A Digital Decade for Book Events

Helen Bagnall, Salon London

London audiences certainly seem to like to see authors in action.  In the last few years we’ve seen them slogging it out against each other, on stage like rock stars, cabaret style over cocktails, or up close and intimate at a members’ club. 

It’s nearly a decade since Patrick Neate and Ben Watt set up Book Slam in the hope it would be a book night that would prove both exhilarating and preserving of the will to live. Nine years later, and thousands of cultural Londoners have pitched up at one or other of these authentic, passionately run bookish events. Book Slam, Literary Death Match, Shoreditch Literary Salon, and Salon – London are now so established on the cultural map most are now taking their events on to the festival circuit during the summer of 2012.  However, festivals are the tip of the iceberg – the digital decade means more exciting changes are afoot for the literary event renaissance.  

When Damian Barr set up Shoreditch Literary Salon, he wanted it to be ephemeral; if you were there; great enjoy it, you were part of the event’s community, and if you couldn’t get there; so be it, try again next month.  He believed this was part of the night’s charm, until social media allowed his punters a degree of ownership of his night. He was surprised to find his Shoreditch audience enjoyed having a space to discuss the Salons even weeks later.  Damian decided to risk a podcast, thinking it might be ‘useful to a few people’.  Teaming up with Russell Finch they launched ‘The Literary Salon’ podcast.  Within two weeks it was number one on the literature download list, beating Penguin, Granta and even Richard and Judy.  The success also revealed a new and different audience, broader and more diverse than the glittery literary fans of Shoreditch.  ‘I began to get heartfelt emails from listeners, including one lady who had to hide amongst the aubergines at her supermarket in Australia because she words of Richard Holloway, had reduced her to tears in the aisles.’  This experience was shared by Book Slam, whose podcast confirmed there was an audience beyond their events so large that it was as if they’d created their own international fan-base.

A loyal fan-base had always been at the heart of Salena Godden’s Book Club Boutique, her collective model for events was in fact copied from Tom Waits, who started a residency so he could book his own gigs.  However, the model faltered for Salena when she realised the guest list was getting more time and attention than her own work and so she decided to give it a break.  This break from the regular monthly events coincided with a heightened sense that traditional publishing was finding it hard to position her in their lists, something she found mildly frustrating when she came with such a proven community.  However, as the decade wore on, she realised technology could give her the means to create and publish her own content and suit herself.  Armed with an archive of material collated through the Saltpeter collaborations of the 90s, an army of people collected through the adventures of the Bookclub Boutique, she decided to start to use the internet like the creative tool she felt it was, and to stop trying to bend herself in to a shape ‘the big, fat, pink man who’s never been poor or hungry or eaten 29p noodles’ wanted.  The first project in development has a working title of ‘Platinum’.  She is creating ‘one beautiful thing, one in which the content can move from animation, to music, to spoken word without anyone having to worry about where such a physical copy would have to be put in a bookshop.’

Talking of bookshops, Salon London has long flown the flag for non-fiction, concentrating on those coming up, and publishing around the arts, science and psychology.  For curious, clever types, it likes to give its’ audience the chance to engage with the subject interactively, often wanting the audience to get their hands dirty. ‘We’re only half joking when we say people might not enjoy our Salons until afterwards, when they find themselves applying new skills, talents, and ideas, in their every day lives’, says Co Founder Juliet Russell.

‘We found people tended to discuss their quirky Salon experience with their friends a lot, and we wanted to offer this extended network something on the site.’  Fresh off the back of working with Digital Shoreditch, Salon has set itself up as a niche book seller, designed for any one joining the Salon community who might want more than a half hour taster of the subject, or a description of an event which has already happened.  ‘Salon is very author focused, once our speakers have wowed a Salon audience, we want to build our ties with them so we can have them back. With the heavy investment we’ve made in our site, we can help them find a wider audience, whilst delivering subject experts and their work to our curious community.’

Respect for the writer and their work is a key element in all those running bookish events, and this authenticity seems to be a big part of their success.   All the events have huge mailing lists, for what are essentially local nights, and many recipients use these mailers to stay culturally in touch. Literary Death Match, however, prefers popping in to see their community, and as often as possible. Todd Zuniga seems to have a boundless talent for mobilising audiences across the globe by a mixture of charm, social media, and local stringer/producers enabling the Literary Death Match team to push their showcasing new writer format in to 42 cities worldwide, with over 232 episodes (Berlin will be the 43rd on June 19), all in less than 6 years, something almost unthinkable a decade ago.

Not everyone can put on a local show in Helsinki, and if the main platform is the event and there are people who can never get to an event, how is it best to serve this audience?  Tom Hodgkinson founder of The Idler Academy which has a full program of thoughtful and quirky events explains, ‘I was always getting emails saying ‘Hey Tom, I’m in sunny, Arkansas, love what you’re doing with the Idler, wish we had that kind of thing over here, I had to do something.’ Tom, like Salena and Damian, had always recorded his events on audio, but as they were growing bigger and better, he realised he had to build an archive in to the model, somewhere where a wider audience could go to experience what he was creating regularly. ‘Michael Horowitz and Molly Parkin were at the academy last night, these are important cultural events, and should be recorded for posterity.’ However without a digital department, he realised it was going to be down to him to create it, and he is now far from idle, but busy creating a kind of artisan TED talks, with high production value films available on YouTube.

Talking of broadcast, most live literary events mentioned would be crazy if they weren’t thinking of ways to translate their content on to our most dominant platform.  Although TV and literary events have little successful precedence, with the prevalence of social media, the model of evaluation for TV has changed. A commissioning exec now could see how the podcast figures indicate a ready made audience, and be therefore more open to collaboration with those who built the ideas, something which would have been seen as too too risky under a traditional TV commissioning structure, and it won’t be long before one of the events makes a successful transition to television.

Appetite for cultural book nights seems to be taking its own course, as the big events are maturing, new quality book events are continuing to appear. This month arts curator Tania Harrison launched the first of what will be regular events in London, to showcase some of the talent and authors Latitude attracts, Justine Solomons has set up Byte the Book, a glitzy networking event for people in digital publishing, and the new culinary book events like Novel Diner and Literary Dinners are pushing the book event in to ever more sensory experiences.

Smart publishers, writers, editors and agents were quick to see the potential power of live events to sell books way back when, but few predict the growth and proliferation of audience for these events.  Will the next few years see these players pushing further in to digital publishing, beyond the first steps taken by Book Slam with their multi-platform annual, to becoming content creators themselves, entities working with authors to embrace the technology to create truly international cultural content?   If so, it looks like the literary event renaissance is likely to get even more entertaining.

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