Have Festival, Will Travel: The Growth of Regional Literary Festivals in Australia

Today, there are close to a hundred literary festivals around Australia - many of them in regional and rural areas. It’s driven by both grassroots demand for cultural activity and a demographic shift in these areas, as creatives are priced out of the capital cities. Andrew Nette looks at what these literary festivals offer, why they’re booming, and what the advantages and downsides might be for writers.

Image: NZatFrankfurt, Flickr.

In 1962, Australian had one literary festival, Adelaide Writers’ Week. By 1980, literary festivals had expanded to most capital cities. Local website Literary Festivals currently puts the number taking place across the country, large and small, at 89. Some observers believe the figure may be well over a hundred.

The growth is occurring in spite of uncertainty in the publishing industry and the supposed terminal decline of the printed book. Interestingly, regional centres and rural areas seem to be experiencing as much activity as capital cities. Why is it happening? And is it a good thing for writers and readers, who now have to contend with an increasingly packed festival calendar?

Why are literary festivals so popular, while book-buying declines?

‘I know there is a view that books are dead – newspapers cop the same negativity – but they are not,’ says Newcastle Writers Festival director, Rosemarie Milsom. ‘Yes, we’re reading e-books, but we’re still reading. And many people are engaged in writing, be it via blogs, family history, self-publishing. There is a hunger for information and guidance about the writing and publishing processes.’

‘The underlying factor [behind the popularity of festivals] in my opinion is a very human desire to get together to discuss with others what they are reading and compare and contrast experiences,’ says Maryanne Hyde, director of the Word for Word Nonfiction Festival, which will take place in Geelong for the first time in mid-August.

This desire appears to be growing in parallel with rising frustration about the way political debate in Australia is managed. Writers are increasingly viewed as public intellectuals and festivals are emerging as a key space to engage in discourse around important issues. Furthermore, the internet appears to be driving, not hindering, the profusion of literary festivals.

Effects of the internet: ‘Consuming is a group activity these days’

‘The internet has changed how we consume culture,’ says Myke Bartlett, a journalist and author with one young adult book under his belt (Fire in the Sea, winner of the 2011 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Publishing). ‘Consuming is very much a group activity these days. We’ve grown accustomed to sharing the experience with others, which perhaps lends itself towards the rise of certain niche festivals that might have previously seemed unprofitable.’

The diversification of literary culture, not a uniquely Australian development, has led different communities based on geography, genre, age and platform, to look for their literary niche. ‘Far from disconnecting us from each other, the digital space has created more opportunities to connect with each other and with the world, and the rise in festivals reflects this desire to come together for collective experiences,’ believes Lisa Dempster, director of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

‘The internet, paradoxically, creates a hunger for real world experiences and makes them seem more attainable,’ says Bartlett. ‘Add to that the fact that readers appear to want to engage with writers more than they might have in the past. This is something else facilitated by the internet and the growing online presence of authors.’

‘I recall a time when I read, loved a book, looked for other books by the same writer but didn’t really care who that writer was, why they wrote, how they wrote, etc. For me it began and ended with the book,’ says lawyer turned author, Sulari Gentill, who writes a historical crime fiction series set in the 1930s about Rowland Sinclair, a gentleman artist-cum-amateur-detective. ‘Listening to the writer talk about his/her book has possibly become a more natural thing than it might have been in the past.’

Grassroots demand and demographic shift

These factors help explain the growth of regional and rural events. In addition to meeting economic needs and capturing tourist dollars, literary festivals are increasingly viewed as an important way of enriching community and cultural life.

‘I think a lot of the development of Victoria’s regional writers festival is being driven by literary enthusiasts in the area who want to bring the same kind of activity to their community as they see in Melbourne,’ says Dempster. ‘So it’s very much developing from a grassroots level rather than being driven necessarily by the publishing or literary industry.’

Demographics shifts are another influence. ‘Writers have always been drawn to rural areas and, increasingly, are being pushed out of inner cities because of exorbitant rental and house prices,’ says author Kirsten Krauth (just_a_girl), who moved to Castlemaine from Sydney a few years ago. ‘They are often looking to move to places where they can afford to be creative. When they move, they bring with them certain expectations and often hopes of building a creative community around them, or joining one.’

Milsom, former The Sun Herald books editor, moved back to Newcastle from Sydney in 2009. ‘I missed Sydney a lot after the move and one of the things I missed the most was easy access to the Sydney Writers Festival. I had been involved with the festival as a facilitator and avid audience member for a number of years. I began to think that there was scope for Newcastle to have its own festival.’

Hyde, whose previous experience includes setting up the Literati festival on the Gold Coast, is another example. ‘I relocated from the Gold Coast to Geelong around four years ago and was interested to learn that a city of this size didn’t have a sizable event celebrating reading and writing.’

