Blog - The Two-Wheeled Writer
The Two-Wheeled Writer covers writing and motorcycling but not in any specific order. I write about other things too, but all are connected in some way.
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Writing Festivals - an emgering author's experience
As an ‘unknown’ or emerging author, even if you’ve got the goods in an ‘unputdownable’ book whether self-published or not, I discovered very early that promotion is mostly up to you, the author. This means a website, regular blogging, social media, interviews on radio, features and book reviews in magazines and newspapers, and television interviews (which is highly unlikely). Plus, pushing media with new angles, especially during the lead up to Christmas when most books are sold. If this fails, then January is a very slow media month and you might stand a chance. You might even get on breakfast TV, unless, of course, there’s a natural disaster or some other catastrophe that absorbs all available air time.
How to get an invitation to speak at writing festivals
All this promotion kicks off with your book launch, but then you MUST keep up the momentum with author talks at libraries, community venues, bookshops and anywhere else that will have you. This is called building your profile (as well as your confidence in public speaking). But the holy grail of all this promotion is an invitation to speak at a writers’ festival. However, if you’re an ‘unknown’, an emerging author, how do convince the festival’s artistic director to book you, especially when they receive hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions from equally unknown authors. Some call this literary snobbery but deciding who gets to speak is purely a financial decision. With thousands attending writers’ festivals, it is big business (over 80,000 attended Sydney this year). But readers want to see their favourite authors and it is these authors that put bums on seats.
Clunes Booktown Festival, Victoria (30 April to 1 May 2016)
My book, Ubuntu: One Woman’s Motorcycle Odyssey Across Africa is published by Nero, Black Inc. (April 2016), and I’m lucky enough to have their publicity team submit my book to the artistic directors of a number of Australian literary festivals. The response was an invitation to speak at Clunes Booktown Festival 2016, which was attended by nearly 20,000 and is known for giving emerging writers a go. It’s a very intimate festival and rather than being on a panel with several other writers, there was just me and the interviewer and an audience of fifty. Later at the Readings book tent, I spoke to readers and signed books for over an hour. Recently, through online Australian publishing news provider, Books and Publishing (4/5/2016), I found out that Ubuntu was the third top selling book at the festival behind Anna Bligh’s Through the Wall: Reflections on Leadership, Love and Survival, and Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country. Books and Publishing offer a one month free subscription and it is well worth taking up their offer for a brief glimpse into the Australian publishing scene.
St Albans Writers Festival, NSW (16 to 18 September 2016)
Clunes was followed by an invitation to speak at another similarly intimate festival, the St Albans Writers Festival, near Sydney from 16 to 18 September 2016. One of the aims of this festival is to also feature emerging writers. I’ll be speaking with authors Ailsa Piper and John Blay in the session: This is not a holiday. Real travel stories on Saturday, 17 September at 10:30am. I believe it is this aptly named title that explains my success at Clunes. In our overly connected technological world, it is not so easy to totally escape; to explore as it is so innately human to do. I believe, it is the deeply human part of us that craves real adventure – the survival-against-the-odds kind of adventures filled with narrow escapes. We also want to believe in the kindness of strangers in those strange and distant lands. We want to be reassured that the world is not entirely filled with horror as portrayed by the media. But those ‘real travel stories’ that we all love to read, is also about what the Australian Aboriginal people call ‘walkabout’. When a teenage boy embarks on a journey into the bush and returns a man by learning to survive and also finding meaning – a spiritual awakening. This is another of the many layers that are revealled in these 'real travel stories'.
Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Bali, Indonesia (26 to 30 October 2016)
The invitation from St Albans, came through Black Inc. but the big one, the holy grail of writers festivals, was the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Bali, Indonesia (26-30 October 2016). Ubud is one of the top ten literary festivals of the world and my invitation came about through what I’ve come to know as the guiding hand of a greater force. However, one can not be guided, if one doesn’t listen and does not feel those subtle prompts. This is our intuition. But it is also our awareness of the synchronicity of coincidences that come our way. Along with my intuition, it was the coincidences and chance encounters that I came to believe in so strongly from my travels in Africa and beyond. While we all have the voice of doom sitting on our shoulder telling us all manner of nasties to whittle away our self-confidence, we also have the voice of encouragement. Check out Ubud, mine said. And woe and behold, the 2016 theme was: 'Tat Tvam Asi' (I am you, you are me). The title of my book is Ubuntu. It simply means: 'I am because we are' - a Bantu word from South Africa). To me, of course, this was a huge moment of synchronicity. It was like all the planets and stars were aligned at once. I contacted the festival director. Pitched Ubuntu and Black Inc. dispatched a copy of my book to Bali. A few weeks later, I received the invitation. But for those non-believers in fate, synchronicity and the like, a strategic approach can also be followed to get that coveted gig at a writers’ festival.
What is unique about you and your book?
Let us not forget that writers’ festivals are mushrooming at an astonishing rate across the land and a growing trend seems to be introducing ‘unknown’ and emerging writers. In Australia there are around forty literary festivals a year. In the UK this is around 270 and in the US it is sure to be double or triple this (if you know, please advise me). While most cover a broad range of genres, there are those that are genre specific such as crime, romance and non-fiction and if this is you, you’re at an advantage in targeting these festivals. Browsing the websites of many of the Australian festivals, the smaller festivals all aim to promote local authors. There is sure to be a number of writers’ festivals that you can target as a local author. It also means, you can easily travel (at your own expense).
Should you get paid?
There is debate about festivals not paying emerging authors, a reasonable speakers’ fee or not paying them at all. Most either pay a fee to cover expenses or pay for travel, meals and accommodation. While I may not be doing our industry a favour, audiences attending writing festivals mostly come to see the big names, while emerging authors are often a curiosity on the side or something to do when the 'big name' events are sold out. At this point in our careers, we just need to get a foot in the door. In my submission to Ubud, I advised I was happy to pay all my expenses including airfare, food and accommodation. Luckily for me, I have a best friend living and working for an NGO in Ubud, but with the invitation to speak at Ubud, came transfers, meals and a room.
I’ve used this ‘speak for free, pay all my own expenses’ approach with other festivals too. Writing festivals are a business like any other and running a festival is expensive. And it is celebrity authors that will draw a crowd and enable the festival to at least break even. But hopefully, make a nice profit and pour it back into the festival to make it bigger and better for both readers and writers, and especially, provide more opportunities for emerging writers.
Future opportunities for ‘unknowns’ or emerging writers
As an ‘unknown’ or emerging writer, I’m a financial risk. If I can remove this risk then it is a win win situation for them and me because the exposure to new readers, the networking opportunities and the knowledge gained about the writing craft is priceless. While I didn’t attend Byron Bay Writers’ Festival this year, it was very encouraging to read that a number of events were dedicated to the ‘unknowns’, those emerging authors whether traditionally published or self-published. I hope this new trend of introducing the ‘unknowns’ at writing festivals continues to evolve not just in Australia, but globally as well.
For a list of Australian writing festivals: http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/writers-festivals
Heather Ellis is the author of Ubuntu: One Woman’s Motorcycle Odyssey Across Africa (Black Inc. 2016). Endorsed by a number of bestselling authors including Cheryl Strayed (Wild) and Ted Simon (Jupiter’s Travels), it is available online and in most bookshops. Heather lives near Melbourne with her three children and still rides motorcycles.