Festivals – a writer’s view

Filipino Fiesta
Alex English talks to Candy Gourlay and Teri Terry about the perks and pitfalls of appearing at festivals.


What’s your favourite festival?

It would be impolitic to name a favourite festival because they are all different! But I have to say in terms of impressing my 14 year old daughter, the Hay Festival was a highlight, with a green room filled with famous people, lots of free food, drink and cake, and rock star treatment. But that's my 14 year old daughter.

I've appeared at two: Edinburgh last year, and Hay last weekend. I'll be at Edinburgh again this year. I don't think I can choose between them: they were both great experiences. The schools programme at Edinburgh is great as the audience is school groups, so in my case, packed with teenagers. The evening event there was more adults than teens, but there were teachers and librarians there so that is obviously brilliant also. Hay was more young people than adults. From a financial point of view - Edinburgh pays authors to appear, and Hay gives authors a very heavy box of wine (tricky on the train). They are both brilliantly organised and look after authors extremely well.

For me the most emotional festival had to be the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival when I was on a panel with the two other shortlisted authors for the Blue Peter My Favourite Story Award. It was held in Christ Church Hall - the setting of Hogwarts Dining Hall. We walked in and it was packed with hundreds of small children (who obviously had all come to see Blue Peter presenter Barney Harwood, but still). My whole family attended because it was my birthday that day, and I got to have lunch with one of my favourite authors, Philip Reeve!

Blue Peter Award Panel

In a different kind of festival, I was one of eight authors and illustrators that the Pop Up Festival asked to curate a pavilion at Central St martin's last year. I decided to hold a Filipino Fiesta - with a tiny budget, I cajoled my SCBWI author friends into joining, promising them fame with no fortune but most of all fun. I think we had fun. It was a proud moment when Filipino dancers performed before the open mouthed festival audience.

Most recently, I was involved in the Shoreditch Town Hall Festival which combined visiting schools with workshops over a festival weekend. What was great about it was that the children of the schools I visited actually read my books and because we met on more than one occasion, the children were very comfortable with me and really enjoyed my workshop.

How do writers get involved?

For some festivals, the publicity departments of various publishers put forward their authors of the moment. But I think reputation is key - authors and illustrators need to project a strong and engaging persona on their websites. And if you are a good performer the news gets round very quickly (if you are a bad performer unfortunately the news gets round very quickly as well).

Look for opportunities to raise your profile with gatekeeper groups involved in literacy and hone your presentation at school visits. Any public performance is a mini audition. Many festivals like the Shoreditch festival and the Schools Reading Festival at Southwark are tied with booksellers, so a good relationship with a bookseller can lead to festival gigs.

Look for opportunities to raise your profile with gatekeeper groups involved in literacy and hone your presentation at school visits.

I was invited to appear at both festivals I have been to. My understanding of how it works is this: publishers pitch authors to the major festivals, festivals decide who they want, and then send out invitations through the publishers.

Also take note that the gigs usually come with a new book. If you haven't got a new book, you are less likely to be invited.

What are the benefits of appearing at a festival?

It is obviously great exposure to appear at major festivals. Also it is a brilliant opportunity to interact with your target audience, both with questions at events and at the book signings after. But they are also just good fun: at Edinburgh I was there longer, so went to a bunch of other events. It's also lovely meeting other authors.

It is obviously great exposure to appear at major festivals.

I have to say, unless you've written a blockbuster, festival appearances are not a guarantee of massive book sales. But if you choose your festival wisely, it's a great way of raising your profile and building an audience. Festivals usually expect to pay tiny honoraria or nothing at all, so you have to balance your need to raise your profile with your need to make a living. Sometimes the benefit comes from having said you were there. Blogging about the festivals you've been involved in often results in invitations to appear at other festivals.

Shoreditch Town Hall Festival

What advice would you give to authors about to appear in their first festival?

It's not as scary as you think. Panel events, especially, can be good fun. Because they are chaired, you don't have to prepare a long talk - it is more about discussion and answering questions, both from the chair and the audience.

It's not as scary as you think. Panel events, especially, can be good fun.

When you’re deciding to appear at a festival, ask yourself three questions:

  • Does the festival put me in contact with teachers, booksellers, and librarians? 
  • Will it help me build a relationship with a community? 
  • How much 'echo' will there be after my appearance (eg. will people blog about it? Will there be a film? Will there be coverage?)

Thank you to Candy and Teri. What’s your favourite festival? Any tips for festival virgins? Please tell us in the comment section below.

Alex English is a freelance journalist and copywriter from London. By day she writes for national papers, magazines and commercial clients, mostly on food. By night she wrestles with kids' fiction. Her first picture book, THE YAK THAT SAID YUK, will be published by Maverick in 2014.


  1. Celia J Anderson10 June 2013 at 06:03

    Loved this feature, Alex - it's made me see festivals from the speakers' angle, having previously only focused on the scary feeling of walking into a room of strange (as in unfamilar rather than weird, I should maybe add) authors. Great image of being in Hogwarts dining room surrounded by interested chiildren!

  2. As a festival goer very interesting to see from the other side of the stage, thank you Alex, Candy and Teri.

    Incidentally, at the weekend I went down to one of our newer local Southampton festivals - Ejector Seat Arts. Organiser, Mac, saw the illustrators' exhibition in the Central Library and got in touch. He's very keen to get some storytelling/illustrator/author involvement for next year.

  3. Ekk I've never thought of it as an audition before.

  4. I LOVED appearing at the PopUp Festival - it was my first!

  5. Thanks for these useful nuggets Candy and Jackie!
    I'm doing the CWISL Shoutsouth Festival this week in London South Bank University which includes prep work with school kids ahead of time and already getting interest from teachers and a librarian. Hopefully I'll be able to say yes to your last 3 questions Candy!

  6. The ideas have almost laid down and govern important values and prospects which are even said to be so important to be followed by the students. paraphrasing website online


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