Festivals or: keeping self-published authors in their place by Dan Holloway

It’s spring and that means we’re entering the fabulous fun of festival season. It might be a Glastonbury-free summer but the literary world will be steaming full ahead through Hay and beyond. It’s the time when the public get to meet their heroes, and get to find new heroes. When they’re introduced to the whole smorgasbord of literary everythingness to take their pick for what to read in the year ahead.

(the musician Jessie Grace at Not the Oxford Literary Festival)

So as writers this is a doubly exciting time. It’s where we get to meet our public and to embrace the wonderful people who don’t yet know us and swaddle them in our fabulousness. Aren’t you bursting with anticipation?

What’s that? You’re not going to a festival? You haven’t been asked?

The sad fact is that if you’re a self-published writer or a spoken word poet festivals don’t want to know. It doesn’t matter what you’ve written, how brilliant it is, how many people love your work, what reviewers or anyone else think. If you don’t have a publisher you may as well not exist.

Festivals may be proliferating, but big festivals in particular are increasingly looking the same. They’re more and more like Formula 1 or tennis – the same people flying into hotels, giving the same talk and moving on. That was one reason I started Not the Oxford Literary Festival, which this year celebrated its third outing bigger and better than ever – celebrating local authors, self-publishers, politically engaged writing and spoken – the things that the city’s other festival wouldn’t look at.
(Emily Harrison, author of Typewriter on the Bed)

We had two utterly amazing nights. The first, a celebration of spoken word, featured close to 20 of the finest poets and short prose writers, many of them internationally acclaimed and prizewinning in their field, from Oxford, Manchester, Brighton, Bristol, London and Southampton. The second night focussed on the alternative side of the publishing world – from fellow Electric Author Dennis Hamley and the guerrilla press Philistine to those writers who use their words not to seek profit but to seek to change the world like Davy Mac, author of The Homeless Oratorio, and Danny Chivers, who just a week before had been convicted of aggravated trespass with intent for reading a poem during last year’s occupation of Fortnum and Mason. And we ended up by attaching poems sent form across the world to benches and railings across Oxford. With crowds spilling onto the streets both nights and the most incredible atmosphere, this was not just one of those introspective acts of holding back the tide, it was a demonstration of the appetite for fabulousness.

(Paul Askew reads one of his heartbreaking, surrealist poems)

And one of our speakers was Orna Ross, the brain behind the Alliance of Independent Authors, an organisation that seeks to act as a mouthpiece for interests of self-publishers. It will be launching officially at London Book Fair this Wednesday. And I have the honour of sitting on the launch panel alongside fellow Electric Author John Logan. It would be lovely to see people – we’re in the Old Press Room at 11am.

And to show this isn’t just a piece of random eclecticism, the AIA’s first campaign is one dear to my heart – getting self-published authors a higher profile at festivals – I think we can all say amen to that!

(Penny Goring signs copies of her critically acclaimed debut The Zoom Zoom)

And on the subject of not being at festivals but edging in at the fringe, this coming weekend I will be running the fringe for Chipping Norton Literary Festival. As well as me and open mic, there will be 7 of the country’s very best poets – including Claire Trevien who has just come back from an international tour and five major slam winners – it will be an incredible night, and FREE, and I really hope to see lots of you there. It was lovely to be invited to provide the fringe, and the organisers have been fabulous, but I have to admit to a touch of frustration – the festival is filled with writers many of whom are international names but many of whom are, in their field, considerably lesser lights than Claire or Anna McCrory, whose expenses will be met, accommodation provided, and who will be lavished in the green room. At times like this I know how a lot of our Olympians in the less popular sports feel when the lottery money is doled out, and to some extent it’s up to us to show how great the show we can put on is, and how much audiences will love it – but we do that on a regular basis (our last three New Libertines shows played to full houses and fabulous receptions in Stoke Newington, Oxford, and Manchester), and at some point festivals need to acknowledge they can’t pretend we don’t exist.

