Ever since the cancellation of the London Book Fair, it seemed the publishing world realised the oncoming storm of lockdown and adapted the usual public events to be held online instead. Some have been very successful, such as the HAY festival, and others I imagine, struggled. But are these festivals a thing of the past now that lockdown is ever so slowly easing, or will they be around for the foreseeable future?
There are a number of different ways to run events online: Twitter has been successful for Penguin Random House, Instagram Live has been a hit, surprisingly the new platform Zoom took over Skype and there are numerous professional online event companies to help you run your perfect online event. One company in particular called MyVLF which was surprisingly created pre-COVID-19 was specifically designed to support book events and in lockdown they have seen a massive boost in clientele, one being The Big Book Weekend which saw authors such as Neil Gaiman speaking.
These online events/festivals meant that they were much more inclusive in comparison to in person events, with travel costs — and travel itself — a non-issue it meant more people could pay and attend these vital, and oftentimes career impacting, events. With the publishing industry changing and evolving right now to become more inclusive and diverse, these online events could be a way to support this important movement.
Juergen Boos, CEO of the Frankfurt Book Fair, describes the move to a digital format as a way of creating “publicity for authors, for the industry, for our topics”, allowing fans to continue engaging with and supporting the industry without missing out. However, many have divided opinions on whether digital book festivals should be here to stay.
There are several pros to an online festival, with the main reason being the inclusivity of it being online. The decentralisation of large city events, as most UK events are typically held in London, enable, in theory, a larger variety of attendees due to the lack of locational restrictions as there are no geographical limitations or cost of travel. Therefore, the online event can be seen as more welcoming, as there may be some people who would not have been able to attend the physical event partake in the digital festival. Another benefit of having a digital book fair is the environmental aspect. With less people travelling to one single event, the emissions are significantly reduced, as well as the lack of documents and construction needed.
On the other hand, differing to the physical fairs, the online event can become tiring in a contrasting way. Rather than engaging with a variety of people and walking around, you are sat at your screen constantly, leaving your eyes to become tired and often resulting in screen headaches. There is a lack of stimulation with an online event due to the shortage of person-to-person interaction, making it hard to separate the online event from your day-to-day life as opposed to immersing yourself within the physical fair. Furthermore, this also makes networking difficult to achieve as you can no longer have an in-depth conversation leaving publishers, authors and industry professionals without the full experience of the book festival.
With the easing of lockdown restrictions and looking ahead to future events, the question of whether they should be incorporated more into the industry and become a regular thing is circulating the online publishing community. One way to reduce the number of criticisms of the digital events could be to create a hybrid event. This could be put into place to feed into the inclusive aspect, such as panel talks being broadcasted online to allow more people to watch from across the country or even other countries, yet attendees of the festival can still immerse themselves in the physicality of the event and the exclusivity that brings. Despite all the benefits of a physical festival, for example Hay Festival brings in over £25 million to the local area, it would be a shame to remove all aspects of the online events as they do remove restrictions such as travel.