As festival season gets in full swing, it is encouraging to see that more people than ever are being drawn to book festivals up and down the country. But what is the big attraction? And how have these events managed to grow in popularity in spite of the threat posed by a recession and the birth of the digital age?
The British have always enjoyed a healthy love affair when it comes to book festivals. Literary events throughout the UK not only manage to attract hordes of devoted fans from the general public, but have also captured the attention of politicians, famous comedians, even US presidents!
Despite the inclement June weather the Hay Festival, one of the largest most famous book festivals in the world, attracted over a quarter of a million people to the sleepy town of Hay-on-Wye. The event enjoyed its 25th year in style, boasting a raft of literary celebrity guests including Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Michael Morpurgo.
The Edinburgh International Book Festival is another world-famous literary event. This year it will kick off on 11 August and promises over 800 authors spread across 750 events. From history to science, fiction to serious political debate, it will no doubt be the best one yet.
But it is not just the well established literary festivals that are experiencing a growth in popularity. The nation’s thirst for all things written seems unquenchable with new venues popping up in different parts of the country. This year will see Portsmouth’s first ever literature festival. The event has been organised by Plymouth University, Plymouth City Council and Cyprus Well, the South West’s literature development agency. It will take place over 7 days, starting on 15th September and has already secured one international best-selling author.
So what is the reason behind this infatuation with book festivals? Despite the worst recession since the Second World War and the supposed dumbing down of the written word in the wake of the digital revolution, these events seem to be more popular than ever before.
When asked to give her opinion on the subject, the Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Catherine Lockerbie interpreted the growth in support for literary events “as a reflection of the public hunger for more depth…” In her opinion, people are fed up of media sound bites and are looking for something more substantive. Furthermore, in an age where digitalisation has arguably produced a more dislocated society, the public crave opportunities to meet and exchange ideas.
These are valid points. However, it is also arguable that the digital revolution, the very thing that was supposed to sound the death knell for the written word has actually acted as something of a catalyst in driving the popularity of book festivals. In today’s information super culture, books can be downloaded in a single ‘click’, novels can be shared and exchanged instantaneously and new literary releases can go viral. Never has the choice of literature been so rich and varied. However, readers will always want to meet their favourite authors, just as music fans will always want to see their idols live on stage. But as the digital era comes of age, the artists’ and authors’ means of reaching their respective audiences have become ever more powerful. Book festivals, far from dying may actually be becoming more rock ‘n’ roll!
That’s not to say that we are all supporters of the electronic word. The Hay Festival, for instance, witnessed a backlash against the growing popularity of e-readers. A group of bookshop owners came out in force against Amazon’s Kindle, saying that the device should be banned from the event. According to the ringleader of this literary band of rebels, Derek Addyman, the Kindle posed a threat to the livelihood of traditional bookshops and turned their users into zombies who could be seen “walking around… like robots.”
Whilst the development of an online market for books has no doubt taken some custom away from book stores, the Addyman uprising was misguided and made little, if any impact. Firstly it forgot to target the numerous other e-readers which are on the market. Apple’s ‘i-bookstore’ was completely ignored even though it was the main partner of the Hay Festival!
Secondly, whilst the ability to download books at the fraction of the price of physical ones may threaten sales of hard copies, it is strongly argued that digital technology has done a great deal more to increase interest in literature. In many ways therefore, it can be regarded as one of the key factors driving the interest in book festivals. If anything such literature festivals should be looking at how best to incorporate e-technology into their events instead of outlawing their use.
For instance, imagine how exciting it would be to attend a book festival where an author was offering the opportunity to download free sample chapters of a new book. People could read these snippets, talk about them before meeting the author and delivering their feedback. Not only would this sort of thing be of interest to adult readers, but it would be a real hit with children too.
Indeed, children’s book festivals have enjoyed particular popularity. In what has been dubbed “the golden age of children’s fiction,” Hay Fever, which is the part of the Hay Festival aimed directly at young readers, enjoyed fantastic success. The Bath Festival of Children’s Literature also offers an impressive line up including 100 children’s book events, starting on 28 September. Moreover, after staging a successful pilot in 2010, Manchester will be staging a children’s book festival, headed by Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.
The market for children’s literature seems to be enjoying a considerable boom period with sales increasing remarkably. It is hardly surprising therefore that creatively programmed children’s book festivals are in demand.
However, whatever the reasons, one has to admit that there is something quintessentially British about the book festival. Trudging around whether in rain or shine discussing novels and the arts seems as natural to us Brits as sipping tea. We love an excuse to get together, listen and have a good natter. Book festivals have always offered the perfect opportunity to do just that and if the current surge in their popularity is anything to go by, there is no reason why this should change.