Writers: How to Pitch Yourself to Book Festivals by Sarah Webb

These notes were prepared for the International Literature Festival Dublin’s Mindshift Event: The Connected Writer – Getting the Gig, Doing It Well in association with the Irish Writers Centre and Words Ireland The panel for that event were: Sarah Webb, Family and Schools’ Curator, Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival,

 Keith Acheson,

 Belfast Book Festival and Martin Colthorpe, International Literature Festival, Dublin

All notes by Sarah Webb with thanks to the contributors who provided information and quotes.

Schedule of Programming

Most book festivals start programming six months to a year in advance. For example, the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival (I am the Children's Curator of the festival) takes place in March and programming closes towards the end of the previous year (mid December). Key names would be in place 8 to 10 months in advance for the children’s programme: ie Francesca Simon, David Almond.

Francesca Simon
Francesca Simon

If you are thinking about approaching a festival (and more on how to do this in a moment), make sure you don’t leave it too late. I would suggest at least 4 months in advance. See below for details of when to pitch to other Irish literary festivals.

Martin from ILFD suggests you pitch at least 4/5 months ahead and Keith fro the Belfast Book Festival agrees.

Both say you can pitch directly to them via email with a well written proposal detailing your event idea.

Martin says roughly 20% of his events came from pitches (the others are commissioned or come via publishers). Keith says around 40% of his events come from pitches. For the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival, roughly 20% come from pitches.

They both suggest that writers should say if they are happy to be included on a panel.

We all agree that it’s important for writers to be seen at festivals, supporting festivals as an audience member. I suggest volunteering at a festival to get an idea of how a festival is run and what festivals are looking for from writers.

Anniversaries are very important. All festivals are looking to celebrate anniversaries. 150 years of Alice in Wonderland is a good example.

The average fee for a writer appearing at an Irish book/arts festival is from e150 to e300 depending on the venue. For the Belfast Book Festival it’s £200 to £250.

What I’m Looking For (Children’s Events)

1/ International names who will attract a large audience and fill a theatre (300+ seats) eg Francesca Simon, Derek Landy, Eoin Colfer, Michael Grant, Julia Donaldson, Philip Ardagh (2016).

2/ Strong, award-winning names for individual events and panels – especially writers who have written outstanding books (anything from 120 seats to 300+ seats depending on the artist) eg David Almond, Meg Rosoff, Patrick Ness. This year we had new writers Shane Hegarty and Holly Smale along with Derek Landy in the Pavilion.

3/ Writers who are excellent at performing for school audiences and who have a strong body of work behind them. Experience is key for school events in a theatre (or in any venue). Ex-actors are particularly good. Eg Guy Bass, Steve Cole, Niamh Sharkey, Marita Conlon McKenna, Oisin McGann, Judi Curtin.

4/ Exceptional storytellers and spoken word poets eg Dave Rudden and Grainne Clear.

5/ Exceptional workshop leaders eg Dave Lordan, Celine Kiernan, Niamh Sharkey, Claire Hennessy, Sarah Crossan. The best ones engage 100% with the young writers/illustrators and bring something unique to their workshops.

6/ Exceptional new/newish writers for panel events featuring emerging voices – eg Louise O’Neill, Phil Earle (2016), Dave Rudden (for 2016). I am lucky to be sent early proofs which I read eagerly. If you have written a brilliant, original and exciting book you have a good chance of being invited to a book festival.

7/ Exceptional picture book makers to give talks/workshops to children and also masterclasses to adults eg Yasmeen Ismail, Oliver Jeffers, Chris Judge, Chris Haughton, Niamh Sharkey, Steve Simpson, Sarah McIntyre.

Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve
Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve

8/ Unusual and original book related events. Esp non-fiction events in fact – history, natural history, science, maths. Come up with a unique and inspiring event and practice, practice, practice.

9/ Artists who are willing to work hard and go the extra mile. Artists who will muck in. Artists who offer to fill in for other artists when there’s a last minute illness or delay. Artists who are fun to work with and above all, professional.

10/ Strong local talent – writers, poets, storytellers, illustrators, picture book makers and more. Experienced and debut writers alike eg children’s poet, Lucinda Jacob.

I’m a Self-Published Writer, Can I Apply to Appear at a Festival?

The Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival is a curated festival. This means the curators select the artists. Yes, you can apply to appear, if you think you can offer something original and exceptional (and your book is professionally produced and an excellent read – children deserve the best literature we can give them). But please note that very few artists who apply directly are selected; most artists are invited. This goes for all writers, not just self-published writers.

