A beginner’s guide to literary festival gigs
Pitches, panels and punters: Andrea Carter reveals a writer’s trade secrets
Andrea Carter: if you are interested in participating in festivals, the best advice is the advice my agent gave me – pitch yourself
“Pitch yourself,” my agent advised. “Festivals and events are a great way to connect with readers and other authors. Pitch yourself anywhere and everywhere you can think.”
That conversation took place in 2014 after I had signed my first publishing contract. And so, I did. I swallowed my reluctance to push myself forward and drew up a list of festivals in Ireland, both arts and literary, and I began to email. I put together a package that contained a writer’s CV, some sample reviews, and if they hadn’t read my book (which was likely at that stage) I offered to send a copy: Death at Whitewater Church was the first in what was to become the Inishowen Mysteries series.
I had what can best be described as a “mixed response”. Some politely declined my offer (it doesn’t quite fit our schedule, maybe next year…). Some didn’t even bother to respond. Then, out of the blue, I received an invitation. Muireann Ní Chonaill, the arts officer for Laois County Council had heard me cite “the only county in Ireland that doesn’t touch a county that touches the sea”, during an interview on RTÉ’s Arena, and realised that I was a local. She asked if I would be interested in participating in the Leaves Literary Festival, in Abbeyleix. And she was going to pay me! I was thrilled beyond belief. My first proper gig as a writer.
Once I had got over the delight, I was suddenly terrified. But the evening turned out to be lovely; I read from my book and I met people I hadn’t seen in years (including my childhood dentist!). Although I did make a rookie mistake – I had no books with me to sell, though my publishers would have happily supplied me with some if I’d had the sense to ask. Lesson learned.
A few months later, my second book Treacherous Strand came out and Carmel Harrington from Wexford Literary Festival (one of the people who had responded kindly to my first round of emails) offered me a place on her crime panel. She was also going to pay me! But now I’d have to speak about myself and about my writing, not just read from my book. I realised that, as a barrister, I’d always been telling someone else’s story and crucially I’d also had my back to the “audience”, addressing a judge.
This event, then, would present different challenges. I arrived early so that I could watch the other panels; I was a ball of nerves. But I drove back to Dublin later that night with a smile on my face. The panel I was on had been huge fun, and a local bookshop was selling panellists’ books – I even signed a few while I chatted to people afterwards.
Since those first two festivals I’ve done about 30 different events, mostly in Ireland, but one or two further afield. It took a few years of fairly active pitching before the dynamic changed and I began to appear on people’s radar and get invited to things, and it’s lovely when that happens. Some I have returned to more than once (Belfast Book Festival has a cracking green room!). Sometimes I’m paid, sometimes I’m happy not to be, although in Ireland we’re considerably better than the UK in that area. I also do events in bookshops and in libraries.
Authors today, whether they like it or not, are forced to do a large chunk of their own promotional work. Much of it involves writing features or participating in social media which is just more work at a screen. But events are fun, and the benefits manifold.
The first and the most important of these benefits is meeting readers. If people have read your books, you find out what they think of them; and if they haven’t, they might after hearing you speak. I’ve met readers I’ve stayed in touch with through Twitter and have come to really value their responses to book covers, etc. I’ve also learned some valuable lessons! I once had a retired garda point out that shotguns use cartridges not bullets (an error I had made in Death at Whitewater Church), teaching me to be more careful with my research!
Secondly, you get to meet other authors. Friendships can be sealed through over-nighters in Bantry or Bristol, and it’s good to discover that your gripes are universal. If the other authors are huge stars, you get to be in their orbit for a time, and there’s something incredibly exciting about being on the same bill as one of your heroes (running into them in the bar and trying not to fangirl – apologies to Ian Rankin and Elizabeth Haynes).
Lastly, you might even sell a few books. If it’s a small festival and there’s no bookseller, bring a few in your car. A certain well-known singer gave me this advice (she was referring to CDs), and I’ve done it ever since.
So, if you are interested in participating in festivals, the best advice is the advice my agent gave me – pitch yourself. And keep doing it. If no one wants you, team up with another writer. I did some library events with Jo Spain which were great fun (particularly the road trips!). Someone, someday, somewhere is going to want you, and then you’re off.
When you do get invited somewhere (or someone takes pity on you – thanks Muireann and Carmel!), put in the work. Prepare a reading and anticipate what you might be asked. Read the other panellists’ books – it’s the decent thing to do, and you might learn something. Agree to moderate if you’re asked.
And once you’re there, be gracious (naming no names, but don’t be that writer who people stop reading after meeting him in person!). Festival curators do speak to each other.
Finally, go as a punter even if you’re not on a panel. Support festivals. Writers are readers too, and there is huge pleasure in hearing an author you love speak about their work. Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas is one I’ve never been invited to, but I go every year (although I was a bit broken to have missed the year Dominic West and David Simon appeared together). I go for the sun and the prosecco, and the brilliant chats (and to laugh at my cousin’s excitement when she queues for the bathroom behind Fintan O’Toole, of this parish, on whom she has a bit of a crush).
Whether you’re going as a punter or as an author, enjoy. Apart from those I’ve mentioned, there are wonderful festivals in west Cork, Ennis, Boyle, Doolin, Dublin, Donegal, Bray. We even have two great new crime fiction festivals in Ireland – NOIRELAND has just announced the dates for its second festival in Belfast, from March 8th-10th , 2019, and the first Murder One festival is coming to Dublin on November 2nd-4th, 2018.
I’ve left out lots of great festivals, so keep an eye out; there’s bound to be one close by, and they all have websites.
We do a good festival in Ireland, so we do!
Andrea Carter’s latest book is Murder at Greybridge