How to organise a literary event – and why it’s easier than you think

Here I tell you all about how to organise a literary event and why it’s easier than you think if you break it down into small steps.

The basics

1. First of all: go to literary events. Sounds obvious but this is how you gain the tacit knowledge you need. Go most of all because you enjoy it and want to support the writers involved. Go to check out the venue and the set up. Go because it’s a good way to meet people.

2. Now go to literary events that are outside your comfort zone: in a new venue, a different kind of writing, a different approach to the topic. How do they do it differently?

3. Use your local library, independent bookshops and community centres – these are good sources of information, getting to know people will help, and they could provide you with a venue.

4. Remember that literary events aren’t only about big festivals and household names. Check out small presses and local festivals. Build your network. Use social media, but don’t forget face to face conversations too.

5. Try it out:

  • Volunteer to help promote an event you like or help m/c (introduce the speakers) after you’ve been going for a while.
  • Enrol on a writing course and volunteer to organise a reading event at the end.
  • Get together with some writing friends and ask to put on an event at your local library.

6. Use the resources already out there. Find your nearest writers’ centre. In the UK, for instance, there are several writing organisations in London. If you’re in the UK but not in London you can still get a lot of information from their webpages. The London Poetry Library website is great for this, for instance. Creative Future in Brighton do a great Pathway Guide for Writers with lots of links to literary organisations in the UK, and you can download it for 99p here.

7. Do some research and compile a list of writing organisations in your part of the world.

8. Know what you want to achieve. Organising an event doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. On the other extreme, literary programming can be a business venture, involving investment and everything else that goes along with setting up a business.

Literary Programming can also be a career path, where you work for a big or small organisation. Getting experience of arts administration will help you if that’s what you’re after.

Write down clearly what you want to achieve and what steps you think you need to get there. Include research or planning.

Research pointers

Develop your own leads depending on the part of the world you’re in. I’ve given you a handful of links that apply to the UK below. There are many more, but your initial research should send you on a bit of a detective trail!

You can find out about literary festivals in the UK here.

In the UK, the Freeword Centre is a great information hub.

If you’re in the North of England, have a look at New Writing North.

In the South of England, check out the New Writing South website.

The Scottish Poetry Library is here.

The Book Trust website is here.

The Scottish Book Trust is here.

Book Trust Cymru is here.

The Arts Council Northern Ireland is here.

Take action

So you’re ready to go? What next?

Meet up with the other people involved. Assign roles, set deadlines. Be as specific as possible.

Meet regularly and check up on those goals. Even if you’re working by yourself, still do this. Meet with yourself regularly.

Event subheadings
All events have general aspects in common. For instance:

  • Planning and project management, incl.
  • Programming and budgeting
  • Venue
  • Audience / Marketing and promotion
  • Catering
  • On the day front of house / stage management
  • Customs and traditions (the structure of the event, things that tend to happen at the literary events you enjoy)
  • Add any other subheadings you need.

These are useful subheadings for planning your literary event. Booking the venue and making a decision about the budget are early stages in the process.

Although you might decide NOT to do one of these things, you still need to make decisions about them. For instance if you decide not to have a physical venue but to hold your event online, you’ve still made a decision about the venue. Also you need a venue from which to ‘broadcast’ or record your event. So event if you don’t want to include one of these you’ve still got to make a decision.

A note about venues

Some pubs in the UK will give you a room for free as long as you guys buy drinks. Some venues will take a share of the money taken on the door in return for the space. Find out how venues in your area operate. Bookshops and libraries are also worth approaching. The alternative end of the spectrum means investing in an elegant venue and a door price that covers your expenses and allows you to make a profit.

Strategic questions
Based on the typical format of readings, festivals and workshops you’ve enjoyed, answer these questions:

  • Why am I putting on this event?
  • Where is my target audience?
  • What kind of writing will I include?
  • How many speakers?
  • How long will each speak and who will chair?
  • Will I approach a publisher to sell books?
  • Who do I know who will read their work?
  • Will I do open mic? How will I organise it? (Open mic allows members of the audience to read their work.)
  • How will I do it differently?

Some of these questions will be easier to answer than others.

Action plan
Assuming you’ve already been to literary events in your area and have built some tacit knowledge, here’s what to do next.

Visit, ring or email three potential venues. Ask specifically about their pricing and booking policy. Note down the questions they ask – these will help you to plan your event.

1. Contact potential readers, being as specific as you can at this point. Get in touch with people you know if this is your first event. Keep their contact details in one place so you can refer to them later.

2. Seven days later write a plan. Working backwards from the approximate date of your event, decide when your key meetings (with yourself or your team) will take place. Decide when your deadlines will be. Thinking about the best literary events you’ve been to, and go through each aspect (For example: Stage: were there lights? A microphone? Front of house: was someone on the door?) and decide how you will do it. Use the event subheadings and strategic questions above and make notes, adapting to fit your niche. Write an action list.

It might seem odd to plan after contacting venues and emailing speakers, but now you’re a week on from those initial enquiries, you should have some additional information that will feed into your planning process.

3. Based on your plan, create a blueprint for success on one piece of paper and add your deadlines.

Happy organising. x

Next up in this series: How to market your poetry reading.

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