The Lit Fest Newsletter: How to run a virtual festival.

I have spent a fair amount of time over the last couple of months trying to calculate a definitive figure for the number of literary festivals that take place in the UK. This involved visting lots of websites - around 250. The picture that emerged was interesting - most had been founded in the last 10 years, the size of the town (or village) bore no relation to the size of the festival and there was an even spread across the whole of the UK.

But the most impressive thing, to me at least, was the realisation that this extraordinary network had been self created - without instruction from a professional body and with little help from the publishing industry. What’s more each festival was itself a network - one that involved the local bookshop, venues, businesses and more often than not nearby schools. The festivals invited writers to come and talk but they also encouraged the act of writing itself. Lit Fest’s are a joint community effort to do something, not driven by profit, but by the desire to make the world a better place. And that is why it is so disheartening to see all these cancellations. We are at a strange period - where no-one knows what the next few weeks will bring. Some people have decided to shelve their festival until the next year, and some people are trying to find a way to hold some of their original events online. There is no right course.

Should we be worrying about books when people are worrying about their mortgage and their sick relatives? It is a valid question but I think we do have something to offer. We are an incredible network spread far and wide across the country that has real knowledge of their communities - i am sure we can help in some way. With home schooling? With people’s mental health? Could we do this together? Could festivals join up to share what they are doing? Collectively the social media following of all festivals is enormous. And we all are expert curators. Maybe simply suggesting interesting stuff to our communities; books, podcasts, online events is enough.

I thought it might be interesting to hear from a couple of experts! Firstly Michelle Hodgson, director of the brilliant Huddersfield Literary Festival, who kindly gave her time to answer some questions about how they have adapted their programme. And secondly from Phil Connor, the man behind the excellent What Editors Want podcast who offers some advice to anyone that wants to set-up a podcast themselves.

In the coming weeks i will be sending out more of these Q&As. If anyone thinks that they have got something that would be useful to share please let me know - mathew@bookamp.co.uk.

Q&A with Michelle Hodgson, Director of the Huddersfield Literary Festival

When did you decide you cancel?

A few authors had already cancelled, which we completely understood and respected. We had been monitoring developments and had posted Coronavirus guidelines on our website but after conversations with my team over the weekend of 14/15 March and then first thing on the Monday morning, we realised that it had got to the stage that we might put people’s health at risk if we continued - authors, audiences and our volunteers. 

How long before you decided that you could move some events online and for others offer book extracts etc?

Most of Monday was spent getting the word out about the Festival being cancelled, but by the end of the day I felt I couldn’t just let it end there and give up on the brilliant line-up we had planned this year. So the decision was made late on Monday and I immediately started contacting authors and devising ideas for potential content. 

What have you so far planned?

We’re trying to match online content loosely with the Festival programme. So we trailed a virtual launch on Wednesday evening with Monique Roffey, author of The Mermaid of Black Conch, who was due to appear at our live launch. She filmed herself talking about her book and reading an extract, which we posted at the time of the original launch. 

On Thursday, Rachel Kelly, author of Singing in the Rain, offered tips on mental wellbeing during these challenging times, and we ran a Twitter thread promoting Can You Hear Me? A Paramedic’s Encounters With Life and Death by Jake Jones, who was due to give a talk that evening. We also set up details on our website for two authors: Paul Burston and VG Lee to offer feedback on writing from the public - from short extracts to full manuscripts.

On Friday we have announced rescheduled dates for the Autumn with Amanda Owen: The Yorkshire Shepherdess and Anne Choma, author of Gentleman Jack

Saturday, we will be posting a poetry reading by Rachel Kelly for World Poetry Day. 

Next week we will have the following:

A Twitter Q&A with Paul Burston and VG Lee

VG Lee’s writing tips

A Q&A with debut crime writer Nell Pattison

Some more filmed author readings

and anything else we come up with that relates to our programme!

The idea is to promote work by at least some of the authors who were due to appear at the Festival, but also, importantly, to pay them for their contributions, as so many authors have lost income through event cancellations.

What have been the issues/problems that you have encountered in setting up these new events?

Time, more than anything. Usually this kind of initiative would take quite a bit of planning, but we had to hit the ground running to get things out during the Festival dates. 

