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Taking literary festival experiences online

Did anyone else notice the lack of ereaders at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year? I ask that not because that there have been lots around in previous years, but I have to admit, I was surprised to spot only two people with iPads and five people reading on Kindles. The question I was asking myself was, when are literary festivals going to start reflecting the massive surge in ebook sales the industry is reporting?

For a few years now, free WiFi has been reliably available at the Book Festival in Charlotte Square Gardens and this year they launched a mobile website enabling audiences to browse the programme, book tickets and buy e-books. Is this enough to attract digital reading at literary festivals? If I decided to buy an ebook from the festival’s mobile site, I would be directed to the iBookstore and would give a share of the full-price to Apple rather than to the on-site independent bookshop that pours its profits back into the festival. If I wanted my book signed by the author in attendance, I’d have to dig-out my autograph book from the 80’s or, if I really liked them, ask them to sign the back of my device, hoping of course, that the pen they were using to sign was compatible. It seems to me that there is enormous potential to inject some digital fun into a literary festivals and no one seems to be filling that space… yet.

Whilst enjoying the festival atmosphere, I started chatting to a few people about what had brought them to Charlotte Square Gardens and in turn, I explained who I was and gave them some early insight into the exciting plans and vision that we have at Anobii.

My first contact was with a librarian who also used to work a lot with children who had difficulty  with reading. She was having a rather interesting debate with the man next to her about how to encourage young boys to read. He was arguing that there weren’t enough books that were exciting enough for teenage boys anymore, her argument was that girls were just more tuned for reading at that age and therefore enjoyed it more.  When I joined in the conversation, they were keen to give me their opinion on the new ‘topics’ discovery tool we are launching on Anobii which allows readers to create and follow topics they are interested in while other readers can help to curate the best books list for that topic by adding books and rating them up and down. “I could see how this would really work” they agreed, if this reduces the risk of teenage boys starting books that were boring and not suited to their taste, they would probably be more confident in choosing new books to read and therefore read more. True or not, at least it had stopped them arguing!

The next day I met a girl who worked for the Fringe. She explained that out of all of the festivals in Edinburgh, the book festival was the most keen on being ‘green’ and therefore doesn’t allow any flyering. She thought it was ironic since there was more paper at the book festival than anywhere else in Edinburgh during August! It got us talking about digital. I asked her if she knew of any social network for audience curated reviews of Edinburgh Fringe shows, “there must be one” I said, “surely by now.” It struck me that perhaps the Book Festival wasn’t the only one missing out on reviews and recommendations from people you share common taste with. She told me about a site called Theatre Ninjas, funded by Ideas Tap, it lists discounted and last minute tickets for comedy, music, theatre at the Fringe and encourages you ‘go to venues you’ve never heard of, experiment with different genres and discover the hidden gems and talent of tomorrow’.  Once registered, they give you a secret code to take to the box office when you buy your tickets and encourage you to review the show afterwards. This is just the sort of thing that book festivals could benefit from. As a reader, how often do you discover a debut novelist at a book festival? The big names surely draw in the crowds, but how many events have empty seats at the back after everyone has been asked to move forward?

Literary festival events are planned around bringing readers together with a similar interest, either in a particular topic or around a specific author. Where appropriate, two or more authors are invited to talk about a subject which unites them and their books. Why not expand that concept, let the discussion live on beyond the event and create the opportunity for anyone to contribute the titles they think also fit that same description? Verse to discover at school, Extraordinary stories from everyday India, Love, loss and lies, Haunting books set in Glasgow, Poignant consuming fiction, Books on film – these are all titles of events held this year at the Edinburgh Book Festival and could all be listed as topics to browse on Anobii:

It’s definitely time to start thinking beyond purely off-line literary festival experiences and start merging online social retailing to provide for an increasing digital reader base. I look forward to a time when I can sit in Charlotte Square Gardens using the free WiFi, knowing that if I wanted to, I could connect with people who are reading the same book as me, I could leave questions in the ebook to share with the author before and after the event, I would be pushed recommendations and notification of events tailored to my stated areas of interest, I could discover new talent with secret ticket codes released for events that are not sold out, and there would be an equivalent experience to an author signing for me with my ebook. The possibilities of a ‘digitally enhanced experience’ at literary festivals are endless, now all we need is for the audiences and readers to agree.

Danielle Davis is Community Manager at Anobii, a new social retail platform launching in the UK this year with a reader-curated browsing system based on topics which allows any reader to create new topics, add relevant books and then rank in order of preference. The concept replaces traditional genre categories and aims to improve online book discovery.



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