Feature: Online book festivals

A crime fiction tour of the UK without leaving the sofa? Yes please!

I go to a lot of book festivals and events in the course of a normal year, and see many writers, but in this less-than-normal year I’ve managed to see Liz Nugent, Lee Child, Val McDermid, Don Winslow and many more all without leaving my sofa. The crime writing community has picked itself up after everything between March and September (and counting) was cancelled, and rallied round to give authors and readers the chance to connect online. And while that connection is more fragile and less tangible than one made in real life across a signing table or in a bar or in a queue for coffee, it is keeping things ticking over until we all feel safe enough to be in a room together. 

The creation of online events have been an extension of how welcoming the crime fiction community is to new authors and fans, the willingness to give others a leg up, and the genuine camaraderie that exists at such gatherings in real life. And it shows the particular resilience and determination that comes of being part of a genre that is massively popular while simultaneously so often derided.

So, take a burning love of sharing books with like-minded readers, add a good dose of bloodymindedness, and a desire to connect with the world while we’re all stuck at home, and you get Newcastle Noir online, #OnLymeCrime, and The Locked Up Festival, plus a truly international series of Noir at the Bar events, all held during a period when we haven’t been able to go further than along the street for the groceries.

The problems of putting events online are obvious, technical issues being the top of the list (I’ve had to “leave meeting” a few times, sadly). Multi-way conversations are more difficult when there’s a fractional delay in the signal. And then there’s the knotty issue of do you try and get people to pay or do you (and your authors, hosts and technical helpers) swallow the costs in the hopes it’ll keep your brand in the public eye and thus improve audiences at next year’s events?

Scottish author Neil Broadfoot, a Newcastle and Lyme panellist who also helped with logistics for OnLyme Crime, said: “On drawbacks, the thing that’s hit me is the lack of interaction with a real, live audience. Yes, the chat and comment functions are great when you’re doing it live, but one of the great pleasures of being on a stage talking books is the immediate audience feedback, which you can swiftly adapt to if need be. The other thing that is missing is the after-panel signing of books. It’s fun to meet people, sign your book for them, recommend others. 

“But on the upside, this has all shown, again, how crime writers and readers are a supportive bunch. I helped Paddy sort a few of the panels and the Noir at the Bar for Lyme, and the writers could not have been more accommodating or helpful in getting that all pulled together.”

Despite the drawbacks, I think there are real opportunities. For me the biggest is overcoming geography and finances – there was nothing stopping me “visiting” Lyme Regis in Dorset for the weekend while simultaneously logging on for work at my kitchen table in Edinburgh. There are also people with physical mobility concerns, issues around anxiety and much more for whom walking into a room full of people is unthinkable, but watching a panel of authors from their own home is perfect (though yes, there are also issues around access to and the accessibility of technology).

Three festivals I’ve spent time watching took different approaches, which is part of the joy of the festival season in real life. There are more to come, including this weekend where Harrogate’s summer of festivals is being wrapped into what would be the weekend of the Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival, plus the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which usually has a crime strand, and Bloody Scotland in September and a few more (keep an eye on my events page, I’ll try and keep up to date with what is happening).

Noir at the Bar was the first thing I watched in its virtual form – for the uninitiated, NATB is an event where people gather in a bar and writers read from their work to an encouraging audience, with beverages close by. Vic Watson and Jacky “Dr Noir” Collins have done amazing work hosting virtual versions of the Newcastle and Edinburgh NATB chapters (you can find out more in my feature here).

Dr Noir is also the director of one of my favourite festivals, Newcastle Noir, which was the first in the crime fiction calendar to move online. There is a lot of love for NN and that showed in the willingness of so many writers to be guinea pigs. Jacky and the team took most of the panels directly from the programme, recorded them, and put them up on YouTube, where they’ve been quietly racking up views. Being a pioneer is always difficult, but the familiar format of authors and interviewer was a comfort when we were all dealing with the technology and getting used to watching events from home. 

Jacky told me: “We took the decision to cancel on 16 March, having had conversations with our venue, the City Library. By then it was very clear the virus was spreading rapidly in other countries and we didn’t want to put anyone at risk. The decision to go online wasn’t made immediately, but thanks to doing radio shows via Zoom for Crime Fiction Addiction and Facebook lives for NATB Edinburgh we knew there were options.

“We decided we had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so we put together an experiment, with the headliners and a series of events with the Northern Crime Syndicate writers. That went out on the first weekend in May. People liked it, so we did a second weekend at the end of the month with a lot of the panels that were scheduled in the programme.

