Virtual Literary Festivals: Are They Here To Stay?

If you haven’t noticed that 2020 is a steaming shit show, then climb out from under your rock!

The pandemic, along with the disastrous political situations and social upheaval around the world, has left many individuals stressed out.

Even if you have been living under a rock, you must have noticed how much the world is changing, and how the environment around you is less disturbed by people, as we all travel less and stay home much more.

Events have been cancelled, meaning that many people don’t even get a fun celebration to look forward to during this crazy year.

To help everyone get over the disappointment, many events, conferences and festivals have moved online. Hosts use video conferencing software to bring people together to speak about the books they love.

Some literary festivals offer free talks and resources, while others put up pay walls and ask attendees to buy tickets to help fund the festival. Either way, guests can enjoy a unique literary experience from the comfort of their own homes.

While this is an enterprising way to make the most out of this shitty year, I do worry that event planners and festival hosts will make it the norm to save on costs in the future.

After all, it’s much cheaper and easier to host an entirely virtual conference or festival than it is to manage a physical event and all the various components and preparation entails.

However, I’m a big fan of physical events, especially literary festivals. I’m from Bridport, in Dorset, hence the name of the blog, The Dorset Book Detective. In Bridport, we love a good festival; we even have a hat festival! The town hosts many literary festivals, author talks and other book-themed events, so I have a personal affinity with them.

A physical event is very different to a virtual one. During this pandemic I’ve enjoyed attending virtual events, both for my professional work in the SEO industry and as part of my love for writing and reading great books, particularly crime fiction.

While these virtual events and conferences have been fun, and a great way to overcome the many challenges that the pandemic has caused, I sincerely hope that they don’t become the norm in the future. I hate the idea of permanently only having access to authors and literary festivals through the Internet. One of the best things about literary festivals is meeting new people in the flesh and talking to them. Also, you get the chance to walk around, see new things, and generally just broaden your mind and your knowledge.

When you’re attending a festival online, you can’t move; you’re literally stuck in your own home. You can’t speak to or meet new people, because conversations over video conferencing software are practically impossible. Everyone always ends up speaking over each other, so most moderators and virtual festival organisers have to make sure that Q&A sessions are carefully cultivated and managed. So, you don’t get to make new friends and speak to new people.

Also, at physical literary festivals and events, there are usually loads of different talks or workshops to see, so you can meander around and see the ones that you fancy attending. I often find myself wandering into rooms I’d have never considered and learning about new writers, books or even series.

At a virtual literary festival, you can’t wander. You can’t ponder. You could dip in and out of different virtual rooms, but you won’t get the atmosphere that you find when you attend a festival in the flesh. So, you often find that most attendees only watch the talks that they plan to, and don’t try anything new or exciting. As such, you lose out on the chance to enrich your knowledge and find new books to read.

One downside for authors and publicists at virtual literary festivals is that they can’t sell as many books and as much merchandise as they do at physical events. People wandering around literary festivals buy loads of stuff, because they treat themselves and they enjoy the feeling of paying the author directly, rather than buying through a shop or another intermediary.

I do understand the appeal of virtual festivals and events. They’re a lot easier for hosts, which means that the tickets can be cheaper or even free. There’s no travelling for anyone, so it’s easier to plan and quicker to attend. It’s also a great way for writers to overcome the pandemic and the lockdowns, but in the future, when we can get physical events up and running again, I would like to see them.

Going forward, I’d personally like to see literary festival organisers combine a physical event with the option for those who can’t travel to tap in virtually. I think that no amount of convenience can ever make up for the fun experience that you get when you attend a literary festival in the flesh. I think that by combining the two approaches, festival hosts can create incredible experiences and still allow guests to tune in from home if they want to, meaning that the experience can be shared among a wide range of participants.

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