There are dozens of writers festivals around Australia. In addition to the major festivals in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane, there are smaller regional festivals all over the place, as well as specialist festivals such as Emerging Writers Festival, Digital Writers festival and so on. In all likelihood, your publisher will pitch you to the major city festivals and the regional festivals in your state. It’s a good idea to check with them that they are doing this and what you can do to help.
Keep in mind that getting onto a festival program is, like most things in the writing game, incredibly competitive. The reasoning behind who gets on where is also very convoluted – if you don’t fit into the bigger programming plan you can miss out, even though your book is great and you’re inordinately talented.
If you’re invited to a couple of regional festivals that’s a great start. Cracking an invite to the ‘big three’ definitely involves sleeping with someone; unfortunately we haven’t worked out who it is yet.
Some of my favourite festivals I’ve been to are Bendigo Writers Festival and Write Around the Murray in Albury – other writers speak very highly of Perth Writers Festival, the National Young Writers Festival in Newcastle and Noted in Canberra. Horror writer Jason Nahrung, author of the Vampires in the Sunburnt Country series, keeps a very handy online calendar of every writing event in Australia.
Whether or not you get scheduled onto a festival involves so many variables that there’s no way you should feel bad if you don’t. Ask your publisher which festivals they’re pitching you too, ask if they’d like you to do your own pitch as well, and ask if they mind if you pitch yourself to other festivals they’re not considering.
If you want to pitch yourself to festivals, it’s good to have a little writer CV that talks about what you’ve published, any other expertise you have (maybe your job is really interesting, or you did a PhD in entomology that you’ve never used, or your uncle was Gough Whitlam) and any themes you’d be good at speaking about (I usually say things like ‘environmental issues, small publishers, speculative fiction’) so they can find a good slot for you. Also mention any other speaking experience you’ve had, to reassure them you’re (slightly) comfortable in front of an audience.
All of this, of course, is if you want to do public appearances. Lots of writers really don’t. If it’s a horrific experience for you then I reckon you shouldn’t do it. I always get terrible anxiety beforehand, have a thrilling time while I’m on, then feel hideous remorse for days afterwards about all the stupid things I said. It’s exhausting. But I’m getting better at it, partly because I went to see a sports psychologist for a while and got some awesome tips on handling terror and fear of failure.
If you can bear to do it, I’d really recommend it – for the reasons Annabel lists below. Some of my dearest writing friends are people I’ve met at festivals, and it’s just good fun getting to hang out with other writers for a few hours or a few days. The writing life can be lonely and isolating and a lot of the time you feel like no one cares, but when you go to an out-of-town festival and they put you up in a hotel, you feel a bit like a celebrity. Also you often get a pass to a party where there’s free booze.
Once you have a book published, you might expect to take part in festivals. The thought of this can be exciting and/or frightening. Because I am a giant show-off, whose early life-ambition was to be an actress, I like nothing better than being on a stage talking about myself. However, I know I am in the minority here, as many writers are not comfortable with public speaking. But before you face the terror of speaking at a festival, the first challenge is getting an invitation.
My first festival was Perth Writers Festival. Having attended for many years as an audience member, I was absolutely thrilled to get an invitation to take part in three panel sessions to talk about my novel. When I arrived in the Green Room (where you go before your sessions to meet your chair & fellow-panellists) I sat down on a couch and got into a great discussion about writing with a dude who turned out to be Philip Adams. Then I chatted with a lovely lady who turned out to be children’s writer extraordinaire Alison Lester. Everyone I met was super-friendly and they were all happy to talk about writing. I felt like I had come HOME.
It was a wonderful experience. My chairs were well-prepared and put me at ease, my fellow-panellists were delightful and I didn’t even get any messed-up questions from the audience. I loved it! It was hard to believe someone was paying me for it—I was having so much fun I would have paid them (don’t tell them that though, #paythewriters, of course!).
I have since taken part in some regional festivals, which are incredibly intimate and enthusiastically attended, and Melbourne Writers festival, which was not as cosy-feeling but was brilliant in other ways.
I think the most awkward part of festivals is having to sign books after your session. Andy Griffiths has a line that goes outside and wraps around the building a couple of times but I’ve never signed more than a handful of books. Once you know what to expect it is less mortifying. You usually chat with the equally little-known writers who were in the session with you, or even with the punters who are lining up to have their books signed by the much-more famous-than-you author.
We asked Jane Fraser, the CEO at Fremantle Press, if festivals and other appearances sell books and she told us:
We do know that sales do happen in response to author promotion but it does vary widely – according to event, venue (library is small, festivals are bigger), audience, timing, location and so on. Class sets are even harder to track because an author appearance at a school in, say February, might prompt a teacher to order class sets, but not until the next round which might be July or the following year. I think this example is the most important because it’s the subsequent, later sale and word of mouth that really gets a book out there. And this is why it’s critical that authors keep working with publishers to promote their books months and years after it is first released. Particularly with kids books — we do know that sales tend to pick up months and years after release, which does indicate that teachers respond well, but can’t order until much later.
But whether you sell books or not, festivals are super fun! You get to be in a room full of people who understand what you do and every conversation you have is about books and writing and you get to meet other people whose books you have read and admired. If you’re published by a non-indie publisher you might get taken out to a fancy dinner and if not you can have drinks in the hotel bar with other indie authors who didn’t get taken out to dinner which is still a pretty bloody fantastic way to spend an evening if you ask me.
