I attend quite a few literary festivals and I always come away having learned something.
I definitely think they are worth going to for the new perspectives as well as the networking opportunities.
Today on the blog, I interview crime author Clare Mackintosh, who also runs a literary festival in Chipping Norton in the UK.
She answers some of my burning questions about literary fiction and genre boundaries, running literary festivals and how authors can maximize their chances of being involved. You can leave Clare any questions about these topics in the comments at the bottom of the post.
Where does literary fiction cross over into crime?
The term ‘literary fiction’ makes me roll my eyes a bit! More and more it seems to be used by authors who think they’re a cut above the rest, but I think the distinction between literary and commercial fiction is becoming very blurred. Crime novels in particular often offer commentary on social or political issues: take Eva Dolan’s excellent Long Way Home, in which she tackles the issues of immigration and migrant workers.
What do you think about genre boundaries in a world where readers increasingly shop online even for print books?
In principle I really dislike the idea of genre boundaries, which trap books in pigeonholes. Readers can be very quick to say that they ‘never read chick lit’ or ‘don’t like historical fiction’, when it’s very possible they would really enjoy the very book they are dismissing as ‘not for them’.
That said, I’m not sure what the alternative is. Genre categories provide signposts for readers, and when so much of our browsing is done online, such signposts are crucial. Personally I find myself relying more on lists of ‘popular books’, than on restrictive genre lists, and I’ve discovered some real gems that way.
You also run a literary festival – why did you start that and what are some aspects about it that you love?
I started Chipping Norton Literary Festival in 2011, and it ran for the first time in April 2012. I started it because I wanted to put authors into intimate venues in the heart of a town, instead of in enormous marquees. The experience is quite different.
ChipLitFest is a huge project, with thousands of pounds to raise every year, but its been very successful, thanks to the hard work of all the volunteers I work with.
We produce around 50 events, as well as an extensive schools’ programme, and receive fantastic feedback from our visitors. I love meeting authors, and reading outside my comfort zone (I try to read a book from every author who appears at the festival), and I like the challenge of running such a big project on a budget.
If authors want to pitch literary festivals, what are some of the things they should consider?
Don’t just send details of your book!
Literary festivals are about events, not just authors, so think about the sort of event you could provide. Craft a pitch of no more than a couple of paragraphs, telling the organiser what the event would look like, who it would appeal to, and what your credentials are for appearing in it. If you want to appear on a panel, suggest other authors you could appear with: make it easy for the organiser to say yes.
Finally, take the time to find out who to pitch to. I receive around 300 pitches, and the vast majority are addressed ‘dear festival organiser’. It’s impolite, and it’s counter-productive – I’m far more likely to read one addressed to me.
Switching your head from festival organizer back to author speaking at festivals 🙂
The author often has to pay to appear at these events – what are the benefits for authors in speaking at events, and when is it best to do other forms of marketing?
I don’t believe authors should pay to appear at literary festivals. Events at festivals should be programmed for the benefit of the (usually paying) audience, with carefully chosen topics that will sell well. Authors should then receive some sort of fee (ChipLitFest works on a profit-share basis, other festivals pay flat fees) and have their books made available for sale.
There are, of course, huge benefits as an author to speaking at festivals and other events, but it’s important to choose carefully.
Make sure the festival has a good online presence, and that their off-line marketing strategy is solid. Even if your own event is small – perhaps you’ve been asked to run a workshop for 20 people – find out what the total anticipated visitor numbers are, as these are the people who will see your name on the programme and your books in the festival shop.
You won’t sell lots of books at a festival.
At an event of, say, 100 people, less than 10% will buy books. But appearing at a festival helps to cement your brand and build loyalty, and you may well find that your book sales improve immediately following the event. Success tends to breed success, so a few events at small festivals can lead to speaking gigs at larger ones, where book sales may be better and promotion more wide-spread.
You've been wonderfully supportive to many indie authors, myself included, as well as Dan Holloway, a friend of the blog!
But most literary festivals still exclude indie authors and self-published books. How can we go about changing the culture to include indies at lit festivals?
Yes, they do, and I think that’s a really hard issue to tackle. Ultimately events have to sell, which means programming either a well known author, or a really enticing topic (or both!). We include a self-publishing event every year, but I confess I haven’t yet had a self-published author in a headline slot. Yet…
I’d like to see more indie authors pitching lit fests, but pitching well!
I’ve just glanced at the pitches I’ve had from indie authors for ChipLitFest this year and – sadly – I haven’t pursued any of them. Without exception the emails tell me how many books they’ve sold, how long they were in various online charts, and what the reviews say. That would be great: if I were a bookshop!
I Let You Go is a psychological thriller about the consequences of a terrible accident. The story is split between the police investigation, and Jenna Gray’s decision to walk away from her life in Bristol. She tries to leave the past behind, but – as we all know – that’s easier said than done…
It’s an uncomfortable story, described by Elizabeth Haynes as ‘absorbing, authentic and deeply unsettling’, and I’ve been delighted by feedback from crime writers I really admire. Mark Billingham said the twist made him ‘green with envy’, which is as big a compliment as I could have hoped for!
If you liked Apple Tree Yard, Gone Girl, Into The Darkest Corner, or Close My Eyes, I think you’ll like I Let You Go. Let me know if I’m right!
How much of you is there in your characters and in the book? How much does it relate to your own background?
I was a police officer for twelve years, so in choosing to write crime I am undoubtedly writing what I know! I think it’s inevitable that a writer creeps in to their own books a little, but my characters aren’t based on me or anyone I know. DI Ray Stevens is a family man, who becomes so engrossed in a hit-and-run case that he loses sight of what is happening at home. He’s a fictional character, but the essence of his issue – that confusion of priorities – is something very common to police officers, and indeed to anyone with a demanding job.
I Let You Go, by Clare Mackintosh, is published by Sphere. It is available in ebook and trade paperback from 6 November 2014, and in paperback in April 2015. Follow Clare on Twitter @ClareMackint0sh or via her website www.claremackintosh.com.
Top image: Flickr Creative Commons Alexandre Dulaunoy