Literary Festivals In The Time of COVID

Literary festivals have long been considered a bastion of in-person connection for fans, authors, and publishing houses, but what do they look like in the new virtual world of COVID? The largest book festival in the world, the Edinburgh Book Festival, wrapped up their digital event at the end of August with the intent to “Keep the Conversation Going.” Implementing their first-ever virtual event, the festival drew in hundreds of thousands of viewers in the midst of the global pandemic. Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, said in a recent article, “While an online Festival cannot recreate the joyous coming together of authors and audiences, the cultural exchange and the stimulation of creativity that a gathering of people in one physical space can bring, I believe we have created something very special this year. It is clear from watching the interaction of authors and audiences that this year’s online Book Festival has generated its own sense of community.” Not shying away from the difficulties posed in moving to a completely digital format, Barley went on to say, “I am extraordinarily proud of the team who have turned themselves inside out, learned new skills and a completely new way of working to deliver events, in challenging circumstances, which have been warm, engaging, stimulating, entertaining and technically excellent. We have reached corners of the globe, and corners of Scotland, that we have never reached before, and brought an accessibility to the Festival that I never want to lose.” With over two hundred thousand views, more people were able to virtually attend from all over the globe without the cost-prohibitive travel often associated with in-person attendance. Another compelling element to the Festival was that all events in the Festival were free, which opened up accessibility in a way that has never happened before. Director Barley stated, “It is thanks to our incredibly generous funders, sponsors, benefactors and donors that we have been able to offer all events in the Book Festival for free this year—now the hard work starts to develop a financially stable model for a hybrid festival of live and online events for the future.” This seems to be the way of the future, with companies looking to expand the ways that they can reach more people, not just in-person, but online as well. While the publishing industry and the world-at-large remain hopeful, no one can predict whether or not in-person events like book festivals and fairs will return to some level of normalcy in 2021. If not, a commitment to innovation and creating new models for reaching an even greater audience in a virtual setting has already been established. In keeping with Edinburgh’s Book Festival philosophy, “you can’t keep a good Festival down.”

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