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Getting the Gig: How to Approach Festivals by Sarah Webb Part 2

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Sarah Webb

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Sarah Webb is the best selling author of over 30 books, but she is also one of Ireland’s leading event curators and programmers whose speciality is events for children. Sarah recently spoke on a panel at the International Literature Festival Dublin on the theme of ‘The Connected Writer – Getting the Gig, Doing It Well’. Sarah’s fellow panellists were Keith Acheson from the Belfast Book Festival and Martin Colthorpe, the new Director of the International Literature Festival, Dublin, who has extensive experience in the UK – their objective was to show authors how to approach festivals and how to pitch their ideas.

In part 1 of this article she looked at how to pitch and who to pitch to, as well as outlining the types of events she as a festival currator is looking for and would like to see more of.

Here Sarah outlines her top tips for events and finds out what other festival directors are looking for.

Tips for Creating Brilliant Children’s Events (Adapt for Adults!)

1. If You Have No Experience – Go and Get Some.

2. Prepare an event and deliver it (voluntarily) in creches, schools, libraries. Anywhere that will have you. Make your mistakes early and learn from them. Ask an experienced writer if you can shadow them and watch them in action.

3. Ask the teachers to give you an event ‘reference’ eg ‘Mandy Bloggs was wonderful. She kept JI and SI highly entertained with her stories about African animals and they learned a lot in a fun and innovative way.’

4. Prepare a script for your event and practice it until it’s perfect. Most events are 60 mins. Break this down: 20/30 minutes talking is perfect. Add 1 or 2 x 5 min readings within or after the talk (never more) + 10/15 mins for questions at the end.

5. Your event is not a hard sell for your book. In fact some of the best talks I’ve ever heard are not about the artist’s book at all. Eoin Colfer is one of the best in the business (watch him in action on You Tube) and he rarely mentions his books. You are there to entertain and inspire the audience, not to sell your book (although if they like your event, this is often a much appreciated by product!).

Sinead Connolly, from the ILFD puts it beautifully when she says: ‘Festivals, I feel , are not a vehicle to sell books ( though of course that will be and should be facilitated), but rather are an opportunity to engage with an audience/potential or existing readership in a very immediate way.’

6.Think about using props, music, dance, theatre, images (although powerpoint presentations can go wrong so always be prepared to deliver your event without it).

7. Think about using costumes or at the very least looking visually appealing to children (see Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve’s costumes).

Growth Areas

Events for the under 7s (Aoife Murray from Children’s Books Ireland also sees this as a big growth area for the events she programmes)

Family events that the parents will enjoy as much as the children – eg the CBI Monster Doodles, innovative storytelling, book-related puppet shows

Events that combine yoga/fitness with books; music with books; dance with books (see ILFD notes below for more on this)

Events for children on the autistic spectrum

Drama workshops for children; screen writing workshops for children; animation workshops for children – also the same for teens.

How to Approach Programmers and What They Are Looking For

Writers’ Week, Listowel

We would love any writers to contact us either through their publisher or directly themselves, but we would like a brief biog about themselves and their writing included.

The events that we are looking for are fun, interactive events, and creative writing workshops.

Aoife Murray, Children’s Books Ireland

How to approach a festival: For me I don’t mind if it’s via agent/publisher or on your own bat as long as the contact is respectful, informative and useful to my purposes eg: I want to know what age you do events for, what type of events you prefer and how much you want to charge. I feel it’s essential to research the festival to see if you suit it, otherwise you are banging on a closed door and it’s important to remember that the programmer has a vision and if you don’t fit it, that’s unfortunately just how it is on this occasion.

Events we’re looking for: Something more than the standard reading and signing, as this doesn’t generally work for younger audiences. In demand at the moment are events for 0-2 and 5-8.

Sinead Connolly, International Literary Festival Dublin

How to approach: Sinead welcomes approaches from authors, but says it can be easier to talk via a publisher initially to sort out the practicalities.

She is looking for:

  1. One/two person events with key authors
  2. Panels of authors and others on a particular theme
  3. Outdoor events that engage families (see their 2015 festival brochure for some excellent outdoor family events)
  4. Newly commissioned work that can imaginatively engage with a wider public conceptually
  5. Sectorial events aimed at programmers, education, library, publishing etc.

And she notes that strong author photographs are very important for the festival website and brochure.

Eimear O’Herlihy, West Cork Literary Festival

Eimear says “I am very happy to hear directly from authors or from their publishers. An initial pitch by email is best and this can be sent to the WCLF festival office. We’d need a pitch 8 months to a year in advance of the festival – esp for the workshops. Our festival’s in July – our workshop programme goes out in December and the full programme in April.

The more detail that the writer can give me in the pitch email the better. I would like a synopsis of the book, the ideal age range for the book, whether the book is of most interest to boys or girls or of equal interest to both – please be honest about age and gender suitability as we all want the event to be attended by the right audience who will really enjoy it. Details of the type of events that the author has done in the past – or new events that the writer thinks would work – would also be welcome as they know their target audience better than I ever could. I would also like to see a copy of the book and I much prefer a hard copy – I appreciate that this can be expensive but in many instances the publicist should be able to send it on and I will of course look at an electronic copy if necessary.

For WCLF I am looking for a wide variety of events across all age groups and for both boys and girls. I am particularly open to events that are non-gender specific. My budget and number of programming slots are both limited so if I don’t select an event it may simply be because I already have an event for ‘boys 7-9’ and writers should feel free to re-pitch in subsequent years.”

Sian Smyth, Director, Dalkey Book Festival

Sian suggests applying by email to the festival website. She says a press release is ideal as it will outline the book / genre / area of interest . It is also a good idea to offer to post a copy of the book and if this offer is accepted, to send it promptly.

She likes to see a video clip of the writer speaking if possible. The best time to apply for her next festival (June 2016) is December 2015 to February 2016.

Sian likes strong writing. She says “We look for new writing as well as well-known, established writers. If a writer is unheard of we often work to put them with someone better known to give them a new audience and of course the audience (hopefully) an unexpected pleasure.”

Bert Wright, Primary Curator, Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival

“There are so many Irish literary festivals now that I always feel the need to develop a distinct identity for Mountains to Sea. We’re fortunate in having so many writers living locally and to have the traditions of Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien relevant to the area so that helps. In the past we’ve been fiction-dominant but non-fiction draws in more general readers so we’re planning more biography, memoir, politics and history where possible.

I’m conscious of the trap whereby your festival becomes shaped by touring UK or US authors with new books. These have their place but they can breed complacency and it’s good to generate your own event ideas and then source relevant authors to the theme. We like to add a theatrical or musical dimension to the programme also and these have proved popular. It’s all about good ideas, well executed. We get loads of proposals for events and are always willing to entertain suggestions but you’re looking for things you think will work, things that will appeal to your core audience.”

(c) Sarah Webb

About the author

Sarah Webb is a best selling author and has written over 30 books – read our interview with her here about her latest book for children, Mollie Cinnamon is Not a Cupcake (Walker Books)

Sarah also curates the Family and Schools programmes for many events including the Mountains to Sea Festival

Check out www.sarahwebb.ie for more info.

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