Literary Fairs Can Help Your Career (Here’s What You Need To Know)

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More and more book fairs and festivals are springing up each year, and there have never been as many options for writers looking to reach out to new audiences and get involved in their local literary scene. That said, not all book fairs are created equal – across the world, literary fairs tend to either be community-focused, grassroots events powered mainly by goodwill, or larger, more dissolute corporate affairs drowning in sponsorship. Each model has its pros and cons, but the perfect literary fair sits somewhere in the middle.

For new authors, literary fairs and festivals are an invaluable resource. While you may pine to adopt the ‘solitary author’ life popularized by media representations (and by famous recluses such as Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, and Jonathan Franzen), the reality is that the author-as-hermit archetype is a luxury that must be earned. For writers still fighting to make their mark (particularly if they’re self-publishing), self-promotion is a necessity. The good news is that, unlike copy-pasting adverts to your social media feeds, attending literary fairs and festivals can be a lot of fun. You might even make some money.

So, let’s break down what exactly literary fairs and festivals can do for you. Once that’s out of the way, we’ll look into what you can do to get as much out of fairs and festivals as you possibly can.

What are literary festivals and how do I sign up?

Literary fairs and festivals come in all shapes and sizes. From the huge Harlem Book Fair in the USA to the Poetry Book Fair in London, literary fairs are difficult to tar with the same brush. Some tend to swell beyond their focus (corporation-sponsored fairs are sometimes threatened by the inclusion of celebrities and sports personalities), whereas others struggle to fill the lineup. One thing you can count on, no matter which book fair you attend, is that there will be talks by authors, signings, workshops, and possibly a few specialist panels on specific topics.

As a visitor, you’ll attend talks by your favorite writers, queue to have your book signed, enjoy some festival food, drink some wine, attend a workshop or two, have some lovely conversations, and maybe buy a book or two. It’s all very tranquil. The same cannot be said for the writers in attendance – things can get chaotic (and expensive!) very quickly, which is why it’s so important to have a plan in place before you attend. After all, literary agents will be in attendance, small publishers will be lurking, and commissioning editors and buyers abound; there are potential customers everywhere.

Literary fairs tempt many different types of potential buyers and contacts.Click To Tweet

Literary fairs and festivals offer up an invaluable chance to bypass the bureaucracy of standard agency/publisher applications – if you can corner an agent and force some wine into their hand, you’ll have maybe three minutes to explain why they should totally pick you up. If you’re not prepared, you’re wasting that opportunity.

Typically, the bigger festivals are pickier with who they host, and tend to foreground established and traditionally published writers – this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival, for example, is hosting writers including Joyce Carol Oates, Colson Whitehead, and Jonathan Lethem – but such festivals nonetheless tend to make an effort to represent local authors who are lesser known. Brooklyn Book Festival is also hosting hundreds of Brooklynite debut novelists and poets, few of whom have particularly expansive readerships.

This confirms that it’s a good idea to start by scouting out your local area. Fairs and festivals are obliged to represent local talent (particularly if your book is set in or describes the local area) though, if you can afford to be picky, it’s worth bearing in mind Hay Festival founder Peter Florence’s insights:

I think maybe the only two ‘rules’ I’ve observed to be generally applicable and true are these: the only festivals that really work are rooted in their communities; and that – as in everything you know about biology, economics, history, politics, and life – diversity is wisest and strongest.

– Peter Florence, interviewed in The Guardian

Happily, many festivals are now actively (finally) reaching out to indie or self-publishing authors, so getting on the bill for even major local book festivals isn’t as difficult as you might think. Just make sure to contact the festival organizers far in advance (six to nine months is a safe bet) and have your best pitch ready.

The earlier you start planning for a book fair, the better the financial outcome.Click To Tweet

It’s also worth bearing in mind that most festivals either pay only the headlining writers or don’t pay at all. Certainly, the hordes of lesser-known, stall-manning authors and poets are unlikely to see much of a direct financial return (but then they are being given the chance to sell to attendees). When you’re taking a day (or weekend) off work to travel to the festival; staying in a hotel, B&B, or campsite; and feeding yourself expensive festival food, costs can shoot up very quickly. As such, you’ll want to have planned ahead – you’ll probably be able to bring food in with you, and if you book far enough in advance, accommodation won’t be so expensive. Be sure to exploit free refreshments wherever they can be found, and practice your sales-speak so you can sell a few books!

What literary fairs and festivals can do for you

If you’re successful in applying for a place at a book fair or festival, chances are you’ll be manning a stall between events. This is your chance to put yourself and your book on display – you’re going to want to attract as many interested people as you can (even if they’re not customers or agents – you never know who could prove useful in the future).

