The Lit Fest Newsletter

The government announced last Thursday that from 11 July performing arts can now take place outdoors with a socially distanced audience present. The full guidance can be found here. The government will also start piloting a number of small indoor performances with social distanced audiences to help inform plans about how to get indoor venues running. This annoucement takes us to Stage Three in the five stage road-map the governement has created that finishes with the slightly ambiguous ‘fuller’ indoor audiences.

This is all undoubtedly good news but as i am sure everyone recognises we are not out of the woods yet.

Emergency Funding

The Arts Council of England have released details of who received money from their emergency response fund. I spotted the following festivals on the list…

  • Bath Festivals £35,000

  • Bloomsbury Festival £25,631

  • Essex Book Festival Ltd £12,000

  • Harrogate International Festival £35,000

  • Hastings Storytelling Festival £34,044

  • Lancaster & District Festival Ltd £7,889

  • Newark Book Festival £10,000

  • Primadonna Festival £5,000

  • Stratford Literary Festival £25,685

  • Stroud Book Festival £18,365

  • The Margate Bookie £8,758

  • Wimbledon BookFest £34,999

N.B. i might have missed a couple if the name of the festival is not the same as the name of the organisation that runs it.

Peggy Hughes - Interview

I am delighted that the fantastic Peggy Hughes - whom i am sure is known to many of you - agreed to answer a few questions.

How did you first become involved in the world of books?

My world of books started with winning a book token at school and using it to buy a copy of George’s Marvellous Medicine which I read cover to cover on the velveteen beanbag at my granny’s. And so I was always reading and went on to study English Literature at university but I had no notion or context, coming from a small N Irish town pre-book festival boom, that book festivals existed. Then while at St Andrews I got involved as a volunteer with the excellent StAnza: Scotland’s International Poetry Festival. Working with a team of students and brilliant townsfolk, managing a small venue, meeting and greeting writers and audiences, dealing with any one of a number of small unthought-of tasks that arise in the course of a festival, not to mention getting to experience world-class poetry, was all of my favourite things in one place, in one job! The roles that came next have all been in service of chasing that first festival thrill, and been driven by a desire to be part of the magic that happens when you bring people and books and ideas together in a moment in time.  

Can you explain what your current role involves?

I am the Programme Director at the National Centre for Writing (NCW) in Norwich. We are based in Dragon Hall, a medieval merchant’s hall (full of its own tales of witches, 15th century commerce and river trading and has been, at times, 19th century housing for over 150 people, a butchers and a pub). Our campus includes a 120-seater venue, a cottage for writers and translators in residence, and workshop and education spaces. Our programmes include festivals, but much else too, including working with schools and young people, talent development work with writers and translators, and – new for us this year - delivering a series of prizes for early career writers, including the Desmond Elliott Prize (we just revealed Derek Owusu and That Reminds Me as the winner for 2020). We’re also the administrative home for Norwich’s UNESCO City of Literature designation. Much of our activity happens in the building, but as a national centre, lots of it happens elsewhere and online: we have a weekly podcast, produce digital resources for writers and creative writing courses online. As you might imagine, that established digital space has been especially valuable during COVID, when our programmes, like everyone’s programmes, have needed to make a quick costume change.

You previously worked as the manager of Literary Dundee - an initiative I believe funded by the university. Forgive my ignorance but is this something that happens with other universities? What were the benefits and drawback of this arrangement?

Yes, Literary Dundee was situated within the events and external relations department of the University of Dundee. It included a festival and a book prize and an events programme, and worked in concert with a range of different partners to bring brilliant writers and industry people to Dundee, and to amplify the work and research of the university and its staff and students. Many other universities produce festivals and cultural events, with and for their staff and students – we work extremely closely with the University of East Anglia on Noirwich, our annual festival of crime writing, for instance. However, I’m not aware of many roles that were exactly like mine at Literary Dundee, and a very brilliant opportunity it was too: it gave me the support and resources of the university to produce programmes of mutual benefit to town and gown. I had lots of autonomy but a supportive wider team. I could build interesting partnerships across the city and beyond, and play a role in the city’s cultural and civic life. I worked with students to give them the experience of running a festival, and commissioned graduate illustrators to design the print. It was a lot of fun most of the time, and of its time, too: as university budgets are buffeted by considerable new challenges, roles like these are often among the first to go.

Although you are based now in Norwich do you still have ties in Scotland?

I do – I’m chair of Literature Alliance Scotland, a membership organisation committed to advancing the interests of Scotland’s literature and languages at home and abroad. I’m also on several other boards, and have found myself during COVID hosting Wigtown Book Festival’s new podcast (which has been much fun and very welcome during this funny hyper-connected/disconnected time).