What I’d Love to See More Of

1/ Non-fiction events – science, natural history, history (think 1916 for next year for eg – not 1 writer has offered me an innovative 1916 event yet). If your book is fiction, you can still offer a festival a non-fiction event. I have put together an event called ‘Talk Like a Dolphin, Sing Like a Whale’ for festivals/schools – based on whale and dolphin communication (my latest series for children is set on a small island).

2/ Innovative workshops – offer me something different and put time and passion into developing your idea. Again, you need experience. Offer to present your workshop at a local school. Ask the students and teachers for feedback.

For eg I have created a Book of Kells workshop for Hay Festival in Kells, with real vellum and swan quills; a Jane Austen workshop for mothers and daughters; and I’m now presenting a ‘Create Your Own Fantasy Island’ workshop for festivals. Be inventive!

3/ Innovative pairings – dancers, musicians, artists, puppeteers, other writers. For eg this year I have teamed up with Judi Curtin and we are talking about our friendship at all the major festivals. It’s our ‘Friendship Tour’. Previously we have toured with Oisin McGann (The Ideas Shop) and Sophia Bennett (Your Wildest Dreams Tour). Team up with someone interesting and put together a cracking event. It’s a lot of fun!

Me and Judi Curtin (by Sarah McIntyre)
Me and Judi Curtin (by Sarah McIntyre)

4/ Events for children with special needs. This year I put together a How to Catch a Star workshop with Deirdre Sullivan for children on the autistic spectrum based on Oliver Jeffers’ book.

How to Apply to a Book Festival

1/ It’s best to apply thorough your publisher. Tell your publisher you are interested in appearing at X festival and ask them for their opinion. They will either a/ say yes, great idea or b/ suggest you might need a little more experience. If their answer is b – go off and get that experience and go back to them.

2/ Be a festival supporter - it’s important to attend and support festivals if you’d like to appear at them. You also learn a lot by watching and listening to other artists doing events. Take a notebook along and jot down things that work and things that don’t work.

3/ Make a demo video of yourself in action and upload it to You Tube. Nothing fancy – you can take it on your phone. Let programmers see you in action.

4/ If you don’t have a publisher or they don’t have the staff to contact festivals on your behalf, you can apply yourself. Email the children’s curator/programmer - outlining your book, the events you’ve done previously and what you can offer them: workshops, events etc.

It is vital to have a professional photo to send festivals for their brochure. It must be high res, clear and should show something of your personality. Ask someone to come along to one of your events and take an in-action photo if possible.

Oliver Jeffers
Oliver Jeffers

The blurb for your event and your biog should be short, well written and relevant. I rarely get sent interesting titles for events – be the one who sends me something unusual and clever!

If the programmer says no, do not hound them under any circumstances. That is not going to make them change their mind. They may simply not have a slot for you that year, but do try again the following year.

Tips for Events

If You Have No Experience – Go and Get Some.

Prepare an event and deliver it (free) in creches, schools, libraries. Anywhere that will have you. Make your mistakes early and learn from them. Ask an experienced writer if you can shadow them and watch them in action.

Ask the teachers to give you an event ‘reference’ eg ‘Mandy Bloggs was wonderful. She kept JI and SI highly entertained with her stories about African animals and they learned a lot in a fun and innovative way.’

Prepare a script for your event and practice it until it’s perfect. Most events are 60 mins. Break this down: 20/30 minutes talking is perfect for age 9+. Add 1 or 2 x 5 min readings within or after the talk (never more) + 10/15 mins for questions at the end.

Your event is not a hard sell for your book. In fact some of the best talks I’ve ever heard are not about the artist’s book at all. Eoin Colfer is one of the best in the business (watch him in action on You Tube) and he rarely mentions his books. You are there to entertain and inspire the audience, not to sell your book (although if they like your event, this is often a much appreciated by product!).

Sinead Connolly, from the ILFD puts it beautifully when she says: ‘Festivals, I feel , are not a vehicle to sell books ( though of course that will be and should be facilitated), but rather are an opportunity to engage with an audience/potential or existing readership in a very immediate way.’

Think about using props, music, dance, theatre, images (although powerpoint presentations can go wrong so always be prepared to deliver your event without it).

Think about using costumes or at the very least looking visually appealing to children (see Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve’s costumes).

