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Authors turn performers as readers flock to festivals

Top international authors are attracting crowds the way pop stars do.

Nevil Gibson
Fri, 15 May 2015

Only one thing can beat a good book: seeing the author in person talking about it.

Writers’ festivals have become big business and increasingly have become the main vehicle for selling books.

Book reviews may be seen as a form of advertising that is generously donated as editorial space in magazines and newspapers.

Publishers and booksellers, already faced with declining sales in the age of Amazon and digital downloads, say word-of-mouth recommendations from book clubs are often more effective.

Now, although book publishing has largely avoided the problem of piracy, it has taken one lesson from the music industry. It is aiming to make more from money from turning authors into pop star performers.

The autumn round of writers’ festivals, which started last week in the South Island, now attract big international names, both in fiction and non-fiction, and they pull large paying audiences.

Last year, Dunedin had Alexander McCall Smith, who filled Auckland 2000-seat Aotea Centre, and this year it has Hack Attack author Nick Davies, who also appeared in Christchurch’s WORD Festival this week along with novelists David Mitchell and Xinran.

The organisers of the Auckland Writers Festival, which runs until Sunday, say most sessions featuring the biggest names are already sold out and that ticket sales for paid events are up 30% on last year.

Their fingers are crossed to exceed last year’s 53,500 individual attendees.

Publicist Penny Hartill says the festival provides a complementary experience to reading.

“People aren’t reading less, they are reading differently. A festival provides the stimulation to discover new writers and the buzz of a large crowd is infectious,” she says.

The bookstalls are important, too, as thousands are sold over the weekend and authors make themselves available for signing sessions.

The biggest venue, the Aotea Centre, was booked out for the gala night opening, in which eight speakers delivered a seven-minute true story without a script – a popular format that has worked well in the past.

Most of the one-hour sessions are conversations with questions from the audience at the end. Others are more like formal lectures. Auckland is offering around 100 of these during its festival, with many of those featuring local writers not charging for admission. 

It pays to be a writer with television or film connections. These people, such as David Walliams and Alan Cumming, attract the biggest audiences.

So too do writers in the Nobel, Pulitzer or Man Booker prize ranks, such as Japan’s Haruki Murakimi and Nigerian-born Ben Okri.

There is plenty of deadly serious stuff, too, with scientists, historians and surgeons talking about their latest work, while actress Rebecca Vaughan is performing stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway for those want a more theatrical experience.

Nevil Gibson
Fri, 15 May 2015
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Authors turn performers as readers flock to festivals
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