Digital Distinctiveness
by Lyndsey Fineran

Lyndsey Fineran, Literature Festival Programme and Commissions Manager at Cheltenham Festivals, opens our series of commissioned think pieces for the International Literature Showcase and explores the crucial question of digital programming: how to retain the distinct identity and local connections that make your festival unique?

Commissioned for the International Literature Showcase.

The most immediate (and necessary) element of innovation in our sector was of course how to pivot literary events online – with festivals such as Cúirt and Hay being early stellar examples of how to deliver high quality online literature content. For those festivals later in the calendar, where programming was still a work in progress or where a longer lead time offered the potential to plan for different models i.e. hybrid, the conversation evolved from not just how to adapt your model but bigger questions around your identity, purpose and raison d’etre of your festival. 

We were all hugely excited by the possibilities of digital in the beginning – and understandably so. Suddenly you could feasibly reach audiences anywhere in the world and showcase any author from across the globe with the usual logistical hurdles of expensive flight costs, ability to travel or a busy overseas teaching schedule removed. That is before you get into the various access barriers around cost, geography and accessibility that digital events went some way to dismantling. 

The challenge, as many of us quickly discovered, is how do you keep your festival and its offerings distinct in a crowded digital space. The UK calendar alone is bursting with literature festivals (I remember reading that there are now over 350, enough that you could almost attend one for every day of the year, should you wish). Usually they exist in a friendly eco-system, separated by time and geography but remove those dividers, add in the cohort of digital events being ran by book shops, writers’ centres and publishers and the network of international festivals now open to UK booklovers via their online programmes, and you’ve a busy old space.

what makes you distinct as a festival and how do you innovate within that? 

The question – and one I look forward to hearing colleagues discuss further at the ILS – quickly became: what makes you distinct as a festival and how do you innovate within that? 

The conversations I’ve had with colleagues across the sector on this topic have been fascinating. I know that one of the excellent Scottish festivals, for whom its distinct location and community is a key part of its identity, worked creatively to communicate this through films set in its famous bookshops. I know of festivals on the other side of the globe who have vibrant indigenous and local writer communities that used the pause in international travel to create enhanced programming strands celebrating their homegrown talent, with hugely successful results. When producing our hybrid edition of Cheltenham in October 2020 it was about communicating a sense of place and providing live events to our loyal local audiences (we are the world’s oldest literature festival and have been at the heart of the town since 1949) while developing digital capabilities to ensure our programming remained diverse, accessible and world-class. 

As some normality resumes in the UK, and full in-person festivals return, we are thinking hard about how we continue to innovate and what role these new digital capabilities play within the physical festival offer – and indeed we are devising a 3-year ‘Read the World’ programme strategy around it. 

From ways to bring fresh voices into dialogue with Cheltenham favourites, invite truly global perspectives on key issues facing us and to enable dynamic collaboration within the international network of literature festivals that can trace its roots to Cheltenham – the potential to create a festival that’s rooted in The Cotswolds, but global in outlook is huge. 

There are many challenges ahead, I’m sure, but the innovation, creativity and adaptability shown by colleagues across this sector over the past year has been remarkable.

Originally from the North East and now Bristol based, Lyndsey is the Programme & Commissions Manager for Cheltenham Literature Festival – the oldest, and one of the largest, book festivals in the world. In her time with the Festival she’s been responsible for building a live literature programme, talent development, commissions and international partnerships and helped to deliver a pioneering hybrid edition of the 2020 Festival that won ‘Event of the Year’ at The Bookseller’s FutureBook Awards. She holds degrees in Literature from Durham and St Andrews Universities, is on the board of the British Arts Festivals Association, chairs events and is a Society of Young Publishers Mentor. In 2019 she was selected for The Bookseller’s Rising Stars programme, which identifies and champions the future leaders of the book trade.

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