Which brings me to a final point of hope. There are festivals with exciting programmes on the rise, and I am very lucky to be putting a show on at one of them, Stoke Newington, for a second year in a row on June 3rd. The headline act for the whole festival is John Cooper Clarke – now *that* is a festival doing it right!


A.B.Wells said…
Here here for quality and innovation and not the Old Boys Club!
Dan Holloway said…
"old boys' club" - don't even get me started on sexism and class divide in publishing :) Maybe that's for next month
Jan Needle said…
Keep digging, Dan. One day, when they've finally caught up, they'll all deny it was ever like it. I almost managed to come to one of your gigs in Manchester a couple of months ago (Hole in the Wall, I think) but couldn't make it in the end, for which I'm sorry. Must try harder, my teachers used to tell me. They were right, damn them!
Dan Holloway said…
Ah, yes, our Manchester gig in Afflecks - that was absolutely incredible fun - fabulous venue and amazing people - if you get the chance, do go along to any of the Bad Language nights in The Castle - they have some monumentally talented writers, and we were very lucky to have pretty much all of them - and Elizabeth Baines and Michael Stewart and a host of others performing.

And yes, they're already denying they're slow on the uptake with digital publishing.
I read your post immediately after I had posted a comment on Facebook wondering why the organiser of a certain literary festival, who had phoned me to pick my brains, and then to ask if I would come and be (unpaid) steward (It'll be such fun for you!) had never yet seen fit to ask me to do a paid gig. The kind of niggle that irritates rather than angers. The other thing that I found strange about myself, was that for a moment or two I actually contemplated saying yes. Then I came to my senses. Hours and hours away from my desk for the privilege of ushering writers about and answering questions from members of the public. Well - I like my fellow writers very much, but still...
These alternative festivals, however, sound like so much fun. It reminds me a little of the big poetry festivals we used to organise in Edinburgh when I was young and still at university - a long time ago. They were always well attended and were such a mixture of established poets and lots of young writers - and I remember them as being wholly enjoyable and exciting.
Mind you - I've been asked to do the wonderful Islay Book Fair this year, for which I'm extremely grateful.
Dan Holloway said…
Islay Book Fair? Wow, that sounds fabulous - is it very much of a stereotype to ask whether there will be whiskey?

Poetry festivals do tend to be much more fun, and inclusive, I think - from Wednesday this week it's Cheltenham Poetry Festival, which promises to be amazing - set up because Cheltenham Literary Festival was so stuffy it's full of vibrant exciting and passionate writing.
I HOPE there will be whisky! Islay whisky anyway. Caol Ila in particular would be rather nice.
Linda Newbery said…
Excellent, Dan. It strikes me that the festivals depend more and more on names from TV to get bums on seats - celebrity chefs, designers, celebrity anything really, as long as it's a name people know - and that can make the festivals predictable and samey. Your events sound brilliant - and I hope to see you at Chippy!

Catherine, it seems to be a case of people not valuing what's under their noses! VERY frustrating.
richard pierce said…
Totally agree with you, Dan. And it's a travesty that some self-published writers are made to feel bad about having gone the self-publishing route and having the audacity to market themselves (I know of a couple of people who've had this happen to them).

What I'd say, too, though, is that first-time writers published by small presses have a dreadful time of it, too, as far as festivals and publicity go. You're absoluetly spot-on about the major festivals being like F1 or the Premier League - samey, with no attempt to be edgy or innovative.

This applies to culture shows on TV, too. The same old faces and the same platitudes.

I wish I could have come to the Not The Oxford Literary Festival. I was trekking my way across England on my self-financed book tour.

Plus ca change.

Dan Holloway said…
Catherine, my wife will be very very jealous - she's an Islay devotee.

Linda - really looking forward to meeting you! If you see a scary chap with a beard making a b-line for you, it'll be me! I'm on the author table at 11 on Saturday in the Town Hall if you're free for a natter then or just before or after.

