether to cancel altogether or deliver events in a different format. While the Covid-19 pandemic has prevented writers and readers from gathering in the traditional way, many literary festivals have embraced the creative challenge of uniting book lovers through alternative modes. Going online is the most popular choice for literary festivals which have gone ahead.

The advantage of using the internet to deliver readings, interviews and discussions is that they can be viewed after the event (see round-up below) and therefore could potentially attract larger audiences. They are also more accessible to people who have disabilities and longterm illnesses, especially as some recordings have been captioned. 

Taking an optimistic perspective, this means online events could be effective promotional tools for writers and attract more visitors to in-person literary festivals when they resume. Online and socially-distanced literary festivals may seem a diluted version of the real thing, but it will be interesting to see whether organisers harness some of the benefits and use them to guide decisions about literary events in future. 

For example, people who are unable to travel to festivals may be willing to pay for livestreams or recorded videos of events which others attend in person. Some festivals enabled online viewers to text chat with other audience members, ask questions at the end of writers’ talks and even attend virtual book signings, all of which could be utilised in future alongside physical events. 

Here’s a round up of a few of the literary festivals rising to the challenge of delivering their events in alternative (and frequently innovative) formats: 

Hay Literary Festival was forced to go digital in lockdown and videos can be accessed by subscribing to its Hay Player (https://www.hayfestival.com/hayplayer/). The lineup includes David Crystal, Hilary Mantel, Elif Shafak and Maggie O’Farrell. 

Edinburgh International Book Festival was held online from 15th-31st August 2020 and has many events available to watch again for a limited time (https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/watch-again). Writers featured include Matt Haig, Brit Bennett, Anne Enright and Ian Rankin. 

Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival (https://budlitfest.org.uk) was held virtually from 16th-20th September. All events were available for free online until 30th September, although they noted that a voluntary donation would be appreciated. Writers featured included Sandi Toksvig, Pragya Agarwal, Rachel Joyce, Anthony Horowitz and Hilary Mantel. 

 Appledore Book Festival (https://www.appledorebookfestival.co.uk) went ahead as a drive-in event from 18th-22nd September 2020 with tickets sold per car, not per person (although there was a 5 person per car limit!) and an option to order food and drinks to be delivered to your car. Vehicles exited via a drive-through bookstall where signed books could be bought with contactless payment. Headliners included Richard Osman, SJ Watson, Jeremy Vine and Alison Weir. 

 Exeter Literary Festival (https://www.exelitfest.com) has suspended in-person plans, but advises people to check its blog for updates regarding the situation. Meanwhile, its short story competition went ahead and the short list has been announced on the website.

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