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The COVID-19 pandemic has rocked the world as we know it, and book festivals have been no exception. Big or small, personal book fairs simply couldn’t take place in 2020. Fortunately, writers, readers, and booksellers are an imaginative bunch – and digital book fairs have been booming with the help of programs like Zoom, Teams, and other video conferencing platforms.
For me, online book festivals have made a bad situation so much easier to deal with. I worked from home and missed my friends and family; Digital book festivals gave me something to look forward to on weekends or evenings, and made me feel like I was away from the same four walls day in and day out. At the same time, I was finally starting to get a grip on my chronic illnesses – where personal book festivals wore me down (if I didn’t skip them entirely), digital book festivals were much more manageable and accessible. Thanks to a few festivals that recorded their sessions, I was even able to get on and off when I felt like it, which gave me a lot more time to process and enjoy the interviews with authors and panel discussions.
In 2020 and early 2021, I participated in several digital book festivals and authoring events. Each festival approached the business of setting up a purely digital event in a different way and faced a multitude of challenges when it came to running a festival in unprecedented circumstances. However, all events had one thing in common; A core team of die-hard story lovers determined to make sure that no matter what the pandemic threw at them, they would bring their closed-reader book festival to life.
Standalone story fests
One of the biggest digital book festivals I have attended was FIYAHCON 2020, the inaugural festival of FIYAH Literary Magazine. FIYAH is a quarterly magazine publishing Black Speculative Fiction that has been going strong since 2017, and FIYAHCON builds on the magazine’s success. Director LD Lewis and the rest of the FIYAH team were determined to create a comprehensive, accessible, diverse and dynamic convention where people and organizations duly announce their names and see more than one brown face on a panel at a time – a diversity panel ‘and FIYAHCON have more than fulfilled this promise. The initial publication of 500 tickets sold out almost immediately, and the final number of registered attendees was 1,128 – an astonishing number for a brand new, fully online literary convention.
While FIYAHCON had its opening year in 2020, many older festivals that had previously run offline were adjusting to the new normal. Noirwich, the Norwich-based crime festival, went online, with most sessions being free. I took part in the talks with Attica Locke and Oyinkan Braithwaite, and later picked up the festival talk on “Poirot: The World’s Greatest Detective” (a title Hercule would undoubtedly consider highly deserved).
Unfortunately, several offline book festivals had to be canceled. Authors Kit de Waal and Molly Flatt stepped in quickly and started working on the Big Book Weekend as early as March 2020. This event brought together 28 sessions from canceled festivals and broadcast them on My Virtual Literary Festival, including appearances by authors such as Neil Gaiman, Juno Dawson, and Booker Award winner Bernardine Evaristo. The sessions will be available on My VLF until the end of April. So be sure to check them out before you finish!
Long-term lockdown literature
Some digital book festivals have moved completely away from the “one week / end” format and put together expanded event programs that run throughout the entire closure period. Lockdown LitFest has featured interviews with a wide variety of writers that have been conducted on a regular basis over the past year. The famous Blackwell Bookstore in Oxford maintained their list of outstanding literary events and moved them to Zoom. The Cambridge Literary Festival has a schedule of fascinating online events that you can live or catch up on for a few days. Individual authors have held their own events. Elle McNicoll, author of A Kind of Spark, ran a YouTube writing class for young readers, while children’s poet Michael Rosen filled his channel with readings and workshops. The World Book Day website has created a number of online master classes that are great for home education or for writers and illustrators of all ages looking to improve their practice in the face of the lockdown creative block. Thanks to modern streaming and video platforms, writers and readers can connect in ways that would have been impossible without the pandemic a few years ago.
The disadvantages of digital book festivals
While digital book festivals and events have many advantages, each medium has disadvantages. While writers have welcomed the opportunity to connect with a wider audience and attend events without travel time being a concern for writing, there is the counterpoint that book sales associated with online events can be much lower than offline -Literature festivals. (Blackwell’s addresses this problem by offering digital attendees the option of purchasing a book along with a ticket to a launch or event.) This, along with the fact that schools may spend less (or nothing) on an event for Paying digital authors has resulted in a significant drop in income for many writers – the extent of that loss of income is reflected in the fact that the Society of Authors paid authors over £ 1.3 million in hardship funding in 2020.
Digital events have very different requirements than personal events, and this is particularly evident when it comes to security. While offline organizers may be used to setting up guest lists or hiring security professionals, the dangers associated with online events may be less predictable. A writing event hosted by a Yorkshire-based school was hacked by an outside group posting explicit sexual content. This shows that protecting your online events can be much more of a challenge than your offline counterparts. Conversely, online participants can pose a risk themselves. Writer Dhonielle Clayton was racially abused by students whose video screens were turned off during a Zoom writing event at a school. While writers can of course be subject to high levels of abuse and harassment at in-person events, the anonymity behind which potential abusers can hide at online events means the likelihood of accountability and the consequences of such abuse are lower.
Digital book festivals have improved accessibility in many ways, but they are not a perfect medium and there are still some accessibility challenges. Subtitles are not standard on all platforms, making it difficult for deaf participants to participate. Participation in digital book festivals depends on a stable internet connection, which is not a guarantee for every reader (or every author). For some writers and panelists, an online book event may be more taxing than an offline event. Without the feedback and energy of a room full of readers, even the most dynamic digital event can feel harrowing.
While online book festivals and events are still in their infancy and have gone through some teething problems, they have closed the void created by the cancellation of so many offline festivals after the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope we can bring online and offline festivals together if we are vaccinated and the world opens up again. I miss the excitement and feel for special occasions of offline festivals, but having a digital festival alongside an offline festival would open up participation to a much wider range of people who otherwise would not be able to attend. Digital book festivals have been sparks of joy in a long period of lockdown, and I am extraordinarily glad that so many authors, organizers, and book lovers have gone out of their way to keep them going during this very strange time.
If you want to take a look back at offline book festivals, check out a post from Rioter on Why You Should Go To Book Festivals. Check out the 5-ish Delectable Edible Book Festivals for a tasty twist on your typical book festival.