Richard, yes, I know how tough it is for small presses, too - their lists pack way above their weight in terms of quality and innovation and are given far far too little space to show that off. Travesty is the right word.
julia jones said…
Good luck on Wednesday Dan - at least we'll have a spot of eloquence puttng our case. Of the many forms of discrimination practised against self-published authors I think that being ineligible to join the Scattered Authors Society was one that especially irritated. So best of luck to the Alliance.
(Actually not being eligible to enter ANY literary prize, even for first novels, without a publishing contract - that was pretty galling too. no lucky breaks for the indies.)
Dan Holloway said…
Membership of societies is one that bugs me too - Oxford Writers have a no self-published writers rule as I discovered when I thought it would be a nice group to join. After some people there (I don't know if Dennis is a member but none of this is a comment aimed at him at all - this happened long before I met him) got to know me they said they would make an exception in my case (the implication not very well hidden wa that I had passed their "no oiks" test). I very politely said I'd rather be considered an oik and whilst they had the general rule I wasn't interested in being a member.

Prizes is another one that is very galling (yet another context for people to wheel out the "we'd be flooded with dross" argument) - and I know it's something the AIA is going to be working on - along with media coverage. I think what bothers me most with prizes is the exclusions aren't made clear to the public, who genuinely believe the winners are selected from amongst all of the available options.
Jan Needle said…
before you say you'd rather be considered an oik, dan, remember that that's what the better educated cabinet members (that is, the eton boys) used to call our chancellor gideon, who only went to a sesquepedelian school. dangerous waters, boy...
Pauline Fisk said…
Getting into festivals can be a nightmare for published authors too, and for many of the same reasons that you list. . If you're not a celebrity for even the most dubious of reasons very few festival organisers want to know. Great post Dan. What you have to say speaks for me too.
Dennis Hamley said…
Well Dan, I am in Writers in Oxford and the article you wrote for me about the NTOLF is already the front page news in the May Oxford Writer which I'm at present editing. And, between you and me, there are a few self-published writers in WiO. I'm on the committee and if you wanted to join, even as an agent provocateur, I would get you in. It was a truly great evening in the Albion. Orna was good (I wish I could be there on Wednesday) and of the others, I really enjoyed Kirsty Clark's reading. You're doing important work, Dan.
See you there Dan! (I just wish it didn't mean that all-night sitting-up-straight 600-mile train journey...but trying not to think on that yet!)
Lee said…
Dan, you've disillusioned me. I've always thought that not being invited to festivals (and readings, conferences etc.) one of the perks of self-publishing.
Dan Holloway said…
Lee, :) - but not being invited doesn't give you the chance to say an indignant no :)

Jan - yikes!

Dennis - I will pass that on to Kirsty, thank you!

Pauline - yes, and the inequality of treatment between writers is also something I know is an issue (I believe Bill Clinton's packet for Hay is now teh gold standard of double standards as it were)
Lee said…
Well, Dan, I was planning to keep the indignant 'no' for the Nobel Prize, but I reckon you have a point!
Michele Brenton said…
Can't believe I only found this post today. I've said it before and I'll say it again my timing is crap.

It has been a joy to be included in many of the events you've held Dan - and without your encouragement I would not have got as far as I have with my poetry and publishing endeavours.

That said, I've found myself stuck between two stools which is as unpleasant as it sounds.

Technically speaking I'm self-published as a poet but that is because Andy & I set up Endaxi Press as a teeny publisher and we publish me as well as other writers.

Which leaves me neither flesh nor fowl nor good red herring as far as most 'sets' go. Which is why I am so glad of your inclusive attitude and only wish we lived nearer or had more time/money so we could participate even more and give more back.

In the meantime you may never know just how much of a difference you make to individuals with your determined crusades and at the risk of sounding gushy I wanted to say a BIG THANKYOU. XX

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