In season one of What Editors Want, Phil Connor Finn interviewed a different high-profile editor each episode including Serpents Tail’s Hannah Westland, Jacques Testard from Fitzcarraldo Editions and W&D’s Jenny Lord. It’s aimed at readers who want to hear the behind the scenes story of how their favourite books get made, and aspiring authors who want to know how to get published. Over to Phil . . .

How I set up a podcast without knowing anything about how to set up a podcast. . .

Kit

There’s a million ways to record audio but an experienced podcaster told me to not get bogged down trying to understand all the parts and simply buy the Samson Q2U Recording Pack. The fantastic thing about this microphone is it plugs straight into your laptop via USB so you don’t need a recorder or anything else. The pack also includes a tripod, the chord you need and a mic clip for about £70. I bought two of these packs so had a microphone for me and one for my guest that, along with my laptop, was all I needed to record. I found they were quite directional too so didn’t pick up too much background noise and allowed me to record in semi-public places like office meeting rooms too.

Software

Again there’s lots of things on the market but I used the free programme Audacity, which is fab. There’s absolutely loads of YouTube videos and tutorials online to teach you how to use Audacity and even a subreddit. Initially I was a bit overwhelmed, but soon got my head around it. You’ll either record one track featuring all the microphones, or give each microphone its own track. I found the latter helpful for editing purposes.

Editing

This was the probably the steepest learning curve of the whole podcast experience. Luckily there’s buckets of tips and tutorials online. Audacity is reasonably straight forward to use, however, and you can simply trim aspects of the audio you want to remove from the final episode, as well as increase or decrease the volume, and add other sound effects including theme music. You can also return to Audacity at any time to add extra audio, for instance an intro or outro to an episode.

Music

There’s lots of place online you can find music, but you do need to check what license its shared under and whether you’re allowed to use it. Most songs will be copyrighted and so you’ll need to pay, but there are also free libraries of music available too online. I found some theme music I loved on Jamendo and spent less than £10 to license it for as many uses as I liked. Once downloaded, you can add the music as its own track in Audacity and fade in/out as necessary.

Logo

Fortunately a designer friend was king enough to mock up a logo for me. A quick google will tell you what the latest recommendation specifications are. In my experience the vast amount of podcast listens come through Apple, so you’ll want to make sure you match their recommended size and quality to be include on the iTunes Store. If you’re on the lookout for a designer, there’s lots of people who specialise in podcast logo design on Fiverr.com.

(canva.com is also an easy to use online design tool - Ed)

Distribution

Depending on what your podcast is, you may want it available on different outlets but generally speaking you want your podcast to appear in all the usual placed: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud etc. The easiest way I found of doing this was to pay someone else to do it! I used a website called Pippa (which has now been taken over by Acast) but I believe there are many offering similar services. Essentially you pay them a small monthly fee (less than $10 in my experience) and they will spit your podcast out into all the regular places. They’ll also provide stats and analytics so you can see how many people are listening to your show, on what app, and where your listeners are.

You may have to do a small amount fo work to register your podcasts with some apps/sites but it is just a matter of copy and pasting a code your distributor will provide you with. I get lots of listens from apps like Podtail, Podbean and Pocket Casts so it’s worth registering there. Each app will have a 'how to add your podcast’ page in any case and your distributor will be able to advise you on the specifics. Do note there’s generally a delay of a week or so before Apple approves your first episode so don’t expect it to appear immediately. Some shows like to release a small teaser episode of 30 seconds or 1 minute ahead of the real launch to get this approval out of the way. 

That’s it!

Congratulations your podcast is out in the world and you can get on to the job of shouting about it.

If you would like to get Phil to work with your festival he can be contacted on philip.connor42@gmail.com

In brief…

The Everywhere Book Fest is a virtual celebration of authors, books, and readers that brings the book festival experience to everyone!

On May 1-2, the book festival will open its virtual doors and unveil two free full days of live and pre-recorded sessions with your favorite picture book, middle grade, and young adult authors.

The actor Patrick Stewart is reading on of Shakespeare’s sonnets every day.

Poet and lit fest favourite Luke Wright is performing a gig from his living room each night on twitter at 8pm. And asking for donations here on Ko-fi (there will be more about online payment in the next newsletter).

Ilkley Literature Festival has set up a virtual book club via Good Reads.

That’s it for this newsletter. Please follow us on twitter and instagram, add us to your press release list and feel free to get in touch if there is anything you would like us to write about: mathew@bookamp.co.uk. You can get your fellow lit festival colleagues to sign up here.

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