How do you see live literature evolving over the next few years?

I’m not sure I have the answers Mathew! And If you had asked me this at the start of the year my guesses might have been more confident. But it’s been hugely interesting to follow and admire how festivals and programmers have marshalled their resources and imaginations to continue to reach their audiences. Obviously with COVID we’ve seen a huge rise in digital experimentation, finessing what works best on zoom (and what doesn’t), so I’m interested in how that might feed the way we produce events live, and change what audiences want and expect. I’ve enjoyed the ‘magazine’ style delivery of festivals like Wigtown and now the Borders Book Festival (spreading their programme across several platforms and months), and the turn to commissioned text interview, like English PEN’s ‘Digital Salon’ replacement for the planned Salon at LBF. I suspect we’ll see more bespoke and experiential events coming to play, hybrid approaches with small safely distanced audiences + broadcast, as well as potentially less emphasis on the front list in a desire to stand out from the festival cycle with conversations or configurations beyond the expected. I hope we’ll ensure that programmes reflect the world we live in and try harder to seek and present new voices, and to accommodate challenges to participation. The internet has allowed niche interests to flourish and I hope we might see that translate IRL. It feels like a good moment to move away from the staged conversation with a chairperson and that a multiplicity of formats and venues might get more room to shine. In the short-term, I will contribute to the Crowdfunder for she that finds a way to replicate the post-event pub conversation in this brave new world.  

What live literature event are you most proud of organising?

Many moons ago, some pals and I produced a tiny festival in Edinburgh’s secondhand bookshop quarter, with a piece of string, 8 bottles of beer and a Tupperware of traybakes to hand. And that might live longest in my memory and as a reminder for what can be done with a brass neck and lots of enthusiasm, for breaking the rules (or contravening the non-existent risk assessment anyway), for tolerating mooning stag parties, for going ahead despite an Orange Order Parade thundering past outside and Jay Bernard and Miriam Gamble blowing our socks off regardless, for squeezing 60 people into a very small bookshop to hear Ali Smith share her love for Carson McCullers. McCullers had just been brought back into print by Penguin, hitherto available to us only via that same secondhand bookshop. The perfect happiest storm.

What is your favourite live literature event that you have attended (it can't be one of your own!)

The events that I took pleasure in remembering and re-remembering stick around for the feeling that I couldn’t have been party to this conversation at any other time or place, that I was lucky to be there. And those are: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie interviewed by Nicola Sturgeon at the Edinburgh International Book Festival; Helen Macdonald in conversation with Jeanette Winterson here in Norwich. Andrea Goldsmith talking to Marieke Hardy in Melbourne. Oh and Story Machine Production’s piece inspired by Carys Davies’ short story ‘The Quiet’: incredible (you can watch here). I will also give honourable mention to the sheer weird joy of Wigtown’s Got Talent (exactly as it sounds, involving locals, authors and visitors sharing their talents to try and win audience favour and votes).

Rising Stars

Congratulations to Madeline Toy, head of literature programming at Bath Festivals for making it into the Bookseller’s Rising Stars list it is great to see someone from our sector being recognised. And next year i would encourage everyone to nominate one of their colleagues - it is an easy to do.

There was a great diary from one of the 2019 Rising Stars, Lyndsey Fineran, the programme and commissions manager for Cheltenham Literature Festival in the Bookseller.


A couple of newsletters past i highlighted a piece by Robert H. Frank writing in the New York Times warning of the way online learning (and in turn, i think, digital events) will become a ‘winner takes all’ market. One contender to the pole position is MasterClass, they recently attracted $100m of venture capital money valuing the company at more than $800m. They offer access to all their online classes for an annual subscription fee of $180 and have already signed up a bunch of well known authors including Margaret Attwood, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Brown and David Sedaris.

These questions also came up in ‘festivals’ session at the Bookseller’s Marketing and Publicity conference with Adrian Turpin from Wigtown who cautioning that there is a danger smaller festivals will not survive Covid and that as an industry we should not want it to be dominated by the Big Five and hoped that publishers should see festivals as a ‘fertile resource’. On the vein I see that Guildford Book Festival is currently looking to raise £20,000 to make up lost revenue. We wish them luck.

And finally…

I loved this art installation Scream the House Down that took the audio from a Zoom call and used it to light up a building. I would love to see a literary event that used this technology.

That’s it for this newsletter. Please follow us on twitter, add us to your press release list. We are always looking for people to interview so please get in touch if you would like your festival to be featured. And if you know anyone that would enjoy reading this missive please get them to sign up here.

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