Is competition among literary festivals becoming dangerous for their health?

by Sally Blundell / 24 May, 2017

Photo/Getty Images/Listener illustration

As so many events target a limited number of ticket-buying readers, Sally Blundell asks the tough questions.

A small Welsh market town famous for its second-hand bookshops may seem an unusual place for a Fat Freddys Drop gig, but the band’s trumpeter, Tony Chang, is looking forward to a star turn at one of the world’s most successful book festivals.

“I know music is not the dominant side of this – rather it’s about talk and discussions based around letters. But music is what we do and it is a real honour to be included. I am hoping to get there the night before and catch Garry Kasparov discussing artificial intelligence.”

Fat Freddys are one of the headline acts at this month’s Hay-on-Wye literary festival, performing alongside film-makers, artists, scientists, environmentalists and that chess grandmaster.

Oh, and writers.

“We take a pretty permissive view of programming,” says Peter Florence, who co-founded the festival with his father, Norman. “We like to mix up art forms and genres and sciences and music. The thing that always amazes me is how they all feed each other and resonances are found.”

Emily Perkins.

Reading as a social activity

It is hard to identify exactly when the usually solitary acts of reading and writing morphed into the more social enterprise of listening and looking, but the resonances Florence talks about are inspiring book festival audiences around the world.

Since the inaugural New Zealand International Arts Festival in 1986 included its first Writers Week, boasting heavy literary hitters Margaret Drabble and Michael Ondaatje, writers in this country have been booking flights, cadging beds and reading, reciting and performing to audiences in Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin and a growing number of smaller centres: New Plymouth, Nelson, Wanaka, Wairarapa, Kapiti Coast, the Hutt Valley, Tauranga, Marlborough, Masterton, Whanganui, Napier-Hastings, Taupo, Raglan, Rawene, Waiheke Island and Piha.

“Last year, I went to a fantastic writers festival in Ohakune,” says Emily Perkins, familiar to festival audiences as both writer and interviewer. “All New Zealand writers, small rooms, different panels, people talking about quite technical things, such as structure and storytelling. It was just great.”

This year’s calendar is already pretty packed. In February, Auckland hosted the second Samesame but Different LGBTQI Writers Festival. This month was the Auckland Writers Festival and the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival. The Marlborough Book Festival and the NZ Mountain Film & Book Festival (in Wanaka, Cromwell and Queenstown) open in July; the Going West Books & Writers Festival in West Auckland and the Manawatu Writers’ Festival in Feilding will be staged in September. The annual Storylines National Festival Story Tour will also extend its range to cover most of the country over much of the year. Peak festival? No sign of that.

Last year, the Auckland Writers Festival, newly changed from a biennial to an annual event, broke its own record, filling more than 65,000 seats (albeit with the help of many free tickets) for a programme that included more than 150 novelists, playwrights, songwriters, scientists, historians, children’s writers, critics, editors, illustrators and poets. Its line-up this year included Man Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty, biographer Miranda Carter, art historian Teju Cole, blues singer Mary Coughlan and Canadian short-story writer and novelist Madeleine Thien.

Last year, the biennial WORD Christchurch festival, partnering in its off-years with the Christchurch Arts Festival, doubled its audience on 2014, selling more than 12,000 seats and filling nearby New Regent St cafes to bursting.

Rachael King.

“Storytelling seems to be on the rise as a form of communication,” says WORD literary director Rachael King. “Reading is a very solitary activity but people are talking to each other all over the internet. This is a way of carrying on those conversations face-to-face. The atmosphere can be electric when there is a really good discussion going on.”

Auckland Writers Festival (AWF) director Anne O’Brien agrees: “Places where ideas have been discussed are diminishing – community places where people get together and talk about stuff – for a lot of people with busy lives and the changing media landscape those opportunities are not prevalent. But there is still a fundamental interest in public discourse and conversation, a thirst for live engagement.”

But with so many festivals, and only so many ticket-buying readers, does that make for hot competition? New Zealand Festival’s Writers Week manager Mark Cubey thinks not.

“The country is too small. You can’t focus on competition – you need to focus on growing the pie, making every writers festival in the country really hum, so anyone you are trying to attract from overseas will say, bloody hell, New Zealand has all these things – we’ll take the plunge to fly 30 hours in a tin can across multiple oceans to come to a little place at the end of the world.”

King, too, says festivals buoy each other up, but O’Brien insists it is and always has been competitive. “In terms of the A-list big names, everyone is chasing the same people and the more festivals there are, the more competitive it is.”

The AWF has had room to move. It has big venues, reasonably reliable Creative New Zealand (CNZ) funding of $85,000 a year, and support from local government, corporate sponsors and patrons. And it has the huge advantage of being able to work in with the heavy-hitting Sydney Writers’ Festival, which also takes place in May. The challenge for other festivals, such as Wellington’s Writers Week, says Cubey, is to develop a programme and character that are both nationally distinctive and locally responsive.

Fat Freddys Drop are one of the headline acts at this year’s Hay-on-Wye Festival. Photo/Alamy

Fat Freddys Drop are one of the headline acts at this year’s Hay-on-Wye Festival. Photo/Alamy

New options

In 2014, the Wellington Regional Amenities Fund considered new options for the festival, including a new multi-event model, scaling it back from 24 to 17 days and moving Writers Week to another time of the year. These ideas are on hold, but Cubey is determined to figure out “how we make Wellington a phenomenon and give people something they can embrace and get excited about”.

It is creating that difference, that local edge, that drives King in Christchurch. WORD works in with the smaller Melbourne and Brisbane writers festivals as well as the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney and the transitional movement behind Christchurch’s FESTA and Gapfiller.

“We wouldn’t try to be a mini-Auckland,” she says. “Instead, we have invented our own, edgier identity and personality.”

Last year’s festival included sessions on new migrants, new media and the environment; guests included star mortician Caitlin Doughty, Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier, ITV science correspondent Alok Jha and songwriter Hollie Fullbrook.

“For Christchurch, it’s also a sense of community – it’s been a huge thing post-earthquakes as a way of bringing people together and talking about some of the issues people are facing.”

All three directors describe the importance of a balanced programme including big-ticket literary stars, dependable writers with a solid readership and new young writers, says Cubey, “who are shaking things up”.

“As a punter you might go to touch the hem of a person whose work has been meaningful to you,” says Perkins, “but you might come away with the discovery of a person you might never have heard of before who has taken part in a brilliant conversation or given a reading. That is what is thrilling to me.”

King points to the success of performer, writer and LGBT advocate Ivan Coyote at last year’s WORD festival (and at this year’s AWF and WORD’s autumn series). Although he was a star in a certain demographic, she says, hardly anybody had heard of the Canadian storyteller here. “It was completely sold out.”

Charles Dickens: generously paid. Photo/Getty Images

Balancing the books

Festival success comes at a cost. Organisers speak of break-even bank balances or annual losses. Most are run by charitable trusts and a small staff boosted by volunteers. With the cost of venue hire, author and interviewer fees, marketing, salaries and administration, and a limited pool of sponsorship, no one is getting rich out of festivals.

In the UK, guest writers are feeling the pinch. Charles Dickens netted £20,000 – the equivalent of about $2 million today – on his 1867-68 reading tour of America, but writers now grumble about low fees, payment in kind – from good cheese (Bridport) to fizzy plonk (Oxford) – and strict contracts.

As British novelist Amanda Craig told the Guardian, what began as a celebration of books and the love of reading has become “a bloated commercial enterprise in which authors are like farmers before Walmart … It exploits those who most need support – the new and young – and insults the mature.”

