I have been speaking about "A Very Private Celebrity" at first the Blenheim Palace and then the Hay on Wye Winter Literary Festivals. In the UK these are now a big feature of the literary landscape. There are well over 300 festivals every year and they offer the best opportunity for an author to meet the public and sell his book. As I live near Hay on Wye which, remarkably, for the last twenty years has presented the biggest and best literary festival in the world - indeed my daughter used to work for it - I have been an observer of the festival long before I became a participant. I offer these comments.
The UK literary festival is like BBC Radio 4 on location. The public are Radio 4 listeners, that is well informed, thirsty for a good dose of Knowledge, appreciative and polite. In other words an ideal audience. They like celebrities, particularly those they hear on Radio 4. Any celebrity who has written a book and talks about it will find a long queue snaking round the book tent waiting to buy it. Any writer who is not a celebrity would do well to include one in his presentation! For instance, I decided to talk about John Freeman in his role as interviewer for the BBC seminal interview series "Face to Face" so I invited Sue MacGregor, who for years presented Women's Hour and the Today programme on R4, to interview me. This she did and it was probably Sue more than me or John Freeman who pulled in the audience. I also found film of the Face to Face interviews with global celebrities like Carl Jung, Martin Luther King and Tony Hancock and including extracts from these provided something different.
So I took a theme for my talk rather than summarise the book. For an author to summarise 350 pages in 45 minutes is in my experience usually a disaster. The talk is too dense, too unremitting, too boring. Actually, I am surprised how little care many authors take in preparing for a festival. With a captive audience at Hay on a summer's day of 1,000 R4 listeners it should be a duty to entertain them. This is not done by reading extracts from "a work in progress" and then inviting reactions; nor by racing through the book chapter by chapter. On the other hand I have been spell bound at Hay both by a famous writer talking about an aspect of his book or by a 'Celebity' who happens to have written a book talking about himself/herself.
Selling your book should not be the main aim and an author should be realistic. Listening to an entertaining talk before going to a bar is one thing; paying £25 for a hard back you will probably not read (particularly if the author has gutted it in his presentation) is another. Celebrites do sell well because it seems that a signature and personalised message on the fly leaf is an inducement. I am relaxed about this. When my minder (usually a young woman with a degree in Eng Lit) asks 'Have you a smooth - writing felt tip or biro with you for signings?' I smile indulgently, but I don't expect to use it much. Just don't put me at a table next to John le Carre or John Humphries. It's very embarrassing!
I notice that the British Council has a www. for Literary Festivals at home and abroad. I'm not surprised, British books are a healthy export, as are the works of Indian writers, say, in the UK. There's a big literary festival coming up in Jaipur, India, next month (January) inspired by the famous writer on India, Willy Dalrymple. I asked him if I could talk about Freeman and his reply was typical - 'Hugh, there's nothing I would like better than to hear you talk about John Freeman, but I don't think he will play in Rajasthan". He is right of course!