How To Get Invited To Speak at a Writers’ Festival? Here’s What Authors Need to Know (with Inside Tips from Jo Canham of Blarney Books and The Port Fairy Literary Weekend)
It’s the author dream, isn’t it?!
To see your name, face, and book title in a writers’ festival program.
To be the writer up on stage being expertly interviewed about your writing process, journey, and your innermost thoughts.
To don the ‘artist’ lanyard like jewellery around your neck, a simple tag that magically gives you access to the Green Room, to writers’ drinks, to gourmet catering, to the fast lane through the crowds and even to special toilets where the queues don’t stretch for metres or miles.
To have your books piled high, face up, face out, face all about, in the festival bookshop.
To shiver with anticipation, nerves, and pride as readers queue at the author signing table.
To be invited by visiting media to chat with them on air, or to be profiled in print.
To be asked to take selfies with smiling, appreciative fans.
To run a writing workshop where you get to closely connect with, and help other writers reach their dreams.
To feel like a ‘real’ writer.
It’s all the author dream. And that’s what being invited to speak at writers’ festivals remains for the bulk of authors – even the bestselling ones: a dream.
It’s crushingly hard to get a gig at a writers’ festival, and if you made it big one year, you might not have been so lucky with your latest book attempt. It’s about supply and demand: there are only so many festivals. There are only so many slots. But there are tonnes and tonnes of worthy books and writers. You also wouldn’t expect your self-published family history or standard leadership business book to get a guernsey at an established literary festival, but there are opportunities to create other events for those.
Why is it so valuable to appear at a writers’ festival?
- They provide a powerful book selling opportunity: people hear an author speak and are driven to get a copy of the book either for themselves or as a gift.
- The word-of-mouth factor: audience members talk about their writers’ festival experiences and spread the word.
- Discoverability: even if you’re already a bestselling author, you and your book will still be introduced to a whole new audience.
- Media opportunities abound at writer’s festivals and in the lead up to them.
- Backlinks: the festival website will likely link to your author or book website which helps your site rise in search engine rankings.
- Your name and your book’s title will be highlighted in the program for all to see and to refer back to.
- You’ll have a chance to build a direct and lasting impression and connection between yourself and your readers. That said, here’s a warning: hearing someone speak can also turn a reader off an author, depending on what is said when they’re on the stage – or how they treat people like volunteers – offstage.
- You’ll get to interact with other authors and publishing insiders and make important and cherished connections.
- You’ll be able to spend time expanding your mind by going to other sessions.
- It can feel like an energising holiday for the brain and soul, as you’ll be amongst likeminded creatives and thinkers.
So, that all sounds wonderful, but…
How do artistic/program directors of writers festivals choose the authors they invite?
- The artistic director and festival team will usually decide on and set a theme for the festival.
- They’ll already have a good idea of what writers and authors will resonate with their audience and who might be able to fit into the program theme.
- The program director will also be planning the author mix based on how to keep past-festival goers coming back, as well as inspiring potential new audience members to take up tickets. It’s a tight balancing act to get the author/writer mix right!
- Appearing at a festival is a plum gig and helps drive author brand recognition and book sales, so publishers and publicists fiercely compete to get their authors invited too. They will pitch a list of authors directly to the program/artistic director/writers festival board. They highlight why the author is interesting, the impact the writer could have, and the subjects/topics they can speak to. They’ll indicate availability of the writer for PR interviews and their ability to speak across multiple topics/panels as well as an individual address.
- Authors also send in pitches directly.
- All this planning happens well in advance of the festival.
- From this research, and depending on author availability, the program slowly comes together.
- NB: if you’re a writers festival program manager or artistic director reading this, I’d be happy to come and run a great workshop for aspiring local writers and attendees as part of your festival, you can also read testimonials from people who have attended my writing workshops here. (end plug ;)).
How to give yourself the best chance of appearing at a writers and readers festival?
- Write truly fabulous fiction or non-fiction books (or themed articles or poetry) that hit the zeitgeist!
- Be an active local author in your community and member of the local writers group. There are often program spots held for local authors, so give yourself the best chance of being selected by being visible, helpful, and active locally.
- Start off as a volunteer so you can get to know the team. Maybe in a few years you’ll be one of their picks!
- Define the various topics/themes/audiences you can speak to and ask your publisher, literary agent or book publicist to pitch the festival on your behalf. Or if you don’t have representation, put together a professional pitch yourself and send it in with your book.
- Perhaps your way in, if you have the skills, might be to offer yourself as an interviewer of authors.
- Start local or small. Find a small writers festival in a regional or suburban area to get experience.
