3 reasons why you should volunteer at literary festivals

Zeba Talkani e1446032617775

I believe that my experience as a volunteer at various literary festivals over the last four years has greatly enhanced my publishing career and my writing skills. Volunteers have access to a lot of educational and enriching events, as well as a chance to network with publishing folks in a relaxed environment. It’s the best place to talk shop without any structural constraints and here are my top three reasons why you should volunteer at literature festivals.

1. It’s inspiring

I recently volunteered for The Times and Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival where I was exposed to ideas, opinions and experiences which have left me feeling inspired and motivated. I worked with culturally diverse teams and interacted with some of the most passionate artists, writers and performers.

I was entranced by Frieda Hughes’ beautiful poetry and the dignity with which she spoke of the deaths in her family. I was moved by James Rhodes’ performance and his devastating story. And I was inspired by Park Yeon-Mi exuding extreme courage when talking about her escape from North Korea.

In addition to that, I got a chance to exchange pleasantries and thoughts with the likes of Salman Rushdie, Iqbal Khan, Zoe Wanamaker, Alexander McCall Smith, Julian Barnes and Sunjeev Sahota. I got to sit in on engaging debates, voice my opinions on current affairs and gain a new perspective. I came home every night brimming with ideas for my writing and thoughts on the future of publishing.

2. It’s an education

Volunteering at a literary festival is a hands-on experience. During my years as a volunteer I learned more about the publishing industry than I did in any classroom. I asked questions and gained insight into the world of trade, academic and children’s publishing, as well as bookselling and event management.

Most of the skills I use in my day job are skills I gained from my experience at literary festivals. These skills include interpersonal awareness, flexibility, logical thinking, creative problem-solving, teamwork, coordination, public speaking and organisational skills. Festivals are high-pressure and time-bound spaces where you are responsible for tasks which could potentially disrupt events and annoy patrons (both of which you can’t afford). It’s also a unique place to gain time-management and effective communication skills.

Also, as a non-UK national in England, literary festivals are a perfect place to learn more about the British pop culture. This helped me gain confidence in my language and social skills, both of which transformed my interviewing experiences.

3. It’s a networking heaven

By the time I graduated with a MA in Publishing from Anglia Ruskin University I had completed eight internships. When I accepted my first job a few days later, I was told that my CV stood out from other graduate candidates because of my various experiences and transferable skills.

Publishing has always been a competitive industry for entry-level jobs and, even though my university helped me get internships, it was mostly up to me to stand out from other candidates. And volunteering at literary festivals really helped. I met literary agents, publicists, authors, publishers and editors from publishing houses across the country. I made some long-lasting contacts and gained work experience.

The festivals boosted my confidence as they gave a face to the publishing industry and made me more aware of the environment. Since I wasn’t alien to it anymore, I wasn’t afraid to show it while job-hunting and further networking.

Some tips for networking at literary festivals

  • Always remember that the festival is your priority. Don’t overlook the tasks at hand.
  • Do your research. Look up authors (and their publishers) you are assigned to accompany or are likely to meet that day.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk to people. Treat every conversation as a learning experience.
  • Enjoy yourself, but be professional. After all, the festival is a potential employer too.
  • This is a great opportunity to meet people away from the official networking events. Use it.
  • Talk to everyone, not only those whose job you find interesting. You will be surprised by the amazing things the volunteers have been up to!

Zeba Talkhani is a Publishing graduate with experience in bookselling, literary festivals and digitising journals for academic and research databases. She currently works for Out of House Publishing where she oversees productions and editorial services for a list of academic titles. She blogs about books and publishing on Tumblr and tweets at @zebatalk.

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