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Literature festivals of the future

Megan Whitlock discusses the unique experience of online book festivals and the need for access and inclusivity in the literary world.

Book festivals depend on exchange: whether that be an exchange of ideas, an exchange of recommendations, or a transactional exchange between bookseller and consumer. The problem is that, whilst many have been (re)discovering the comfort of a good book during this pandemic, COVID-19 threatened to bring these acts of exchange to a halt. Cancelled events such as the Hay Festival were left in a precarious position, as the not-for-profit foundation derives 70% of its income from book and ticket sales. However, in adapting their models to an online format, book festivals are taking a long overdue step towards making the literary landscape more accessible to the masses.

As a total newcomer to these sorts of events, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I signed up for the digital Hay Festival, but I was quickly overwhelmed by the range of interesting talks, research and readings available at my fingertips. For those on the outside looking in, literary and intellectual communities can often feel remote, hidden behind a veil of elitism that is all too common when discussing the arts. To have free access to so many exciting resources from the comfort of my own home was a pleasant surprise to say the least.

While nothing can match the feeling (or the valuable industry revenue) of being able to browse through bookshops in person, what the online spaces lost in physical trade was atoned by the achievement of a wider audience reach than ever before. The simple process of registering for a talk, receiving a link, and then interacting with thousands of other attendees from across the globe through a live chatroom meant that the enthusiastic communities which book festivals unite somehow appeared more connected than ever. Not only do the recorded talks solve so many accessibility problems, but the ability to watch them for up to 24 hours after the event had passed (and even longer for a subscription fee) facilitated easy and flexible attendance around other commitments. As idyllic as it sounds to vanish for a few days to the literary haven of Hay-on-Wye, for many, financial and geographic constraints curtail the prospect of reaching the so-called ‘Woodstock of the mind’.

By eliminating the challenges of locations and time zones, the speakers and talks were diverse and far-reaching in a way that is unique to online global connectivity. There was something surprisingly comforting about drifting to sleep with Toby Jones, wine in hand, reciting the poetry of Wordsworth. I also felt the thrill of gaining exclusive insights on global issues, like White House tensions, as they unfolded. The unusual intimacy of bringing these speakers into the home provided a golden opportunity to share interests with loved ones, especially with those who you might never have had the chance or cause to discuss such topics with before. If you had told me in March that I’d be spending my Trinity watching book festival talks with my dad, it definitely would have come as a surprise. However, in this Groundhog Day world where things were starting to feel incredibly isolating, it was a blessing to be connected to thousands of people across the globe, as well as having a new topic of discussion to broach with my family every night.

Online book festivals are more accessible, can develop an even more diverse literary community, and have the potential to gain a much wider reach. For the many authors that rely on these festivals to platform and sell their books, this must surely be good news. It is therefore unsurprising that, looking forward to a post-Covid world, many leading festivals have already explored the possibility of online/in-person hybrid events. Nevertheless, there is still something irreplaceable about the personal touch of getting a physical book copy signed, and the jury is out on whether a wider reach necessarily translates to more sales, particularly when there are no visible book copies in sight. The success of online literary festivals depends entirely on which type of exchange you are looking for. In the case of the independent booksellers, who have only just recently seen growth in trade after a 20-year decline, the optional donations offered by online festivals may be too little, too late. After all, you cannot fuel a career based on the exchange of ideas and conversation alone.

Either way, it is undeniable that the pandemic has forced a necessary conversation in the literary industry about its own future, from examining the centralisation of the publishing world to acknowledging the importance of independent booksellers in a world where Amazon appears to be subsuming everything in its path. At a time when we are forced to be increasingly socially distant, it has never been more important to make literary communities more inclusive. Opening up discussions and making the thought-provoking ideas and research shared at book festivals available to all seems as good a place as any to start.

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