With this in mind, you’re going to have to make sure that you’re able to talk confidently and engagingly about yourself and your book but, beyond that, you’re also going to want to ensure that:

  • You’ve got stock to sell,
  • You’ve followed the festival guidelines and rules to the letter,
  • Your stall, display, and books look good – consider bringing along home-made signs and posters,
  • You’re ready to accept currency (this means bringing change) and/or card,
  • You’ve got business cards and flyers at the ready,
  • You’ve brought your laptop. With this, you can exploit social media, instantly establish contact with any useful people you meet, draw up quick applications or messages, and keep track of your sales,
  • You’re ready to pitch your book (and yourself) at a moment’s notice.

It’s also a good idea to seek out anyone you know who has attended the fair/festival before. They can help give you an idea of how you should structure your day and how much walking around you’ll have to do. Speaking of walking around, make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes and are ready for any bad weather that may be coming your way – there’s nothing more miserable than sitting in the rain with blisters on your feet, trying to sell damp books to equally soggy punters.

Success at a literary festival entails more walking than you might think.Click To Tweet

Beyond hopefully selling a few books, you should also be on the lookout for literary agents and publishers. But don’t turn up blind – do your research beforehand. See which agents are turning up, which publishing houses are sending commissioning editors, whether Barnes and Noble or Waterstones are sending buyers, and tailor your pitch accordingly. Don’t make the mistake of reeling in an agent when they don’t even deal in your genre, and don’t blather on to publishers when you do finally snag their attention – be focused, engaging, knowledgeable, and memorable. If there was ever a time for informed charisma, this is it. After all, you’re not going to be the only writer there vying for their attention. You’re not only going to have to look good; you’re going to have to look better than everyone else.

But it’s not all networking and nepotism. Book fairs and festivals are, after all is said and done, wonderful opportunities to meet people who have the same interests as you. If you’re lacking literary friends, they can be a great way to fill that hole. Who hasn’t wanted to be part of a Hemingway/Fitzgerald/Stein-esque coterie? You’ll doubtlessly learn a lot from book fairs about the current trends and preoccupations in publishing and, even if you don’t succeed in pitching anything, just talking to agents or publishers can help you out in the future when submitting proposals. After all, if they can put a face to the name, you’re already in with a better chance of establishing a healthy working relationship.

Talks, panels, and workshops

If you’re given the option, always put yourself forward to host a talk, join a panel, or lead a workshop. It might be scary, but if it goes well, you’ve helped develop your personal brand – you can be sure of at least a few book sales and you should gain a fair few followers on your social media channels. Best of all, you’ll be more likely to snag additional speaking gigs in the future. After all, if you’ve led an interesting discussion or a workshop at a festival once, you’re evidently qualified to do it again. Next time, it could be a bigger festival with more people. Maybe it’ll be a writers’ conference. Maybe an expo. Maybe they’ll even pay their writers!

Get involved with literary fairs however you can – your role will only grow from there.Click To Tweet

But even if not, establishing yourself as an authority and an expert is something that literary agents and publishers love to see, and is something that you owe yourself too. After all, book marketing is no longer merely about book marketing; in today’s climate of hyper-visibility, it’s just as much about author marketing (even those recluses I mentioned earlier – McCarthy and Franzen – have been dragged onto The Oprah Winfrey Show by their insistent publishers). The more visible, authoritative, and public you are, the more potential customers are going to want to read your book.

Get your face out there

Even if you don’t sell any books, don’t host any talks or workshops, don’t find any agents, and spend the whole day talking to interested passers-by and asking questions of more established writers during their panel talks, you’re still reaping the benefits of books fairs. After all, a huge part of marketing is simply getting your face and your name out there – being visible instead of invisible. If anyone goes home remembering their conversation with you or, even better, your name and book, it’s a win. That said, you should also be pushing your social media feeds and your Amazon page (if you have one – and if not, why not?) If you can gain fifty new followers on Twitter, that’s fifty people who’re going to see your updates and promotions, and that’s nothing to scoff at.

If you’re not ready to get stuck into literary fairs as an author, go as a ticket-holder – there’s still lots to learn, and you can be taking notes, attending workshops, and talking to authors to prepare yourself for your own time in the spotlight.

Have you attended any literary fairs or festivals? How did you find them? Do you have any tips for our readers that we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments. Or, for more great advice on this topic, check out Why You Need To Brand Yourself As An Author, And Exactly How To Do It and Grow Your Author Brand Through Networking. Here’s How.


2 thoughts on “Literary Fairs Can Help Your Career (Here’s What You Need To Know)”

  1. That’s all good advice, thanks for putting that together. I was at the San Miguel Writers Conference in February 2017 and selected a few events to attend, and was glad I didn’t overload myself as a newbie author with no hard copies to present or sell and an exhausting schedule of events. I did enjoy much of the city. I spoke with two agents with mixed results: one agent let me do the elevator pitch of my novel (literary fiction) and said she doesn’t deal with my genre, while the other agent, Carolyne Forde, generously gave from her knowledge and suggested how I could improve the title and what elements should be highlighted. I will go again in 2018, but this time I will be better prepared.

    1. Hi Johanna,
      That sounds like a great experience! I think you were right to scout out the festival before diving in head-first, and it sounds like you came away with some invaluable advice too. Best of luck when you attend next year.

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