One guy chased me practically into the toilet to tell me how much he loved my book. Another guy asked if he could have a selfie with me when he got his book signed and he came to the festival a year later and gave me a copy of the photo (he clearly hadn’t heard of the internet). But how sweet is that?
I formed my writers group as a result of the Perth Writers festival. I made contacts I have stayed in touch with and written guest posts for and been interviewed by when my next book came out, and I have done the same on my blog with their books. Whether you sell books or not (and you probably won’t) and even if being on stage is the most terrifying thing that’s happened to you, the friends you make tend to make going to festivals very worthwhile.
How do you get on a festival? We asked Perth’s programmer, Katherine Dorrington
There are many factors in play when a festival director curates a program – generally speaking I choose work based on excellence, relevance (either to a theme or to issues being explored within the program), interest to the audience, uniqueness and the undefinable x-factor!
There are so many books published each year that we are overwhelmed with choice. I try to balance my program so that there is a strong mix of debuts, mid list and high profile writers.
I’m looking for authors who are versatile and can contribute widely across the program, who are confident and have experience speaking publicly. I would suggest putting together a few topics that you would be happy to talk about and pitch them either direct to the Festival or via your publisher. Be creative with the themes that relate to your book – they don’t have to be literal. For example if you write historical fiction what is it about your book that makes it unique – is there a link to current political or societal issues that could be discussed in a panel, do you have a really interesting path to publication, is there a great backstory to your work, did you uncover something during research that will be fascinating to audiences? Do you also write a blog that might be interesting? Can you give a writing workshop or could you confidently chair a session as well? Try and make yourself stand out from the other debut works that are being pitched to the Festival.
If you want to attend a Festival in a different state see if you can access any grants that will assist with your travel expenses and then let the Festival know. Unfortunately the budget we have to work with is generally very limited and any additional support through travel grants etc is really helpful.
Tales from other authors
Not every author is as excited about being on stage as Annabel is. We talked to Lia Weston, bike mechanic and author of Those Pleasant Girls and The fortunes of Ruby White, about stage fright. Here’s what she told us:
I applied online to be part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival 5 Minutes of Fame panel several years ago. I arrived super-duper early, and then proceeded to get eaten alive by nerves though I’d done debating and theatre and never had an issue before.
It was a pretty small audience and I was the last person to be interviewed. The guy who spoke before me was on Neighbours a million years ago; when he left, he took most of the audience with him.
Once onstage, I was nonplussed to be asked questions such as, “You have a few animals in your book. Why?” It was a complete disaster; my answers went to pieces, and I couldn’t connect to either the audience or the interviewer.
But! The best part was that the interviewer concluded with, “… and Lia’s book is on sale at the stand over there if you’d like to get a copy” and we both looked over to see the stand being packed up. I then had to chase the organiser for four months to get my unsold books back.
It seriously shook my confidence for public speaking, which took me a long time to get over. However, I have, since, managed to hold a workshop and host a couple of talks without throwing up in fear.
We asked Graeme Simsion if a world-famous author of bestsellers like The Rosie Project and The best of Adam Sharp thinks festivals are worth it. And by worth it, we meant, ‘do you sell any books?’. (There are, of course, other definitions of ‘worth it’.) Here’s what he said:
The first thing to understand is that festivals – especially big festivals – have a large number of authors and attendees can only afford / carry so many books.
In Australia, there are three sorts of people who sell books at festivals. Category 1 is famous overseas authors (cultural cringe in full cry here – or maybe it’s just that the punters think they won’t get another chance). At my first festival (Perth, 2013) I sat next to Margaret Atwood. Her line was out the door, and mine…wasn’t. But I was busy taking in the fact that my life had led me there that I didn’t need a line.
Category 2 is celebrities – i.e. celebrities who are celebrities for a reason other than being writers. I skipped Julia Gillard’s session so I could be first in line in Adelaide, and the minder still moved me on – no dedications, just signatures, Graeme.
Category 3 is Andy Griffiths.
Now that your expectations (unless you’re Andy or a celebrity) are set suitably low, the best thing (in my experience) you can do is a reading (people want to know what they’re getting). Find one that doesn’t require a lot of setup and ends on something of a cliffhanger – or at least leaves them curious. No more than a couple of minutes.
But festivals are not about selling books, at least not directly on the day. Publicity around them probably does more. And the more people hear about you and your book, the more likely the pressure to buy will accumulate!
We’d love to hear your experiences of festivals, bad or good, strange or hilarious – leave them in the comments below. Or feel free to ask us a question.
Coming next: #6 Making money as an author
Previously in ‘What To Expect’…
Jane: Recently my fourth book – a novel – was published. I’m with a small independent publisher, and they’ve previously published another novel of mine, and a non-fiction book about climate change that I co-authored with an environment journalist. My other book, a novella, was published by a different, even smaller independent publisher. None of my books has been published outside Australia, and I’m not represented by an agent.
Annabel: I published my first two novels with small independent publishers. My second novel was sold by my West Australian publisher to a small(ish) independent publisher in the US, where it has gone on to sell more than 60,000 copies. My third book, an interactive digital novel/app was self-published. I am currently in talks with a North American agent in relation to my fourth novel, the first in a trilogy.