Online book festivals come of age

Header image showing the MyVLF virtual festival environment

If we could have a pound for every time someone has commented on how prophetic we were in launching our virtual book festival venue back in April 2019, then we would be sitting on a nice pile of money. MyVLF was already gathering a following around the world, and had won several prestigious awards before the global pandemic and lockdown threw the spotlight on virtual festivals. Having established ourselves and seen the plethora of reactive online events, we would like to share some of our learnings with the rest of the publishing community:

  • Online and Virtual are complementary not a replacement: We launched MyVLF.com because of the cost and difficulty we had in getting to book festivals as readers. We also knew, as authors, that there was a lack of opportunities to find new readers. Our feedback has resoundingly shown that by attending one of our events, people who had never attended a literary festival, now have the courage and enthusiasm to go to in-person events. There are also some who simply could never get there – whether for reasons of disability, income or because they’re a carer etc. – and have relished the opportunity to connect with authors. Plus the use of online technology among those people who would have in the past avoided it, has also increased the audience for virtual events as they realise its potential and ease of use. Online events are definitely here to stay and shouldn’t be seen as a threat.
  • Quality: Treat an online event with as much professionalism as you would a ‘real’ one. This includes ensuring you have the necessary agreements in place with participants, ensuring everyone is fully informed of what is going to happen when, and your interviewer is clued up on their subject. There were many hastily put together lockdown events which served their purpose as a stop-gap emergency measure, but which won’t achieve longevity once the lockdown spirit has moved on. Plus don’t forget the issues of GDPR and data privacy.
  • The method of broadcast: Choose how you share your event carefully. We attended some online events where we were ‘treated’ to the sight of other attendees munching on their dinners or lounging in their PJs. It’s a distraction and not always a pleasant one. Our attendees interact via text and not their own webcams which can otherwise be intrusive.
  • Finding your audience: It goes without saying that you might organise it, but will people come? Your event will need marketing like any other. We have an established community of members that we’ve built up, as many publishers have, but where you choose to broadcast that event is going to make a big difference. For example, Facebook –unless you advertise it – will only be seen by a small percentage of your audience, around 6 to 7%, while YouTube is swamped with video uploads.
  • Technical Tips: We always pre-record. Wifi is too temperamental and there’s nothing worse for a viewer than a poor audio or visual experience. Frame interviewees well, cameras are best at eye level, and don’t sit or stand away from the microphone, sound is very important. Plus don’t be afraid to ‘guide’ the interviewee into the right position. Likewise don’t try to be too clever, there are some unnatural ‘framing’ examples out there with people not looking at cameras which is simply off-putting to viewers who expect a more intimate experience from online interviews and know that people aren’t in the same room together.
  • Software: We built our own bespoke virtual venue space and use Zoom to record interviews as it’s been the most reliable and best quality. There are other services such as Crowdcast which can be used as a standalone.

Virtual events were here before Covid-19 and will be long after. They are an increasingly important part of the book publicity landscape and should be seen as a cost-effective, easy and direct route to readers, as well as being complementary to in-person festivals and other book marketing options. Plus authors love them too because it means less time away from their writing desks; and that is a win-win for readers and publishers alike.

MyVLF.com was launched by authors Gwyn GB, Deborah Carr and Kelly Clayton. It is free for anyone to join and has a monthly book club as well as regular author interviews and panels and a virtual exhibition hall and bookshelf. It was designed to look as much like the real thing as possible.

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