On Tour With The Author
There was a time when authors were regularly packed off around the UK and the USA to talk to the grand matrons of the book clubs. There are authors who still get the star-treatment world tours, but they’re the famous ones, the centres of the Venn diagrams, the movers and shakers who have their own TV shows.
These days you can put Hilary Clinton on the Graham Norton show and rank important world leaders beside – oh what are those things called – Kardashians. Fame is graded into classes just like everything else. It can be a coup for a festival to lock in a famous name, and one that attracts others.
A festival has to decide what its niche will be. Is it designed to encourage and inspire local people? Or is it about adding prestige to the town? I’ve been to some litfests in university towns where the attendees are all over 65 – that’s a sign the organisers have failed to reach their potential audience.
The Hay Festival on the Welsh border is infamously starstruck about celebrities, with the result that it has become insular and unimportant. Cheltenham, Harrogate and Oxford are much better for their intelligent selection of writing events, and for providing authors with a chance to interact with their readers. Northern audiences are generally far more attentive and questioning than Southern ones – and they’re very well-read. Some of the smaller festivals make up in quality what they may lack in size. Whitstable and Charleston are both superbly organised. Some libraries and bookshops are so lovely you want to hug all the staff because they’re like doctors and nurses dispensing healing potions in book form.
But me, I’m excited to be on tour. Hey, I’m a mid-list author, we don’t get out much. We’re not used to getting a choice of pillow scent in our hotel rooms. We’re expect cards in the bathrooms warning us not to smoke or block the toilet.
I love meeting readers, so I’m always angling to be accepted to events. Last night was Sheffield’s ‘Off The Shelf’ festival; charming hosts, smart audience, my PR supremely organised and unflappable – me chugging super-strength Lemsip and Strepsils, trying hard not to pass out on stage.
It doesn’t always go this way. I’ve put myself through events that would make an ant farm look better run, the kind of writer cattle-shows presided over by officious, self-important, clipboard-wielding organisers who are clearly way out of their depth when it comes to getting 50 people into a room to hear a talk.
I used to tour London book clubs, which by and large all had the same pattern; the readers (always female) would be excited by the novelty of having the author in the room with them for about fifteen minutes, then the conversation would return to the difficulty of finding good help or school catchment areas.
All most writers want is a bit of engagement, but the public is shy (and lately getting shyer) about speaking up in front of others. I understand that nobody wants to look ill-read. I don’t know why it’s such a big deal to admit you’ve never read a classic. My unread list reaches from here to the moon. The joy comes out of discussions about books, any books. Sometimes you just get curious audiences who ask a lot of simple but pertinent questions. I always try to allow for at least 20 minutes of Q&A at the end of a talk.
There’s a gap at these events, though. Males between 25 and 55 are almost entirely absent. This is the core audience you cannot reach. Maybe they’re too busy or don’t like sitting in halls – or maybe they’re simply too time-poor to read. Maybe it’s the rise of the iPad.
Unless you have a commute you don’t get time to read during daylight. If you have children your reading time shrinks further. But no males at all? It’s quite a new development; we used to always get a healthy sprinkling of working-age men. We hear the same line endlessly repeated; ‘When I get in from work I just want to watch something mindless, not go out again.’ To these people I say, there are other ways to unwind than staring at a screen. Engage with others and enrich yourself. Even if it’s just me with a packet of Strepsils.