Growth Areas

Events for the under 7s (Aoife Murray from Children’s Books Ireland also sees this as a big growth area for the events she programmes)

Family events that the parents will enjoy as much as the children – eg the CBI Monster Doodles, innovative storytelling, book-related puppet shows

Events that combine yoga/fitness with books; music with books; dance with books (see ILFD notes below for more on this)

Events for children on the autistic spectrum

Drama workshops for children; screen writing workshops for children; animation workshops for children – also the same for teens.

How to Approach Other Festivals and What They Are Looking For

Writers’ Week, Listowel

We would love any writers to contact us either through their publisher or directly themselves, but we would like a brief biog about themselves and their writing included.

The events that we are looking for are fun, interactive events, and creative writing workshops.

Aoife Murray, Children’s Books Ireland

How to approach a festival: For me I don’t mind if it’s via agent/publisher or on your own bat as long as the contact is respectful, informative and useful to my purposes eg: I want to know what age you do events for, what type of events you prefer and how much you want to charge. I feel it’s essential to research the festival to see if you suit it, otherwise you are banging on a closed door and it’s important to remember that the programmer has a vision and if you don’t fit it, that’s unfortunately just how it is on this occasion.

Events we’re looking for: Something more than the standard reading and signing, as this doesn’t generally work for younger audiences. In demand at the moment are events for 0-2 and 5-8.

Sinead Connolly, International Literary Festival Dublin

How to approach: Sinead welcomes approaches from authors, but says it can be easier to talk via a publisher initially to sort out the practicalities.

She is looking for:

1. One/two person events with key authors

2. Panels of authors and others on a particular theme

3. Outdoor events that engage families (see their 2015 festival brochure for some excellent outdoor family events)

4. Newly commissioned work that can imaginatively engage with a wider public conceptually

5. Sectorial events aimed at programmers, education, library, publishing etc.

And she notes that strong author photographs are very important for the festival website and brochure.

Vanessa O’Loughlin, Waterford Writers’ Festival

I prefer direct approach (less links in the chain, less likely to go wrong), always looking for original innovative events that are more about entertainment than just about books. With kids events I like to get an element of the educational in there so it's a learning experience as well, however subliminal.

Eimear O’Herlihy, West Cork Literary Festival

I am very happy to hear directly from authors or from their publishers. An initial pitch by email is best and this can be sent to the WCLF festival office. We'd need a pitch 8 months to a year in advance of the festival - esp for the workshops. Our festival's in July - our workshop programme goes out in December and the full programme in April.

The more detail that the writer can give me in the pitch email the better. I would like a synopsis of the book, the ideal age range for the book, whether the book is of most interest to boys or girls or of equal interest to both - please be honest about age and gender suitability as we all want the event to be attended by the right audience who will really enjoy it. Details of the type of events that the author has done in the past - or new events that the writer thinks would work - would also be welcome as they know their target audience better than I ever could. I would also like to see a copy of the book and I much prefer a hard copy - I appreciate that this can be expensive but in many instances the publicist should be able to send it on and I will of course look at an electronic copy if necessary.

For WCLF I am looking for a wide variety of events across all age groups and for both boys and girls. I am particularly open to events that are non-gender specific. My budget and number of programming slots are both limited so if I don't select an event it may simply be because I already have an event for "boys 7-9" and writers should feel free to re-pitch in subsequent years.

Sian Smyth, Director, Dalkey Book Festival

Sian suggests applying by email to the festival website. She says a press release is ideal as it will outline the book / genre / area of interest . It is also a good idea to offer to post a copy of the book and if this offer is accepted, to send it promptly.

She likes to see a video clip of the writer speaking if possible. The best time to apply for her next festival (June 2016) is December 2015 to February 2016.

Sian likes strong writing. She says ‘We look for new writing as well as well-known, established writers. If a writer is unheard of we often work to put them with someone better known to give them a new audience and of course the audience (hopefully) an unexpected pleasure.’

Bert Wright, Primary Curator, Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival

There are so many Irish literary festivals now that I always feel the need to develop a distinct identity for Mountains to Sea. We're fortunate in having so many writers living locally and to have the traditions of Joyce, Beckett and Flann O'Brien relevant to the area so that helps. In the past we've been fiction-dominant but non-fiction draws in more general readers so we're planning more biography, memoir, politics and history where possible.

I'm conscious of the trap whereby your festival becomes shaped by touring UK or US authors with new books. These have their place but they can breed complacency and it's good to generate your own event ideas and then source relevant authors to the theme. We like to add a theatrical or musical dimension to the programme also and these have proved popular. It's all about good ideas, well executed. We get loads of proposals for events and are always willing to entertain suggestions but you're looking for things you think will work, things that will appeal to your core audience.