Books

Virtually Together: The Rise of Digital Book Festivals

The COVID-19 pandemic shook up the world as we know it, and book festivals were no exception. Whether large or small, in-person book fairs simply couldn’t happen in 2020. Luckily, authors, readers, and booksellers are a resourceful bunch – and with the help of programmes like Zoom, Teams, and other video conferencing platforms, digital book fairs boomed.

For me, online book festivals made a bad situation so much more manageable. I was working from home and missing my friends and family; digital book festivals gave me something to look forward to at weekends or in the evenings, and gave me the feeling of being away from the same four walls, day in, day out. At the same time, I was finally starting to manage my chronic illnesses – where in-person book festivals wore me out (if I didn’t skip them completely), digital book festivals were much more manageable and accessible. Thanks to some of the festivals recording their sessions, I could even dip in and out when I felt like it, which gave me a lot more time to process and enjoy the author talks and panel discussions. 

During 2020 and the beginning of 2021, I attended several digital book festivals and author events. Each festival approached the business of setting up a purely digital event in a different way, facing a variety of challenges when it came to managing a festival in unprecedented circumstances. All of the events, however, had one thing in common; a core team of tenacious story-lovers, determined to make sure that no matter what the pandemic threw at them, they would bring their book festival to locked-down readers.

via Unsplash

Standalone Storyfests

One of the biggest digital book festivals I attended was FIYAHCON 2020, the inaugural festival hosted by FIYAH Literary Magazine. FIYAH is a quarterly magazine publishing Black speculative fiction, which has been going strong since 2017, and FIYAHCON built on the magazine’s legacy of success. Director L.D. Lewis and the rest of the FIYAH team were determined to create ‘an inclusive, accessible, diverse, dynamic convention where people and entities have their names properly announced and see more than one brown face on a panel at a time on anything other than a Diversity Panel’, and FIYAHCON more than delivered on this promise. The initial release of 500 tickets sold out almost immediately, and the final number of registered attendees was 1,128 – a staggering number for a brand-new, entirely online literary convention. 

While FIYAHCON had its inaugural year in 2020, many older festivals that had previously run offline adapted to the new normal. Noirwich, the Norwich-based crime writing festival, moved online, with the majority of their sessions available for free. I sat in on the talks by Attica Locke and Oyinkan Braithwaite, and caught up later on the festival’s talk on ‘Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World’ (a title that Hercule would no doubt consider highly deserved). 

Sadly, several offline book festivals had to be cancelled. Authors Kit de Waal and Molly Flatt quickly stepped in, starting work on the Big Book Weekend as early as March 2020. This event brought together 28 sessions from cancelled festivals and broadcast them on My Virtual Literary Festival, including appearances from authors such as Neil Gaiman, Juno Dawson, and Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo. The sessions are available on My VLF until the end of April, so make sure you watch them before they’re taken down!

Long-Running Lockdown Literature

Some digital book festivals have broken away from the “one week/end” format altogether, and put together extended events programmes that have been running throughout lockdown. Lockdown LitFest has featured interviews with a huge range of authors, running regularly over the past year. The famous Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford has kept up their roster of stellar literary events, moving them over to Zoom. Cambridge Literary Festival has a timetable of fascinating online events, available to watch live or on catch-up for a couple of days afterwards. Individual authors have been running their own events. Elle McNicoll, author of A Kind of Spark, has been running a YouTube writing class aimed at young readers, while children’s poet Michael Rosen has filled his channel with poetry readings and workshops. The World Book Day website has created a series of online masterclasses, great for home education or for writers and illustrators of any age wanting to boost their practice in the face of lockdown creative block. Thanks to modern streaming and video platforms, authors and readers are able to connect in a way that would have been impossible if the pandemic had happened a few years ago. 

The Cons of Digital Book Festivals

While digital book festivals and events have many advantages, there are drawbacks to every medium. While authors have welcomed the opportunity to connect with a wider audience, and to take part in events without the travel time that takes away from their writing, there’s the counterpoint that book sales related to online events can be much lower than those at offline literary festivals. (Blackwell’s is addressing this by offering digital attendees the option to buy a book alongside a ticket to a launch or event). This, combined with the fact that schools may expect to pay less (or nothing) for a digital author event, has led to a significant drop in income for many authors – the scale of this loss of income can be seen in the fact that the Society of Authors paid out over £1.3 million in hardship funding to authors during 2020.

Digital events have very different requirements to in-person events, and this is particularly clear when it comes to security. While offline event organisers might be used to setting up guest lists or hiring security professionals, the dangers associated with online events can be much less predictable. An author event run by a Yorkshire-based school was hacked by an outside group who posted explicit sexual content, showing that safeguarding can be a much greater challenge when hosting online events than their offline counterparts. Conversely, online attendees can themselves pose a risk; author Dhonielle Clayton was subjected to racist abuse by students with their video screens turned off during a Zoom author event at a school. While authors can of course face bigoted abuse and harassment at in-person events, the level of anonymity that potential abusers can hide behind during online events means that there is less chance of accountability and consequences for such abuse.

Digital book festivals have created greater accessibility in many ways, but they’re not a perfect medium, and some accessibility challenges still remain. Captions are not standard across all platforms, making it difficult for Deaf attendees to participate. Participation in digital book festivals depends on having a stable internet connection, something that isn’t a guarantee for every reader (or indeed every author). For some authors and panellists, an online book event might be more draining than an offline one; without the feedback and energy from a room full of readers, even the most dynamic digital event can feel jarring.

Going Forward

While online book festivals and events are still in their early days, and have gone through a few teething troubles, they’ve filled the gap left by the cancellation of so many offline festivals following the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope that, as we get vaccinated and the world starts to open up again, we manage to bring online and offline festivals together. I miss the buzz and special-occasion feel of offline festivals, but having a digital festival running alongside an offline one would open up attendance to a much wider range of people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend. Digital book festivals have been sparks of joy in a long period of lockdown, and I’m immensely glad that so many authors, organisers and book lovers have stepped up to keep them going during this very strange time. 

For a look back at offline book festivals, check out one Rioter’s post on Why You Should Go To Book Festivals. For a tasty twist on your typical book festival, look at 5-ish Delectable Edible Book Festivals.

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