What’s this thing with Book Festivals?

What are they even? What do people do there? Is it really fun? Don’t feel bad if you see my Book Festival posts and want to ask these things. Until I had my very own book babies I had never been to one. There, I said it. I Had Never Been to a Single Book Festival.  

Me talking about Being Lily on a panel with Heather Morris (author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz) and Rutendo Tavengerwei (author of The Colours that Blind). Panel titled The Lovers, facilitated by Lorraine Sithole. Photo: Carolyn Meads, publisher at Kwela Books.

So, this here is my public service post for people who, like me four years ago, have never been to a book festival.  First a little disclaimer (sorry old lawyer habits die hard): In the last four years I have been to a few festivals, not a zillion. And I’ve sat on a few panels, not a zillion. This is just for your general curiosity on my limited experience so take it like that, okay?

What are they even?

The basic idea with a book festival is to connect writers with readers, readers with readers and writers with writers. Actually to connect anyone who likes themselves a bit of book. This means you’ll find publishers, editors, booksellers and aspiring writers plenty. And I have to add that it doesn’t matter how much you have written or read. As a writer you can be invited to a festival if you’ve only written one book. And if you’ve only read one damn book the whole year you can still go to a book festival.  Moving on.

What do people do there?

Festival organisers invite a range of writers, ones who have recently published or will be publishing something the organisers like. The book festivals I’ve been to have all been local with South African writers though a few international big-name writers are usually invited too. The organisers group writers into panels (of 2, 3, 4) and give them a topic which is somehow common to their books or their expertise. A conversation around this topic takes place live and unprepared in front of an audience who have bought tickets. A facilitator, often another writer or someone with an interest in what is being discussed, has the job of keeping everything on track. Questions are always taken from the audience along the way.

Fine, this is super basic and doesn’t nearly account for all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes of a good book festival but you get the idea.

And the million-dollar question : Is it really fun?

Four years ago I honestly wouldn’t have thought so. For a couple of random reasons. Partly because I thought book festivals were a snobby pretentious thing for other people who were more serious than me.  And while I loved reading, I wasn’t really interested in the writers themselves. A writer’s claim to fame is that they write so why should I want to listen to them speak? Surely their books had everything they wanted to say? Here’s what I’ve learned.

  • There are some serious people on panels and in the audiences who can quote things and comment on things. But mostly there are ordinary people like me who want to do something interesting and also have a bit of fun along the way.
  • People laugh a lot on the panels and in the audience.  Writers are rather funny creatures and they say funny things, even when they don’t mean to and even when the topic is serious. This might be a consequence of all that time spent typing away furiously by themselves and then finally being released on an innocent audience.
  • Yes, a writer’s true heart is likely to be found in what she writes. But put a bunch in a room and get them talking and the most interesting things come out. On every panel I’ve been on there’s been a question that made me think really hard and see what I’ve written in a new way. And in every panel that I’ve watched someone has said something that’s stuck in my mind long after the conversation has ended. I never know what I’m going to get out of a panel, but I’ve never gone home empty headed.
  • I do not have to go to millions of panels to have a good time. Festival organisers go out of their way to make sure there are panels to cover as many interests. It can be hard to choose. I’ve found a good system. I pick a few that I am automatically attracted to, and then one or two I wouldn’t normally think of going to. This gives a good mix of fun and stretch. And if I don’t recognise any authors I choose on the basis of the facilitators – I’ve seen that a good one will make any conversation one worth listening to. I’ve also learned to buy tickets in advance as they get sold out faster than you’d think.
  • Books are obviously at the centre of it all, but the organisers want to make the whole experience a good one so there is always food, drinks, and shopping opportunities.  Writers are available to sign your books and the creatures are so happy to do this (okay, that’s me!) that it all becomes very festive.

That’s it for Book Festivals 101. I hope it was useful, and if not then you are wayyyyyyyyy smarter than I was four years ago.

Massive thanks to the Franschhoek Literary Festival for all the fun and games this past weekend. I had the best time. And Open Book Festival Cape Town … I’m counting down to September 2019 !

See you at the next festival,


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