On Tour With The Author

Reading & Writing


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.

6 comments on “On Tour With The Author”

  1. Allan Lloyd says:

    I volunteer as a steward at Hay Festival every year and would agree that it is becoming more starstruck and less literary every year. The programme is full of celebrity cooks, tv personalities and journalists and politicians now. However, it is still incredibly popular. They have about six tents with non-stop talks for ten days and most are sold out for every talk. I have tried suggesting that they return to their more literary roots, but the attitude seems to be “if it brings in the crowds, why change it?”.

    When Iain Banks was still alive, I asked one of the committee members why they didn’t invite him because he was a superb speaker. Her reply was that they wouldn’t ask him because she didn’t like his books. Their coverage of genre fiction is almost non-existent.

    Cheltenham Festival is usually much better, as you say, but this year I struggled to find any talks to interest me. Maybe I have to accept that I am out of touch with public taste, which may not be a bad thing.


  2. As his publicist (back in the 90s), I took Iain Banks to the Hay Festival on two occasions – one of them was particularly memorable as we arrived the night before the event so Iain could do an interview in the hotel bar, drank copiously, spent ages wandering the streets trying to find a takeaway and then arrived back as a fight was breaking out in the bar.

    But I would have to look back on my old schedules to see if it was for his SF books – more likely for his mainstream – and their approach may well have changed after this time. As publicist for the Orbit list, it was often difficult getting SF/Fantasy covered in the media and at festivals.

    I now run the Huddersfield Literature Festival – we were delighted to have Chris as a guest recently and appreciate your comments about northern Festivals. Anecdotally, performers often comment on how engaged our audiences are and what good questions they ask.

    We try and cater for a broad range of tastes, although it can be a challenge getting younger and male audiences to attend. And it’s challenging getting audiences for SF, although we do well with crime fiction. Among other things, we are holding a Cosplay ball in 2018, which will expect will be popular with students and other younger audiences.

    Although it’s a great opportunity to invite authors whose books you love, I would say it’s important to put personal taste aside too. To avoid scheduling a big name author like Iain because you don’t read his books (as this person said to you, Allan), is pretty daft. It’s great that you volunteer at the Festival nonetheless, our volunteers are hugely important here and we offer training and encourage their involvement in the wider Festival.

  3. D says:

    Hello Mr. Fowler,

    I officially suggested the purchase of The Book of Forgotten Authors to the powers that be at the King County Library System (in the Seattle area). They replied that they prefer to wait for the US publication of international materials Are there plans in the works for a US publisher to pick up your title? Or any other ideas as to how I can get your book into my local library?


    P.S.: The “Contact” link at the bottom of your website doesn’t work, which is why I’m posting this as a comment.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    When you were saying star struck I thought you meant big names like Margaret Laurence, whose voice can cure insomnia but who has a wicked wit. Politicians’ memoirs, celebrity cooks’ books, and entertainment tell alls hardly need promoting and what are they likely to say that isn’t already in their book? Our Writers and Readers Festival, just finished last weekend, is still literature based and fortunately many of the authors are interviewed on the radio, since this year in particular I’m not attending anything. Not even the Animation Film Festival opening on Thursday with The Breadwinner, adapted from a YA book of the same name written by a local author.

  5. admin says:

    Thanks ‘D’, I’ll fix it. Yes, the book is coming out in the US but I don’t yet have a date for it. As soon as I know I’ll post date here.

  6. Mimi Paller says:

    I live in California. The audible version of The Book of Forgotten Authors came out a while ago, but I wanted a hard copy so I could put bookmarks all over it for books I wanted to read. You can order it through Amazon from the UK and it doesn’t take very long to get.

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