Challenges of regional and rural festivals

The first Newcastle Writers Festival, in 2013, was an ‘enormous amount of work’, says Milsom. Key to successfully pulling it together was the support of the local council, businesses, and the university, who could see the economic benefits and threw their weight behind it.

‘It can be tough to compete against the capital cities for talent,’ says Milsom. ‘Publishers obviously want their writers to get maximum exposure and the large festivals provide this. Because the Newcastle Writers Festival is held about seven to eight weeks before the Sydney Writers Festival, a lot of authors opt to appear there and will be advised not to appear anywhere else beforehand.’

Competition for talent with metropolitan events is only one challenge facing regional and rural literary festivals. Securing funding is another. Dealing with the sentiments of longer-term locals can be another issue, if reports in some locations of resentment towards the inclusion of out-of-town business and talent are true. Concerns have also been raised that the increasingly hectic festival calendar will result in oversaturation and festival fatigue.

Festivals plug gap of publishers' declining publicity budgets

Whatever the longer-term impacts, no one interviewed for this article believed it would end any time soon. Declining marketing budgets of publishing houses mean festivals play an increasingly important role in book promotion. ‘Publishers aren’t spending the money on touring authors any more, but the festival circuit helps them allay some of the costs and guarantees larger audiences,’ says veteran Australian crime writer, Michael Robotham.

‘In an economy in which commercial publishers are doing less book publicity, and more writers are publishing independently, many authors are also taking a proactive approach to engage with writing festivals in order to interact directly with their audiences,’ agrees Writers Victoria director, Kate Larsen.

Many writers are increasingly reliant on public appearances to make ends meet. ‘So festivals play a crucial role in ensuring the ongoing health of the writing sector,’ says Dempster. ‘Not only by ensuring audiences are engaging with literature, but by creating a cycle of publicity and payment for participating authors.’

‘I think it’s basically swings and roundabouts,’ says Gentill. ‘The bigger metropolitan festivals allow you to meet a lot of fellow writers and rub shoulders with literary stars. The smaller festivals treat you like you are a literary star. The larger festivals pay you for your time, the smaller ones are really grateful that you have given your time. And so it goes on. I’ve had the privilege of doing a mix of the big festivals as well as the small ones. Both have their own charm.’

Competition and branding: How to get a gig

‘The festival circuit is getting increasingly competitive and there can be a sense of having to market your own personal story or “author brand” rather than the book you’ve worked hard on,’ says Krauth. ‘I feel that with regional festivals, this is less the case, and readers are more interested in your work rather than the idea of celebrity, and also festival organisers are more keen to focus on debut authors and take risks with their programming.’

One issue is the time pressure an increasingly busy festival circuit places on writers. ‘The privilege of success, for artists, should ultimately translate into finally possessing the time and resources to freely work, and work on projects they truly care about,’ wrote The Lifted Brow arts editor, Ellena Savage, in issue 20 of the magazine. ‘But instead, for authors at least, success means the opposite. So what value is there in writers festivals if they draw writers away from the thing they live for most, the thing that makes them interesting to hear from in the first place?’

Downsides for writers

‘The downside to increased festivals is simple for me: if I’m at a festival I’m not writing,’ says regional author, Laura Jean McKay, who published her first short-story collection, Holiday in Cambodia, last year. ‘Or at least not much. Generally the ideas that are generated just by being at the festival are worth it though, and I come away tired but inspired.’

‘As far as pressure to appear is concerned, I suppose it’s no different any other pressure,’ says Gentill. ‘Most writers juggle multiple responsibilities… work, family, community… and somewhere in amongst all that we have to write. I guess the ability to say no is just part of managing time and priorities. I don’t know that the pressure to appear at festivals is any greater than the pressure to work overtime, attend social occasions, help kids with homework, clean the house, etc.’

The pleasures and pitfalls of performing ‘off page’

So important is the need for writers to be engaging off as well as on the page, Writers Victoria now runs workshops on public speaking and performance skills to help prepare writers for the festival circuit.

‘But festival appearances aren’t for everybody and some writers can do themselves more harm than good with unprepared or poorly delivered presentations,’ cautions Larsen.’ So make sure it’s the right place to focus your publicity before signing on the dotted line.’

‘The proliferation of festivals gives writers valuable opportunities to strut their stuff and attract new readerships but it does impose a lot of performance pressure,’ says Carmel Shute, convener of Sisters in Crime, and one of the organisers of the upcoming Death in July women’s crime writing festival in Ballarat. ‘You might be a wonderful writer but unless you can be passably articulate, you’re not going to cut the mustard. Conversely, you might be fairly ordinary in the prose stakes but if you know how to star (preferably in a humorous vein), the invitations will roll in.’

Portrait of Andrew Nette

Andrew Nette is a Melbourne-based writer and journalist. His non-fiction has appeared in various print and online publications. He is co-editor of Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950–1980, forthcoming in 2015.