What the public often doesn’t understand about Festival programming

It’s a tricky balance, programming a big literary Festival like Blue Met. On the one hand, people like stars, people like to come and hear writers they know talk about books they’ve read. The media prefer stars, and when we have Festival years with some big names, we get bombarded with media requests.

Franzen: our most requested author.

But we can’t just invite stars. First of all, they’re expensive. I often surprise people who assume that writers come for free (just their expenses covered) in order to promote their books. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. A big US writing star who is a well-known name can easily cost upwards of $30,000, not to mention first class airfare, etc. For one appearance. Yes, it’s true, there are a limited number of those kinds of writers, but these authors represent the standard list of writers we get from people making suggestions. In other words, these are often the writers people recommend to us.

Think about it from the writer’s point of view: their job is to sit in a room alone and think quietly, tapping into a computer. Their job is not to be on stage, not to sign books, not to shake hands with strangers and go to shwanky dinners. It’s a part of it, sure, but the most important part is the first part. So writers need quiet time in their homes to do this. Some love the public aspect of it but big star writers will get dozens, maybe hundreds, of invitations a year. They can’t do them all. And one way to “weed” requests out is to charge for an appearance.

Some writers even charge for an appearance when they have a book to promote. In other words, they don’t even need to tour to sell books.

Yes, connections help but only a bit. I am thinking of a very well known youngerish writer

Carofiglio: not a household name but immensely successful event

who lives on the West Coast of the US. His going rate is $30,000 plus business class airfare from San Francisco (near where he lives). I know someone who knows him and his wife. But what he says is that he has to set his speaking fee at this amount so that he only has to do a few speaking engagements a year. This makes it worth his while, and can spend the rest of his time at home writing. It’s about setting priorities. And for anyone who travels a lot for work: travelling frequently gets really old.

Of course, not all writers costs $30,000 but many cost $10,000 or $15,000. It’s hard to get a big US, Canadian, French or British “star” writer for less than that (though sometimes we get lucky).

What I often hear next from our public is, “Well, Montreal is a place where people love to visit so that should make it easier to get a writer to come.” Yes. But mainly no. When you’re a big name writer and you do 10 literary Festivals in one season, you really don’t care where it is (with a few exceptions). You might be there three or four days, have an event or two each day, but the rest of the time you’re in a hotel room, in airports, in taxis, around strangers. There’s nothing “Montreal” about that kind of experience.

Also, we’re not considered a big market by book publishers. We might fill a room with audience members, but unless we sell books, the publisher doesn’t really care. As a general rule (media attention counts for something, but in the end, it’s about books). That’s why we are always harping on about buying books: if we don’t sell books, publishers are less likely to work with us.

None of this to say that it’s impossible to get big stars. We have a budget but we have to spend it very wisely. Again, it’s about balance. Part of what we do is bring (some) stars but part of what we do is introduce new or lesser known writers to our public. Some of our most talked-about events, in fact, have been with writers that are hardly household names.

I’m often irritated when I see the programming choices of certain big Festivals: star, star, star, star, star. As if that takes any creativity at all. If one’s budget is high enough, of course, it’s easy to just tick off a list of the biggest writers around. But that doesn’t make an interesting literary Festival in my mind. Or perhaps our audience expect more than that. I like to think it’s the sophisticated taste of Montreal readers.

Along with some big names, it’s also about creativity and variety: doing events which are appealing to our audience and don’t cost $20,000 to put on, doing events which appeal to different age groups, different backgrounds, creating discussions which get people thinking. Introducing a new writer to our audience.

It’s like putting together a giant puzzle every April, making sure the pieces fit together, making sure it all comes together to represent a beautiful and colourful picture.