“The videos will stay online for the foreseeable future as a ‘pandemic legacy’, and because people continue to come across them – they may not have heard of all the authors but watch and become interested, or they may never have been to a panel event at a book festival and this can be an introduction. We have seen the videos reach an international audience.

“Everything is up for discussion in terms of what we do in 2021, whether recording some panels, streaming them live, or having extra content available online.”

Mid-June was due to be the first ever Lyme Crime festival, and while I felt terrible about its cancellation for Paddy Megrane, the main person behind the event, when he announced it would morph into #OnLymeCrime I was delighted that I would be able to join in the fun as I wouldn’t have been able to in real life. The decision to cancel was taken just two days into lockdown in consultation with the festival’s venue, the Marine Theatre, as they felt it was unlikely things would be back to normal by the festival dates. 

Paddy said: “I wasn’t planning to do anything online. Lyme Crime is me, really, and I thought it would all be a bit much for one person. But then I saw other festivals being cancelled and authors losing opportunities to talk about their new titles and thought, ‘Sod it, let’s do it’. I quickly realised Lyme Crime isn’t just me – as soon as I made the announcement, loads of crime writers offered to help.” 

He took some of the events from the planned programme, added new ones, and mixed pre-recorded sessions with live events. They were good fun and often quirkily interesting, as the authors mostly chaired themselves and it reflected the relaxed vibe Paddy is aiming for with the festival. I must make special mention of Paddy’s interview with Doug Johnstone, which was particularly insightful, and the excellent Noir at the Bar event hosted by Vic Watson. As well as being entertaining, #OnLymeCrime will I think have fulfilled Paddy’s hope for it to build momentum for 2021’s event.

He added: “I think I will do more online stuff. It’s no substitute for the real thing but when that’s not possible, it’s proved an excellent way to bring the crime community together, and connect readers to writers. The occasional event might be an opportunity to give everyone a quick ‘hit’ and keep Lyme front of mind for next June.”

The first weekend of July was The Locked Down Festival from Two Crime Writers and a Microphone aka Steve Cavanagh and Luca Veste. This had a few straightforward interviews, including with Val McDermid, plus Don Winslow and Anthony Horowitz, but otherwise was distinctly out of left field (the “Domestic Noir” panel saw four writers discuss not family-based thrillers but whether they are domestic goddesses or otherwise), and featured a lot of the regular slots from the podcast and its previous live incarnations. So you may have tuned in to see Lee Child and his biographer, Heather Martin, being interviewed by Brian McGilloway, but you could also watch writers discussing their one-star reviews, the worst book events they’ve been to and the links between writing and music. One of my favourites of the weekend was Ian Rankin and Janey Godley in conversation, which was intriguing, insightful and moving, as well as frequently hilarious (Janey is a professional comic, whose sharply funny voiceovers of the press conferences fronted by Scotland’s First Minister have gained a cult following north of the Border).

The other difference was that The Locked Up Festival wasn’t free – but the £20 you parted with for three full days of events (making it just £3 per event if you watched them all) went to charity. In all, the festival raised £14,000 for the Trussell Trust, which has been busier than ever during lockdown making sure that its UK foodbanks keep running to help those desperately in need. Well done guys.

So will we see more online events next year? Or throughout the year for festivals to keep their brand name in the public eye? I think a lot of people will be pondering this question over the next months. There’s nothing like being in a roomful of people all enjoying the same event, and being able to talk about it afterwards over coffee or a pint of something cold, but will we all be willing to get that close to so many strangers, even if it’s allowed? The finances are also tricky – if it’s online, you’re not having to travel or stay in a hotel, but authors and panel moderators should be paid for their time, and can the public be persuaded to pay for something online at a rate that keeps festivals – which often rely in large part on ticket sales for their funding – afloat? I think the most likely route is a combination of live and online, whether that’s live streaming or recording events for an online audience the same weekend or later, adding extras for online viewers, such as book readings or mini interviews, or something else entirely.

One thing is certain though: Whenever we get back to normal and can congregate at a festival, it will be one hell of a party…

Newcastle Noir is scheduled to return 30 April-2 May, 2021. The festival has a website, Facebook and Twitter, and you can find the NN2020 YouTube channel here. Lyme Crime is scheduled to return 24-27 June, 2021. It too has a website, Facebook and Twitter, and its YouTube channel is here. The virtual Noir at the Bar archive is here. The Two Crime Writers And A Microphone Locked Up Festival panels are not online, but lots of podcast episodes are, check out their Facebook and Twitter for more information.

A signing session at Newcastle Noir 2019

The #OnLymeCrime NATB line-up of authors

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