How to organise a DIY Women’s Literature Festival

How to organise a DIY Women’s Literature Festival
In March, Bristol Women’s Literature Festival organiser Sian Norris pulled off a pretty mind-blowing feat.

For her DIY festival she got massive names (Helen Dunmore, Bidisha, Beatrice Hitchman, Stella Duffy and Selma Dabbagh), loads of hype, fantastic turn out, and hundreds of people talking about women’s literature – all under her own steam.

At For Books’ Sake we were gobsmacked at the way she managed the whole thing from conception to come-down. When we asked her how the hell she did it (without eating her own hair) she responded with this brilliant how-to guide for organising DIY feminist festivals:

Set your aims

Whenever organising any event it’s important to make sure you have a clear set of aims that you can plot your event against. These aims will help you to define why your festival needs to exist.

You will always be asked to explain why you have all women line-ups. By being sure of what your festival aims to achieve, you can quickly and concisely justify this decision.

In my case, I had three clear aims:

1. To celebrate the diversity and creativity of women writers
2. To counter the male dominance of literature and cultural festival line-ups
3. To promote women’s writing and literary history

Pick your venue

Accessibility needs to be your buzzword when organising any feminist cultural event. You will be surprised at how many public spaces do not have level access, or a disabled toilet.

However, as feminist organisers, it is vital that your venue is open to everyone and no one is excluded. It’s likely that you will have to pay to hire a venue that meets these requirements.

It’s a good idea to pick a venue that shares your aims and values. This makes the whole process a lot easier as you’ll be working towards shared aims.

Planning your programme

What does literature mean? What do women write about? The answers to these questions are endless so there are two routes you can take when organising a women’s literature festival.

The first is to focus it on one area of women’s writing and centre your events on that specific issue.

The second – and the one I went for – is to try and cover a range of writing types and literary themes, opening the festival up to a wide audience.

Most importantly of all, make sure the events you put on are ones you would want to go to. After all, if it’s not interesting to you, how are you going to sell it to ticket buyers and to the speakers themselves? If you are passionate about each event it will make a real difference.

Inviting your speakers

I already had a relationship with a few of my speakers through feminist activism and writing, so that gave me a really strong starting point.

Of course, I can’t advise you who to invite – that’s a very personal decision. But the following tips helped me approach authors to take part:

Can you contact the writer directly? Twitter was invaluable in helping me reach out to writers.
Do you know someone who knows someone who knows someone who can put you in touch with your potential speaker?
If you can’t make direct contact to the writer, go to their publicist or agent.
Send a carefully planned email that includes your aims, the programme plan, the venue and your credentials. Sell yourself – make your event sound like something they would be foolish to miss.

These are my two golden rules:

Never be afraid to ask. You might think your dream speaker is too famous, too big, too busy to be part of your festival. But what if you’re wrong? You will never know unless you ask.

If you ask and you don’t get a reply – move on. Don’t keep emailing or tweeting them. If they’re too busy or not around, repeated asks aren’t going to change that.

One final point – it was important to me to have a diverse panel of women. This is definitely something to consider when organising your programme.

Press and publicity

A good venue will help you publicise your event. However you will need to do some press yourself.

I sent a:

Press release three months in advance with an overview of the event
Full press release a month in advance with more specific details
A ‘two weeks to go!’ press release.

These went out to a good mix of local and national press. Again, don’t be disheartened if the TLS don’t give you a double page spread – just keep moving forward and make the most of what publicity you have.

Social media is the easiest and most accessible way to build buzz around your event. A WordPress or Blogspot site is so easy to manage (if I can do it…) and creates a hub for all your festival activity.

But also tweet, Facebook and blog everything you’re doing. If your speakers are online get them writing and tweeting too and if they have a new book etc. then blog about it. Keep the conversation happening, keep the momentum up. It will help.

As you start to publicise your event, people will criticise and you will be asked difficult questions about why you’re doing a women’s event, and the classic ‘when is the men’s literature festival’.

This is why it is so important to have your clear aims – they will help you explain why you are doing what you are doing. Don’t get into pointless, long, trolling arguments – tell them your aims, share some good stats and move on.

Finally – team up with other organisations that share your aims and values. For Books’ Sake helped me so much with the festival – after all, we are both trying to raise the profile of women’s writing.

I had help from a lot of like-minded organisations and individuals – including Foyles, Bristol Festival of Ideas and my venue, Watershed. Remember, it’s always OK to ask for help.

Good luck!