SYP Lit Fest Feast: Behind the Scenes at Literary Festivals

Following Philip Pullman’s recent resignation as patron of Oxford Literary Festival over their failure to pay author fees, there has been heated campaigning for authors to be paid for the time they dedicate to appearances. Oxford has responded that they are not currently in a financial position to pay their authors but will be discussing this with their partners for the year 2017, and other festivals have long argued that the publicity and book sales that the events promote are fair remuneration. Despite the fact that many authors do not see big sales at festivals, we shouldn’t forget that these are the people that make it all possible in the first place!

With such a big name backing the debate, the support Pullman received over twitter, and open letters from authors in the media, it’s not surprising that a crowd was once again gathered for SYP Oxford’s latest event,  Lit Fest Feast: Behind the Scenes at Literary Festivals.

Joined by Matt Holland, founder and Director of Swindon Festival of Literature, and Jenny Dee, Director of Chip Lit Fest (Chipping Norton), we learnt what it takes to bring these celebrations of literature to the book-loving public.

The event started by covering the planning and organisation of  festivals and Matt told the audience how he founded the Swindon Festival of Literature over 20 years ago. Starting with a group of literature-lovers approaching the council with an idea, the festival (which is actually three years older than Oxford) began with a dedicated group investing their own money and time to deliver the word to the public. Many said literature was not a word well-associated with Swindon, but Matt knew they were on to something when a man approached him to say ‘you’re book thing is really good. You just talk about the stuff we talk about at the pub – sex, death, love and relationships – but in an organised way!’

Running for 2 weeks in May, Swindon’s festival is now competing with an estimated 237 festivals around the country to bring the public closer to the authors that inspire them – and showing that they are just real people.

Jenny, who has taken over as Festival Director this year having assisted on the festival before, spoke about the festival planning itself. She starts with a dream schedule, ambitiously full of the authors she would love to have, then begins approaching speakers. Ideally, the organisers will use any contacts they have and approach the author themselves, but if that fails they will go through publicists, then agents. Some publicists will work a deal whereby a festival can have one author if they feature another, and festivals also receive incoming pitches so there is a big balancing act (and a whole load of tact!) involved in scheduling. Jenny also likes to book things in pairs so that the public are enticed by more than one event and pull people in with ticket bundles. She even finds alternative authors through Amazon recommendations!

From a marketing perspective, Matt and Jenny both agreed that a printed brochure is essential because people like to have something to physically flick through, and that nothing boosts attendance like word of mouth and social media. If you build a relationship with your audience they will trust in the value of your festival.

And, of course, the talk soon turned to author fees. Swindon ensures that every author is offered the Society of Authors recommended £150, although they do offer different amounts to different authors depending on their profile and means of income.

Chip Lit Fest, however, are doing something unique. In 2015 they launched a profit-share model and, whilst this can make initial planning difficult, this system means that the crowd-pulling events help to support valuable free events such as school visits. Whilst in 2015 they could only offer each author £102 (well below he recommended amount) they can at least say that they are fair and working to their means and Jenny hopes that this fee will increase in future.

Find out more about what the audience thought using the hashtag #SYPLitFeast, and check out what the festivals have to offer on heir websites:

Swindon Festival of Literature:




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