A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

How to Launch a Literary Festival

November brought a double dose of firsts: the first National Non-Fiction Month and the first St Albans Literary Festival. I was excited to combine the two, by running non-fiction writing workshops for 100 St Albans children. Fellow Allsorts Natasha Ngan and Emma Pass also joined the LitFest line-up, helping to host a YA Day for a cluster of secondary schools.

This week the Allsorts are blogging about teamwork, so I asked festival co-directors Claire Walsh and Jennifer Blackford how they went about launching a brand new literary festival.

Start with a tweet

“The idea came about through conversations on Twitter,” Claire explains. “A meeting was arranged with all interested parties and – I suspect as a result of my absence – I was nominated as the most likely candidate to actually be able to go ahead and make it happen! We launched the festival exactly a year from the initial Twitter conversation.”

So how do you get from 140 characters to more than 50 events in 18 venues?

Collect an awesome team of volunteers

The four-day festival was entirely run by volunteers. Jennifer volunteered to pull together the children’s programme because she had a passion for getting children reading for enjoyment. “Claire and I had both run events in museums before, but not on this scale,” says Jennifer. “We used the St Albans Centre for Voluntary Services, the local media and social media to find volunteers.” They quickly found that directing a LitFest would be equivalent to a full-time job.

Expect a steep learning curve

“It was a voyage into the unknown,” says Claire. Jennifer agrees: “I think the whole thing snowballed into something bigger than we had expected. The support from the local community was amazing and suddenly we had all these venues to fill. There were so many offers and great ideas that it was tough working through and deciding exactly what to focus on.”

“Once we had some great authors onboard momentum built, and publicists began to approach us,” says Claire. “It was hard to narrow down a shortlist but we wanted appropriate authors for venues and particular themes, so that helped.” Claire found that one of the most challenging parts of the job was managing expectations. “It was also a very steep learning curve to do all the ‘business’ side of things from setting up the company, to budgeting and sorting out insurance. I also think it was quite tough getting sponsorship initially because it was an unproven venture.”

Include awesome children’s events

For Jennifer, the best part of the preparation was speaking with enthusiastic authors and teachers, keen to promote reading for pleasure. She designed a brilliant Young Adult Day and school events programme, including a Poetry Busk performed by children from Killigrew School in aid of ReadWell. “The Poetry Busk was amazing,” says Jennifer. “They so clearly enjoyed their performance and were so confident to hold an audience in the middle of a busy shopping centre.”

The children who took part in my non-fiction workshops wowed me too, with brilliant ideas and questions. Emma Pass had a similar experience at the YA Day: “The boys that came to my sci-fi writing workshop were brilliant, bursting with ideas and enthusiasm.” Natasha Ngan agrees, “It’s fun being part of a festival rather than a single school event as you have students from different schools coming together to share their ideas and passion for literature. The atmosphere was buzzing!”

Save some energy for the day

What goes on behind the scenes during a LitFest? “Lots and lots of running about!” says Claire. “As a team we spent a lot of time visiting all the different events, organizing ticketing and sharing information. There was a lot of thinking on our feet. On top of that I needed to be presentable and have enough brain cells left to give an introductory speech at quite a few events. It was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done. Fortunately for us most things went really smoothly.”

Claire’s favourite moments from the four-day festival included “meeting all the authors. We were lucky enough to have Dr Irving Finkel who wrote The Ark Before Noah speaking and he let me examine the replica of the tablet that he used to recreate the ark.” She was also inspired by her own children’s response to author visits. “The fact that my reluctant reader came home so inspired to read Jonathan Stroud’s brilliant Lockwood books made the entire thing worth it. That one workshop changed his attitude to books!”

Any top tips for launching a LitFest?

Jennifer recommends taking the time to build a team with all the key roles – marketing, website, volunteer manager and sponsorship manager – before you start. “We ended up doing a lot of everything and it was a lot of work,” she says. “There are lots of things I’d change if I were doing it again,” says Claire, “but most of all I’d say its vitally important to retain a sense of humour, faith in your abilities and a selection of chilled bottles of wine! I’m really proud of what we achieved.”

HeadshotIsabel Thomas has written more than 100 non-fiction books for children and teenagers, published by DK, Pearson Bug Club, Collins Big Cat, OUP, Raintree, Wayland and Bloomsbury. She runs curriculum-linked non-fiction writing workshops in schools and libraries.
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About Isabel Thomas

Isabel Thomas studied Human Sciences at Oxford University before becoming a writer. Her books for young people include HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD (OUP), shortlisted for the Royal Society Young People's Book Prize 2016, and SELF-DESTRUCTING SCIENCE: SPACE (Bloomsbury). Isabel lives in Cambridge, where she is zookeeper to three young sons. Website: Twitter: @raisingchimps

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