Online literary events in the pandemic period: what works, what doesn’t work?

Notes from our Facebook exchange on this topic, 29th August 2020. Hope they are useful and do keep them coming in (we are a network after all!)

ROSIE GOLDSMITH – the questions I posed to you:
Friends – serious question – your ideas and answers would be very welcome: if you’ve watched, participated or organised LITERARY EVENTS over the Pandemic Period what do you think has worked best? I’ve watched and moderated several myself but what do you honestly think works? Which do you prefer?

What online formats? Panel discussions? One-on-one interviews? Mix of music, readings, discussion?

Do events “only work” for you if they have famous names attached? Should authors interview authors? Many events/festivals have for example dispensed with professional moderators in favour of stars talking to stars – do you prefer that?

What makes you decide to watch and stay with one digital event as opposed to another?

Do you prefer a more relaxed ‘amateur’ style or professional?

Do you care if it is LIVE or not? How long should the events be?

As you know I both host and organise events, many with international authors and translators (and with very little funding) and this autumn i need to set up several events/festivals very quickly – hopefully a combination of physical and digital interviews, readings and films BUT before I take the plunge I would appreciate knowing what YOU have enjoyed most. THANK YOU!

Your answers and comments for which many thanks –

Neal Hoskins: Production quality begins to matter, a .good mix of voices and images and camera angles. Sometimes a greater need for clarity and most of all lighting and cameras and microphones will be begin to make a difference as people tire of babblefests. Hybrid is very much a work in progress as I don’t really know what that really means for festival and fairs. Happy to speak further on this 

Maÿlis Vauterin: As an audience, I enjoy a short event (40 minutes is a maximum). I like when it stays spontaneous and is fun. I enjoy both an edited YouTube session mixing image, music, or a live Instagram event. Thank you for keeping doing your job so well, Rosie Goldsmith.

Mary J. Oliver: I’ve enjoyed and benefitted from a wide range: closed group workshops (giving and receiving), large groups (ditto), using chat box to interact, small group meetings, one-to-one meetings. I’ve come across individuals being disruptive or negative a  couple of times, but that’s life, rather than a limitation of the medium. It will be nice when it’s no longer ‘the only way’, and in the future I see it continuing to play a key role.

Bianca Bellová: Not sure what exactly you mean by “works”. If it is number of participants engaged, then my finding is that it very much depends on the platform and the audience it already has acquired – so for instance a literary-oriented radio station of the Czech Radio had a marvelous impact. It also helps if it is available for later viewing or listening. 

Clare Mulley: I prefer a well-moderated discussion or interview. A good chair/interviewer, not afraid to jump in, is vital. Drawn by topic & guest, & a good name helps but not essential. Online comments is a good addition. However, I much prefer an event with an audience physically there. 

Rein Raud: I prefer panel discussions, if the topic is a problem, and one-to-one interviews, if the topic is a specific book or writer. Interviews with three writers, grouped together on the basis of gender or region and each of them wanting to speak about their specific book, do not work so well. (Author+translator or author and two interviewers are also good.) Live events are preferable in case you can actually send questions to the participants, otherwise recorded/edited formats work just as well or better.
During the pandemic, I’ve ordered quite a few books on the basis of online events — does not beat the possibility of having them signed at a live event, but still.

Sara Nathan: I like zoom-style where you can see the audience as well as the panel or interviewer/interviewee. Must be live. Must be chat and an opportunity for audience to participate. Limmud-style works best (50 minute event, 10-minute gap) I think – better than conventional book launches. Needs good tech and as much prep as doing it IRL. Panels are quite hard. Doesn’t have to be a super-famous author but an opportunity to read the book beforehand is an advantage. 

Alice Jolly: Thanks for asking this question. It is highly relevant. I think that Caroline Sanderson will be interested in the responses here as currently figuring out how to make our online Festival as good as can be …. 

Marc Van Der Veen: I have done several courses online and interaction was key to stay focused, for example through polls. Using ways to interact different parts of the brain.

Vita Nuova: Book discussions where author speaks for 10-15 min, then takes questions. Basic zoom = fine. Good audio = key. Keep moderation 2 minimum. That’s it.

Amanda Craig: A discussion worked best. I loathed faffing about with my mobile recording from a different angle.

Jeffrey Zuckerman: I agree with the previous comments that interaction between speakers is a key component — when there are individual presenters (three authors on three books) that’s essentially listening to three mini-lectures rather than a conversation. (Similarly, readings shouldn’t go on for more than five minutes apiece, and shouldn’t take up more than a third of the event time.) And people really do max out after 40/45 minutes; an hour just feels too long, unless it’s a close-knit group of people and the energy/momentum is *that* palpable. (Prime example: the Translating the Future interview that had nine participants being added in, see here

Solid audio and video is very important. Most festivals with money to spare should be sending their authors Ethernet cords and high-quality wired (not wireless) headsets.

Translation-specific: I know I’d really enjoy watching one of Daniel Hahn‘s translation slams online, since everybody will be able to see the actual text onscreen and how things change as we debate back and forth. (Danny, I have a cheeky idea if you’re feeling cheeky ;))

What draws me to an event: the book itself, the suggestion that there’ll be a theme. Big-name interlocutors can work if the book itself or the actual author/translator isn’t already a draw. The venue can be the draw, if it’s one I’m fond of.

MAYBE MOST IMPORTANT: This bookseller’s tweet (and entire thread, in fact) about the value of events vs. other forms of bookselling innovation has stuck with me in the month since it was posted:

I realize your question pertains to events/festivals, not bookstores, so sales may not be the top priority — but, fundamentally, streamlining the process for book purchases makes a HUGE difference. Selling tickets that include a copy (autographed or not) of the book? “Unveiling” the “buy” button during the event so that audience members click on it? Setting up mobile book stalls in areas where viewership is likely to be highest, and giving the staffers the materials to mail off unsold stock in order to fulfill online orders? So many booksellers can advise on the most helpful/successful ideas to try.

Nora Ikstena: Dear Rosie, I think one-on-one talks with readings and some music would be great in this nervous and strange time. Talks about literature and life matters not about statistics of plague. Time passes so quickly. Nature, our beloved and literature saves. Hugs from Norway. I am writing a new novel and going for mushrooms .

Alta Ifland: These are all very good questions. I agree with everything Rein Raud said. To answer some other of your questions: In theory, I prefer events that include some of my favorite authors, but the quality of these events has varied greatly. I’ve seen events with “famous” authors that were mediocre, and other that were very good. Regarding the fact that some festivals prefer to use stars interviewing stars rather than moderators. I much prefer a professional moderator (by which I mean a scholar who also happens to have the skills of a moderator). And it depends what you mean by “star.” If we are talking about a famous author interviewing another famous author, that is OK as long as they are scheduled together because they have some affinities beyond their “fame.” What I don’t like is actors getting involved in literary events. They are really bad readers, they read without understanding what they read. But I realize that my opinions are not shared by the majority of people (when it comes to actors).

Another thing I hate; when a “famous” American or British writer interviews a very good (but relatively unknown) non-Western author, and the two have nothing in common. This happens often and it leads to misreadings of the translated work because the “famous” Anglo-Saxon author has only a superficial understanding of the translated author and doesn’t know anything about the culture he/she comes from. As I said, I prefer a professional interviewer (a radio/TV culture critic or a scholar who knows what he/she is talking about).

Bill Swainson: Hi Rosie, You raise a lot of good questions. Thinking in terms of a festival/ series of events, *variety* is clearly important. I’ve seen and listened to long lectures (loved David Bellos’ Sebald lecture for its intellectual substance and it’s slightly wacky production values), interviews that worked (usually because quite structured, but lightly monitored, e.g. Allan Little’s interview with Anne Applebaum for EIBF); serious plenums that are on the whole for the committed (like the ‘Lightning in a Bottle’ discussion Jeffrey Zuckerman mentioned) and so on. The big Zoom (and equivalent) challenge, it seems to me, is how to create the circumstances for a free-flowing conversation that’s also interesting for the listener. And perhaps the biggest challenge of all is the fact that the audience is largely passive, as in a live literary event, it’s true, but you feel at a further remove because the digital experience lacks humanity (asides, facial expressions, body language, rapport between interviewer and interviewee – we all look so frozen and botoxed) and while it’s important, the Q&A in the last 10-15 minutes can’t supply that humanity. So does it come down to creating a variety of formats and working out Zoom rhetoric and even prosody? And then mixing it up bearing in mind the huge variety of audiences we might be trying to reach?

Ruediger Wischenbart: I am still fully in my learning curve as both a host / organizer and as audience. 

As a host/organizer, my key learnings are “structure structure structure” as well as “engage engage engage(as a moderator) + be simple + interactive. I also believe in B2B conversation that enriching / backing up events with written documentation ahead of the event is good and helpful. 

Again in B2B/ seminar style, having a kind of digital Whiteboard can be hugely supportive to develop a concrete outcome from a session, provided the moderator is experienced in working that whitebord (as is the case in real life seminars  

As a consumer, I prefer live, but very much expect to having the opportunity to have a recording available for some timer afterwards, so that I can choose when to consume it. Little reminders by FB, Twitter, whatever are most welcome 

Marcia Lynx Qualey: Some of the really famous Edbookfest ones I saw were terrible…the people they put together were entirely wrong. I saw a short sharp one with Yasmine Seale / Marina Warner / Richard van Leeuwen which was *brilliant.* They were all absolute brilliant experts and they really bounced the ball around. Readings should be short, in my experience, and audience interaction is good. It’s hard to have shared emotional content (only a Beirut fundraiser event I attended managed that) so I guess it’s extra necessary to be intellectually stimulating.

Andrew Singer Trafika Europe: I’ve seen your FB post asking after online literary event experience and preferences. We’ve just completed our first season of Trafika Europe Radio. In this very short time, we’ve curated, livestreamed and archived 67 literary audio shows, and I’m in process of assessing, as we prepare for season two from mid-September.

I’m enamored of the audio format. Provided that it is high-quality, it feels so suitable to literary discussion and enjoyment. From our experience, screen entrainment – looking at an author in a fixed washed out screen-shot for an hour, like it’s 1953 – adds nothing, and can detract some. Literature is an encoded aural medium; the audio format unleashes it.

I agree with another commenter on your FB post, that episodes should ideally be kept shorter, with a 40-minute max length preferred. We go longer sometimes, but there ought to be a good reason for it. Writers discussing their influences for ten minutes or how they got started in writing is not as interesting as hosts will have you believe. I still fall prey to this – anyway a preference for shorter discussions has emerged.

There’s a trade-off between actually live and edited online presentations. Actually live has an attractive power, theoretically, which pre-recorded does not. But in terms of quality, a condensed, deftly and finely edited event has much more quality and historical gravitas. If one is going to be archiving anyway, it’s best to plan in relation to this, where many more people will tune in over the years. For this and other technical reasons, we’ve been doing all pre-edited events. Again, it matters mostly if the editing is very high-quality – noise reduction, level normalizing across speakers, cutting out the extra 10-15 minutes of ums and you-knows and “it it it it it” and false starts and deep sharp clicky breaths and all that.

Rebecca Abrams: Hi Rosie, I’ve been interviewed for and chaired a number of zoom events in the past few months with audience of between 50 and 800. I’ve also attended quite a few events on zoom. My main takeaway from the speaker/chair POV is that it works best when it feels and sounds like an actual conversation, not a series of little speeches. A fluid back and forth helps to overcome the static and distant nature of virtual events. To achieve that speakers need to keep their answers reasonably short and really listen to each other. Whoever’s chairing need to be quite active in this and not let one person drone on at length (men generally the worst offenders.) Audience attention flags much more quickly on zoom so the host also needs to structure the talk well enough to keep it moving, but not so tightly that it feels airless. Visuals help but only if they’re genuinely interesting and carefully integrated into the conversation. Nothing sends audience off to the kitchen to make a cup of tea quicker than loads of dull slides. Questions from audience are great when they work well but can be tricky if not handled well – it’s really important to decide in advance who is going to ask the questions (audience members, the host, the chair, the interviewee?) and how questions are to be selected (via chat, emailed in advance, randomly?) Limmud seem to manage this aspect of zoom talks pretty well. Personally I find ending zoom events quite awkward and clunky, but other people on here may have worked out good ways to do this. Also, probably goes without saying, but making sure everyone in the audience is muted! 

Emma House: It would also be interesting to know if the software makes a difference to people ie zoom, Facebook etc?

Karen Leeder: I think its takes two very special people to be able to sustain interest in a one to one conversation for an hour. To my mind it’s much better if one of them is a presenter – they are more generous and well prepared and have done more work to structure the piece. 

I’d be for integrating clips and etc. 

Q+A are necessary but tricky so I’d be for organising questions in advance and then having comments come in which a moderator can channel.

I’ve seen very good people doing online things but not be properly audible or only half visible etc which is crazy or head down reading. I think tech rehearsals are time consuming but vital.

Daniela Bentancur: Dear Rosie, these are my thoughts as a participant of online events. I have organised some myself but with a very specific audience in mind, but I think that doesn’t change much my views:

– Both panel discussions and one-on-one interviews sound attractive. I personally don’t like it when music and other arts are mixed. It feels rather forced, like an incidental thing. But this is very personal.

– I wouldn’t be eager to watch stars talking to stars—I’d rather watch some youtube videos about them separately. I’d suspect they’ll covertly talk about their egos.

– I don’t know enough about the effectiveness of authors interviewing authors. Depending on the individual people, I could find it either very interesting or rather boring. As a literary translator, though, I LOVE to listen to experienced literary translators interviewing authors.

– “What makes you decide to watch and stay with one digital event as opposed to another?” The topics under discussion and how the speaker relates to the topic. For example, if an amateur author wants to talk about “How art changes our lives,” I wouldn’t feel like staying. But if an amateur author wants to speak about “Anxiety in the new literature of This Country”, I would want to attend. Conversely, I would attend the former if hosted by a veteran star but not the latter.

– “Do you prefer a more relaxed ‘amateur’ style or professional?” More relaxed if it’s live, and more ‘professional” if they’re not.

– Finally, based on my own experience as a participant, I think that the ideal duration for an interesting event is between 30 minutes and one hour. 

Hans G. Ruprecht: I like your question. Thank you very much. I think you may want to take a look at the current edition of the OTTAWA INTERNATIONAL WRITERS FESTIVAL which is in fact a charitable ‘Oneness-World Communications event’ that is normally taking place indoors in Canada’s capital during the fall season.

Take a listen to Sean WILSON’s announcement. He’s the Artistic Director of the festival

This year’s events are once again very attractive indeed.

The online programme includes major events, such as one under the heading “The Big Idea”, but also numerous public online sessions on fiction, poetry, “new science”, history and biography. But there are also exciting book launches of great public interest.

 Here are some of the «Upcoming Live Online Events»

In fact, their on stage set-up varies:

The host might be engaging two authors present at the same time, or a well-known author is being interviewed alone. This kind of an online feature interview may last up to an hour, if not longer.

For example:

Adrian Harewood (CBC) in conversation with Kaie Kellough and Ian Williams, who are equally acclaimed and award winning writers.

 Or there may be an in depth feature interview with an internationally acclaimed novelist such as Thomas KING

In my mind as a regular reporter for CKCU-FM 93.1 | Literary News (Ottawa) there is no doubt that this year’s remarkably 

innovative edition of The Ottawa International Writers Festival is 

by now already one of its most successful ones.
The Ottawa International Writers Festival Podcast Announced!

The Ottawa International Writers Festival Podcast Announced!

Sissay Lemn: Bloody ‘eck – provide a green room for afterwards… a tech person switching OFF is just too much 

Ginny Tapley Takemori: God yes! One zoom event I did ended abruptly with us all kicked out, and I was left sitting on my own at home in Japan staring at the computer screen! I really missed the post-event discussion.

Valeria Vescina: Good questions, dear Rosie, and a great variety of nuanced answers. Thank you for this. It brings to the fore just how many factors interact with each other and need to be taken into account, all the way from the planning stage onwards. 

Claudia Kaiser: Thanks for the question Rosi and the responses, learned a lot!!

Tony’s Reading List: A few thoughts… 1) For some reason, live is best. If I know it’s happening now (or being shown for the first time now), I feel more invested than if it’s a recorded session from a while back that’ll be available for good – and which I’ll never bother looking at. 2) Get a professional moderator who’s interested in the book and the writer, but doesn’t gush too much or feel the need to be an equal part of the conversation. 3) Don’t have too many people (moderator plus max. two guests) if you want to get the most out of the session. 4) Schedule all events somewhere between 8-11 p.m. Melbourne time  

Ginny Tapley Takemori: Re: the question about live or not: one factor to consider is whether interpretation is needed. A good reason for recording events in advance is so that the interpretation can be edited out so that the event flows more smoothly (this is what Edinburgh Book fest did with Yoko Ogawa and also I believe with Mieko Kawakami – I missed Yoko Ogawa, but with Mieko Kawakami you could hear her response in Japanese followed by the interpretation into English (appropriate for those of us interested in the Japanese, but you couldn’t hear the interpretation into Japanese for her (which takes up time and is not interesting for the audience). 
Re. the scheduling time, you can’t please everyone everywhere in the world, so the next best thing is to make the event viewable afterwards (even if it is only for a limited time). I missed the Yoko Ogawa event, and was really sad that it was not available for viewing post-event.

Janice Pariat: Definitely one on one live interviews! Panel discussions are much harder to pull off I think…they don’t work as well

Anna Blasiak: I think both live/in person and online events have advantages and disadvantages. It’s not the question of one or the other…

Helen MacCormac: The Literaturhaus here in Kassel, Germany, where I organise and host events, started with smaller well-established events in June, having worked out what is known as a “Corona Hygienekonzept” here. That includes number of people allowed to attend, spatial distancing, masks when people might get too close etc. and an enclosed outdoor venue with people registering beforehand and signing in for contact and trace. 

We have hosted open mike evenings for local authors and a favourite event, the “Literarischer Salon” and are absolutely delighted that all events so far were fuelly booked. 

There is a huge appetit for live events here. Our experience suggests that people enjoy physically sharing the experience of attending a well-organised event together with other people – even and possibly even especially if they are in an age-bracket that means they need to feel very safe. They also love seeing real faces!

As we move into autumn, we will be holding 11 readings with leading German and Swiss authors in unusual venues that ensure we can guarantee the necessary space required for everyone. We have chosen churches, the Staatstheater and clubs with appropriate space and ventilation. We have also reduced the length of some events. Our “Lange Nacht der jungen Literatur und Musik” for instance, which will take place in October, now features only three authors instead of the usual five or six and one band instead of at least four and will last a mere two hours plus break instead of the usual five. 

We are in the lucky position to have funding for the authors and decided early on that we would spend that on live readings – the authors are also all very pleased to be able to present their work in live events. At the same time, the number of people allowed to attend is greatly restricted – we can now only hold events for up to 80 people. Although we have obviously increased ticket prices, we would never be able to stage these events without the additional arts funding we have received. 

It’s our experience that these kinds of events don’t work so well online. Filming a professional stream can feel quite intrusive for an audience which is already handicapped by social distancing requirements. (It’s not actually that easy for an author to engage an audience so spread out we find!) And people definitely aren’t as engaged with the screen. 45 minutes seems to be a good length for a videoed event, in our experience. We have found that developing new formats for live-stream events that only last that shorter length of time (with no audience), using local venues that can’t hold events at the moment and giving them a bit of publicity, too, does work. There is also however a problem with copyright issues if authors reading are available online, and some authors don’t want to do the online thing anyway. So we haven’t kept a lot of these events available online.

We ask for donations for streaming events, which is working quite well. People do seem to enjoy the chat function of a streamed live event – they participate and are more prepared to donate than pay a registration fee. 

I could well imagine cozy intimate little talks with authors as an online addition to live events. We’ll see how we go. Btw all our readings are moderated by an expert! We’d never do without that. The so-called “Wasserglaslesung” certainly isn’t enough any more. Hope this helps.

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