UK-Swiss Publishing Day: The Recap. Literary Festivals

7th December, 2020

Our resident ELNet blogger ROSIE EYRE shares her observations of the panel discussions through the day. Each blog includes a link to the video of each panel.
The goal of this, the first ever UK-Swiss Publishing Day, was to promote and support the translation and publishing of Swiss books in the UK. It was the concluding event of the Literally Swiss project in the UK, as it hands over operations to Pro Helvetia in Zurich.
Through the creative use of digital media, funding from Pro Helvetia and support from the SBVV and the Swiss Embassy in London, this also became the first ever ONLINE UK-Swiss publishing event.

1. Literary Festivals Panel: The Recap

Panellists:

UK:
Lyndsey Fineran (Cheltenham Literature Festival, https://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/literature/)
Nick Barley (Edinburgh International Book Festival, https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/)
Cathy Moore (Cambridge Literary Festival, https://cambridgeliteraryfestival.com/)

Switzerland:
Anna Schlossbauer (Babel Festival, https://www.babelfestival.com/)
Fanny Meyer (Morges sur le quai, https://www.lelivresurlesquais.ch/)
Dani Landolfli (Solothurn International Literature Festival, https://www.solothurn-city.ch/en/discover-solothurn/events/literary-festival-solothurn)

Hosted by Nikki Mander

Overview of how the different festivals responded in 2020:

  • Morges sur le quai – The festival remained a physical event but invited fewer authors than usual (100 rather than the usual 250-300 per year); these authors came mainly just from Switzerland and France – the only UK author present was Jonathan Coe. 
  • Edinburgh – The festival moved online – and the team surprised themselves by creating a ‘spirit of community’ and ‘sense of intimacy’ despite the online platform.
  • Cheltenham – The festival team created a hybrid format and managed to achieve things it would otherwise have taken them five years to get to – in terms of developing the digital dimension.
  • Babel – The team were forced to reinvent the festival ‘concept’ to adapt to an online format – Anna here reiterated Nick’s sentiment about achieving a greater ‘intensity’, saying the event offering the chance to ‘listen and to listen carefully’.
  • Cambridge – The pandemic forced the team to innovate much more quickly than they would otherwise have done, and the digital format allowed them to reach new audiences such as marginalised communities and far-flung corners of the UK.
  • Solothurn – The team was forced to move very quickly to adapt, switching from an analogue to a digital format in just six weeks. Echoing previous panelists, Dani spoke of the sense of ‘intimacy’ they managed to achieve, while also managing to spread worldwide thanks to the digital format; however, he acknowledged that the language barrier inevitably made the festival less internationally accessible than was the case for English-speaking festivals.
  • Wrapping up this section, Nikki resumed the key takeaways from this year as unity, community, intimacy, innovation and lessons.

Biggest challenges and positives of 2020 – festival by festival:

  • Morges sur le quai

Challenges– Despite their desire to maintain the encounter between public and writers as much as possible, certain aspects like book signings were impossible because of social distancing restrictions.

Positives – As they were working with a new team this year, there was a lot of motivation and Gallic ‘courage’. The other plus was that a lot of people came to the event, which was the first physical literary event after ‘months of nothing’ in Switzerland and represented an emotional ‘magical moment’, according to Fanny.

  • Edinburgh

Challenges– Nick said the hardest thing was encouraging organising the team to have confidence – it was scary for them to move from something they had knowledge about to something that was completely unknown, and Nick admitted he was guilty of pushing too quickly at times.

Positives – Speaking from a personal perspective, Nick said it was a good lesson for him in team management and in working more collaboratively. More broadly, the feedback from attendees was very positive too – people commented afterwards on having actively ‘loved’ the event, as opposed to simply ‘tolerating’ it as the team might have expected. They truly managed to create ‘online participatory broadcasting’, where the audience also has a voice – and Nick expressed his belief that all festivals were able to achieve this participatory dimension to some extent.

  • Cheltenham

Challenges – One of the biggest challenges was learning which elements work well online and can stay online going forward, and which elements really benefit from the opportunities that arise from taking place on site (such as the ‘chance encounters between bookworms’ that Lyndsey felt can only happen in real life). 

Positives – Since the festival the team has been surprised by the take-up of back access to festival content – the fact that so many people have been willing to pay to watch the events retrospectively.

  • Babel

Challenges – Anna said the team needed to change the programme several times to ensure it ‘made sense’ to the audience; it was also difficult to co-ordinate team efforts, especially with so many team members being based in Italy, which was so badly hit in the early stages of the pandemic.

PositivesWith the digital format, it was especially important to find speakers that really connected with and challenged each other, and Anna stressed this ‘focus on finding something special’ is something they hope to carry forward with future digital offerings.

  • Cambridge

Challenges – The pandemic obliged them to upgrade their website very quickly, which meant they only had a week to familiarise themselves with the new site before going on sale – and this led to some panic!

Positives – Fortunately, Cathy said they were able to recruit a couple of young digital producers to the team, who were ‘heaven sent’ and walked them through the difficult process. Ultimately there not many technical glitches – and they are now working proactively on fixing those they did experience. As mentioned above, another positive was reaching new audiences, as well as developing the ‘CLF Player’ to provide back access to all the recordings from the festival.

  • Solothurn

Challenges – Dani said they were unable to achieve as much participation as they would have liked, with people mainly consuming the material passively instead of really interacting with it.

Positives – On the whole, he felt the Swiss literary scene proved its flexibility and willingness to ‘do something’ in response to the pandemic – showing it wasn’t as ‘sleepy’ as people might think!

Coming together to look to the future

  • There was consensus among the panelists that the move online is challenging authors, publishers and festival organisers to ‘add more value’ than they did before and be more unique in what they offer at each festival – as the content from each festival will be posted online afterwards, there’s a real incentive to ‘say something that’s never been said anywhere else’ at each event, rather than filling the internet with the same rehashed content. 
  • Anna from Babel also spoke of the value of panels like this one, where festival organisers can share ideas to help them better understand what they can offer in the digital sphere. She said that in 2019, Babel had begun organising a ‘pool’ for different international festival organisers to come together in the spirit of ‘positive sharing’; in 2021, they would like to make this ‘pool’ digital – in terms both of the format of the ‘pool’ itself, and of helping each other to ‘think digital’. 
  • Looking to the future, Anna said there is an exciting opportunity here to extend thinking beyond national borders – and she stressed there needn’t be any sense of competition, since everyone can put their own twist on the ideas they ‘copy and paste’.
  • Echoing this idea of festival organisers learning from each other, Cathy from the Cambridge Literary Festival cited the festival’s success with using piped audience sound for digital events at the festival – an idea that was inspired by the ‘intros’ and ‘outros’ used by Nick and the team at Edinburgh, but which they made their own with the ‘add on’ of audience applause.
  • As a final thought, Dani from Solothurn reiterated his hope that going forward everyone can stay in contact and share ideas. He expressed particular interest in sharing thoughts on how to create the ‘festival feeling’ in terms of a ‘live feel’ – and in this respect, felt his team could learn a lot from what people have been doing in the UK.  

Video link

Watch the full panel here:

Blog by Rosie Eyre

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