King says this is not the case in New Zealand. Festivals here tend to pay a standard fee for writers and chairs – often a bit extra for international writers in recognition of the distance they have travelled. Travel and accommodation are paid for, often shared by publishers, and speakers often get free entry to events that are not sold out. “So we are saying to New Zealand writers, ‘Come, listen to authors talk about their craft, be in conversation with your peers, think about how you write,’” says O’Brien.

But they do have to deliver. JM Coetzee has been known to simply read from his latest book, but generally writers need to be engaging, quick-witted and presentable.

“For some writers, it is scary enough going into a darkened studio and talking to someone on the radio,” says Cubey, former producer of Kim Hill’s Saturday Morning programme on RNZ National. “The idea of getting up in front of a live crowd is just anathema.”

When Perkins began being published, literary events were taking hold. “So for as long as I have been published, it’s been part of the job – I was acclimatised to it from early on.” As a writer and moderator she still gets nervous – “but it is a good nervousness”.

She recalls hearing Janet Frame speak at a festival in Wellington. “She read a story but basically knew it by heart – it was the most electrifying experience. For all that she is said to have been shy, she had the room in the palm of her hand.”

Janet Frame. Photo/Getty Images

Diversifying audiences

To keep a place in the increasingly crowded book-festival calendar, organisers are now focusing on ways to increase and diversify their audiences beyond the stable female, middle-aged, middle-class, usually white audiences.

For last year’s WORD festival, King introduced more free events and a broader fringe programme. “So rather than putting on a festival and saying, ‘Come to us’, we took it out into the spaces in the city that people already feel comfortable going to,” she says. “We didn’t have huge names, so we were selling people on ‘You might not have heard of this person, but trust us; once you come along, they’ll be amazing’.”

It worked. Audiences were younger; smaller venues were full; and of 400 festival-goers surveyed, half were first-timers.

Auckland, too, is trying to grow local attendances. O’Brien is working to cater to the growing Maori, Pasifika and Asian Auckland audiences and to expand the festival’s school programme. “They are the future audience.”

To reach out to the newbies, book festivals are also entering thoroughly unbookish territory. Last November, about 2600 Wellingtonians and out-of-towners braved atrocious weather to attend a series of literary events taking place over three-and-a-half hours across the city’s cafes and bars. The LitCrawl event was intimate, slightly panicky (you could not book seats) and a lot of fun. “We’re trying to expand the definition of what writing is,” says co-founder Claire Mabey, “so there’s a slightly revolutionary feel about it.”

The maths doesn’t add up. More than 800 hours of co-ordination, high-quality sound and lighting, guests brought in from around the country – and entry by donation. “But we don’t want to ticket it – that would completely change it. So we are trying to find a sustainable way to get an income through the year so we can pay for all that work and make sure production standards remain high.”

CNZ’s Malcolm Burgess. Photo/Jasmyne Chung

Expenditure grows

From 2003-2013, CNZ expenditure on readings, writer tours and festivals grew from $59,550 to $236,100. These funds are channelled into the New Zealand writing element of the festivals, says CNZ senior adviser of literature Malcolm Burgess, “so it’s a chance for New Zealand readers to discover New Zealand writers they may not have heard about”.

Over the same 10-year period, however, funding for researching and writing work nearly halved, from $667,000 to $328,000.

The increase in CNZ funding for literary festivals, says Burgess, is likely to reflect the growth in the festivals over this time. And preliminary analysis of data from 2015/16 shows a significant upswing in support for individual writers to create work, with writing grants totalling nearly $517,000.

“We have a focus on increasing and diversifying readership and sales of New Zealand literature and it is important writers have audiences. There have been challenges in recent times in relating to the publishing industry, and we have been looking at infrastructural support for literature in which literary festivals are now seen as a key part.”

A key and rapidly growing part, now having to chart new waters to develop a unique and compelling audience experience. “Reading is deeply private and personal,” says Hay-on-Wye festival’s Florence. “Festivals are public and shared. If you get that contradiction dancing, then you have a festival that plays.”

This article was first published in the May 27, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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