- Be on good terms with your publisher, literary agent and publicist so out of all their authors/clients, they think of you to put forward first.
- Be a good egg!
- Get testimonials from any other presentations/interviews you have given and include them in your pitch. Especially include if someone has said you’re ‘great and easy to work with’.
- Be active and visible with your marketing and engagement with the writing and reading community.
- Pitch a workshop so you can share information and inspiration with other authors. I pitched a ‘Marketing for Authors’ workshop to Byron Writers Festival and attendees came from as far away as Melbourne and as close as ‘just down the road’ to attend. I had the honour of meeting a wonderful mix of fiction and non-fiction writers, traditional and indie including Hilton Koppe, Lee Lehner, Sonya Leeding, Maggie Walters, Vanessa Fleming Writes. You just can’t beat this kind of interaction and it’s wonderful to be able to add value to and help other writers.
- Most writers’ festivals are not for profit, run mainly thanks to the help of grants and volunteers, and are always in need of funds. Sponsoring a session or the festival may also give you the boost you need. For Byron Writers’ Festival, Bold Authors supported the event as a cultural partner and it was a great match of audience and event, especially as Bold Authors online courses are all created by authors for other writers.
How to destroy your chances of being invited to appear at a literary festival
Let’s turn the mic over to the fab Jo Canham, owner of independent bookstore Blarney Bookshop and Art Gallery in Port Fairy, Victoria, and the organiser (with a band of enthusiastic volunteers) of the Port Fairy Literary Weekend Festival.
Here are Jo’s WHAT NOT TO DO tips – enjoy the hilarity and honesty!
- Don’t be the dude who rings up and tells the organiser they’ve omitted the best writer in Australia… (true story). That will guarantee you will remain on the no-invite list.
- Don’t repeatedly inbox the organiser (and some people will do this via ALL the methods – Facey, Insta, email and phone) – there is a line where that becomes harrasment and will put you on the ‘Never’ list.
- Don’t contact the organiser two weeks before to suggest you should be “squeezed in” (by this point, it’s just really too hard as much as the organiser might want to squeeze you in).
How to swing the balance in your favour according to Jo Canham:
- Support other authors/festivals etc .
- Be kind/engaging.
- Be as easy to get along with as is humanly possible. Organisers are juggling A LOT.
- Do send the organiser a copy of your book with an outline of it (or have your publisher do this) – maybe suggest another author who might sit well with you on a panel.
- If you want to present a workshop, send through a clear & concise outline of what you could present, and options for presentations.
- Do be patient – festival organisers have so many ducks to get in line, that it can take some time to find the right fit for each guest.
- If you are local to the festival, make yourself known to the organiser early on – by offering support somehow. NB: this is the same with events at bookshops – never be that author who has never engaged in the local bookshop’s events or bought a book until you’ve got one published yourself and now need their attention.
And to thank Jo for sharing these generous insider tips (in the midst of mad festival planning), please don’t swamp the Port Fairy Literary Weekend team or Blarney Books with appearance requests – unless you’re really the right fit for that festival. There are a whole lot of writers, readers and literary festivals across Australia, all with a totally different focus and vibe, so do your research, attend, support and get a feel for them BEFORE you put your hand up to appear at one.
What can you do if you have no success being selected for a writers or readers festival?
- Go to festivals and soak up the atmosphere anyway! Attending may even give you the inspiration to write another book and try again another year.
- Start your own writers’ festival in your area or on a specific theme. It might be for one night only or a few weekend sessions. Start small (it’s a lot of work!) and grow it over time. You might run it in conjunction with other authors, schools (if you’re a children’s author), the local library, bookstore or other businesses and the local tourism association.
- If you’re a business, health or family history writer, or writer of spec fiction, Sci-Fi romance or solar punk (pick your genre), perhaps you might create an event just to highlight aligned books! Or pitch your book to a conference organiser or association, rather than to a literary festival. You may also choose to pay to attend one of the reader events that are becoming more common in the capital cities too.
- It can be incredibly difficult for traditionally published authors to score a literary festival gig (lots of trad authors nodding in agreement), so you can imagine how much harder – if not almost impossible – for self-published indie authors. But don’t worry, there are lots of other ways to market your book and build your author brand (we’re adding more author marketing courses on Bold Authors regularly), writers festivals are just one marketing avenue.
Hopefully this post has given you some insights into how to be invited to present at writers, readers and literary festivals – and it would be lovely if you’d share it with your networks as so many trad and indie authors need to know this kind of info to enjoy a more resilient writing career.
Hope to see you up on the stage some day! All the bestest for making that dream come true – and let me know when you do!
For other blog posts in this series on writers’ festivals see: