How To Survive A Literary Festival

This article was originally published in Red Herrings, the magazine of the CWA 

The festival season is nearly upon us – no, not Glastonbury or the Isle of Wight. I’m talking about Crimefest and Harrogate (and new addition this year, Bloody Scotland). Who wants to stay in a mud-covered tent when you can sip gin and tonic from an elegant sofa (then later, pass out under it)? Last year, when attending festivals as an unpublished author, I’d never been to any before and I didn’t know what to expect. Something sedate, I thought. Cucumber sandwiches, the rustle of pages, polite literary discussion. Instead I then got a crash-course in how to survive over four days of booze, books, and backchat. The state of my liver after both suggests it didn’t quite work. So, as I’m attending this year for the first time as a published author, I thought I would ask some seasoned festival-goers how to get by.

First, I wanted some top tips for doing panels. Everyone was quite relaxed about this. ‘Panels are about entertainment,’ says David Hewson. ‘Have fun and they will.’ Historical writer Emma Darwin says, ‘My job is turning up, on time, prepared, sober, preferably with a smile and a pen. Whether anyone comes is in the Gods’ lap – there are a million different factors, so don’t feel it’s your responsibility.’

SJ Bolton has some other tips: ‘Coordinate clothes with other panel members, and if you see people nodding off, mention sex.’ You should also arrive early – even earlier than you might think you need, to allow for problems, and if possible try to read as many of your fellow panellists as you can. And be prepared to answer questions like ‘who’s your favourite crime writer’, or even non-crime writer. It’ll look bad if you go totally blank and the only writer you can think of is Jordan, for example.

The Society of Authors has some great factsheets on doing events, including invoicing and a guide to charges. You can access some free at and if you’re a member you can also get more in-depth ones (CWA members can currently get 15 months for the price of 12 when joining the SOA).

What if you’re not on a panel, but you want to attend anyway? You can still make yourself and your book known. Take flyers, postcards, or even bookmarks with your book cover on. You could also get business cards printed up. You can also often get your book into the festival bookshop if you call ahead and find out who is providing it – usually it’s a local Waterstones. Just chatting to people can lead to lots of useful contacts too. If they don’t recognise you, there’s always a chance you are that super-famous American writer, you know, the one who wrote that thing on TV. Or a young but very powerful editor at a top publishing house. So they’ll probably be nice to you even if you’re actually not famous at all. If you can wangle a name badge, wear it – it means people are more likely to approach you and say hello.

What to wear at these events? Something smart at least for one night. Flat shoes for all that standing around. For some reason everyone seems to want to linger outside even when it’s chilly. Bring something warm too – if you’re outside at 4 am, it’s going to be cold. If you’re not in the main hotel, consider staying within walking, or stumbling, distance. Those streets can seem very long and dark in the early hours. If you book early enough you can sometimes get very good rates at the conference hotel itself. Crucially, you will also then be able to buy booze after hours and you’ll be everyone’s new best bud.

Sustenance is important, but with a busy schedule of panels and events, it can be hard to fit in. Try to get a room with a fridge, and stock up on snacks. It’s surprisingly easy to miss meals or just forget to eat. Try to remember you do actually have to pay your bar bill at some point. Do not get really drunk on the first day of the conference, and, ‘Never be the last one in the bar’, advises agent Phil Patterson. And on the subject of entertainment, Paul Johnston cautions, ‘Never volunteer for anything – especially if it involves any kind of comedy or acting. Also, never enter a crime quiz unless the people on your team are smartarses.’

And finally, the most important survival rule of all:

What happens at the festival stays at the festival. Casting up of any kind is very bad form. All attendees, please take note. I’ll see you there.

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