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.
As a festival and programmer myself, programming events for both Writing.ie and Irish PEN as well as Waterford Writers Weekend, the Bram Stoker Festival (literary strand), and many festivals around the country, Sarah asked me for my tips, so here they are! I prefer a direct approach from authors (with less links in the chain, less is likely to go wrong), and I’m always looking for original innovative events that are about entertainment rather than just about books. There are hundreds of books published every year but bringing together a group of authors whatever the theme, can give an interesting twist. I’m obviously interested in the craft of writing, so try to include a little on this in each event, and I love events that ‘think outside the box’. It’s really important to me that authors are able to deliver well in public – it doesn’t matter how brilliant the book is if an author cannot speak clearly or coherently about it! Sarah’s speciality is Children’s events, and for me an element of the educational is important in events for kids, so the event is a learning experience as well, however subliminal.
Over to Sarah who told us: “The event got terrific feedback so I thought I’d share the information from the day with writing.ie readers.
Schedule of Programming
Most book festivals start programming six months to a year in advance. For example, the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival (I’m the Children’s Curator) takes place in March and programming closes towards the end of the previous year (mid December). Key names would be in place 8 to 10 months in advance for the children’s programme: ie Francesca Simon, David Almond.
If you are thinking about approaching a festival (and more on how to do this in a moment), make sure you don’t leave it too late. I would suggest at least 4 months in advance.
Martin suggests you pitch at least 4/5 months ahead and Keith agrees.
Both say you can pitch directly to them via email with a well written proposal detailing your event idea.
Martin says roughly 20% of his events came from pitches (the others are commissioned or come via publishers). Keith says around 40% of his events come from pitches. For the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival, roughly 20% come from pitches.
They both suggest that writers should say if they are happy to be included on a panel.
We all agree that it’s important for writers to be seen at festivals, supporting festivals as an audience member. I suggest volunteering at a festival to get an idea of how a festival is run and what festivals are looking for from writers.
Anniversaries are very important. All festivals are looking to celebrate anniversaries. 150 years of Alice in Wonderland is a good example.
The average fee for a writer appearing at an Irish book/arts festival is from e150 to e300 depending on the venue. For the Belfast Book Festival it’s £200 to £250.
What I’m Looking For (Children’s Events)
- International names who will attract a large audience and fill a theatre (300+ seats) eg Francesca Simon, Derek Landy, Eoin Colfer, Michael Grant, Julia Donaldson, Philip Ardagh (2016).
- Strong, award-winning names for individual events and panels – especially writers who have written outstanding books (anything from 120 seats to 300+ seats depending on the artist) eg David Almond, Meg Rosoff, Patrick Ness. This year we had new writers Shane Hegarty and Holly Smale along with Derek Landy in the Pavilion.
- Writers who are excellent at performing for school audiences and who have a strong body of work behind them. Experience is key for school events in a theatre (or in any venue). Ex-actors are particularly good. Eg Guy Bass, Steve Cole, Niamh Sharkey, Marita Conlon McKenna, Oisin McGann, Judi Curtin.
- Exceptional storytellers and spoken word poets eg Dave Rudden and Grainne Clear.
- Exceptional workshop leaders eg Dave Lordan, Celine Kiernan, Niamh Sharkey, Claire Hennessy, Sarah Crossan. The best ones engage 100% with the young writers/illustrators and bring something unique to their workshops.
- Exceptional new/newish writers for panel events featuring emerging voices – eg Louise O’Neill, Phil Earle (2016), Dave Rudden (for 2016). I am lucky to be sent early proofs which I read eagerly. If you have written a brilliant, original and exciting book you have a good chance of being invited to a book festival.
- Exceptional picture book makers to give talks/workshops to children and also masterclasses to adults eg Yasmeen Ismail, Oliver Jeffers, Chris Judge, Chris Haughton, Niamh Sharkey, Steve Simpson, Sarah McIntyre.
- Unusual and original book related events. Esp non-fiction events in fact – history, natural history, science, maths. Come up with a unique and inspiring event and practice, practice, practice.
- Artists who are willing to work hard and go the extra mile. Artists who will muck in. Artists who offer to fill in for other artists when there’s a last minute illness or delay. Artists who are fun to work with and above all, professional.
- Strong local talent – writers, poets, storytellers, illustrators, picture book makers and more. Experienced and debut writers alike eg children’s poet, Lucinda Jacob.
I’m a Self-Published Writer, Can I Apply to Appear at a Festival?
The Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival is a curated festival. This means the curators select the artists. Yes, you can apply to appear, if you think you can offer something original and exceptional (and your book is professionally produced and an excellent read – children deserve the best literature we can give them). But please note that very few artists who apply directly are selected; most artists are invited. This goes for all writers, not just self-published writers.
What I’d Love to See More Of
- Non-fiction events – science, natural history, history (think 1916 for next year for eg – not 1 writer has offered me an innovative 1916 event yet). If your book is fiction, you can still offer a festival a non-fiction event. I have put together an event called ‘Talk Like a Dolphin, Sing Like a Whale’ for festivals/schools – based on whale and dolphin communication (my latest series for children is set on a small island).
- Innovative workshops – offer me something different and put time and passion into developing your idea. Again, you need experience. Offer to present your workshop at a local school. Ask the students and teachers for feedback. For eg I have created a Book of Kells workshop for Hay Festival in Kells, with real vellum and swan quills; a Jane Austen workshop for mothers and daughters; and I’m now presenting a ‘Create Your Own Fantasy Island’ workshop for festivals. Be inventive!
- Innovative pairings – dancers, musicians, artists, puppeteers, other writers. For eg this year I have teamed up with Judi Curtin and we are talking about our friendship at all the major festivals. It’s our ‘Friendship Tour’. Previously we have toured with Oisin McGann (The Ideas Shop) and Sophia Bennett (Your Wildest Dreams Tour). Team up with someone interesting and put together a cracking event. It’s a lot of fun!
- Events for children with special needs. This year I put together a How to Catch a Star workshop with Deirdre Sullivan for children on the autistic spectrum based on Oliver Jeffers’ book.
How to Apply to a Book Festival
- It’s best to apply thorough your publisher. Tell your publisher you are interested in appearing at X festival and ask them for their opinion. They will either a/ say yes, great idea or b/ suggest you might need a little more experience. If their answer is b – go off and get that experience and go back to them.
- Be a festival supporter – it’s important to attend and support festivals if you’d like to appear at them. You also learn a lot by watching and listening to other artists doing events. Take a notebook along and jot down things that work and things that don’t work.
- Make a demo video of yourself in action and upload it to You Tube. Nothing fancy – you can take it on your phone. Let programmers see you in action.
- If you don’t have a publisher or they don’t have the staff to contact festivals on your behalf, you can apply yourself. Email the children’s curator/programmer – outlining your book, the events you’ve done previously and what you can offer them: workshops, events etc.
It is vital to have a professional photo to send festivals for their brochure. It must be high res, clear and should show something of your personality. Ask someone to come along to one of your events and take an in-action photo if possible.
The blurb for your event and your biog should be short, well written and relevant. I rarely get sent interesting titles for events – be the one who sends me something unusual and clever!
If the programmer says no, do not hound them under any circumstances. That is not going to make them change their mind. They may simply not have a slot for you that year, but do try again the following year.
(c) Sarah Webb
In Part 2 Sarah looks at tips for coming up with event ideas and has spoken to other festival programmers to find out what they are looking for.