How To

How to Get the Most from Your Literary Festival Experience

Bronwyn Averett

Staff Writer

Bronwyn Averett holds a PhD in French literature, and as a certified book doctor she advises consuming a wide variety of texts. Literary loves include contemporary African and Caribbean fiction, gigantic novels of the 19th century, short stories by Mavis Gallant, and 90's YA. She writes about reading at Follow her on Twitter @indirectlibre.

What’s not to love about a good literary festival? They are filled with books, people who write books, people who read books, discussion, inspiration, and usually wine. My local literary festival (Montreal’s totally amazing Blue Metropolis – happened last week!) is a bit like Christmas, in that I get very festive feeling and buy too many books for myself. But instead of being snowed in with relatives, it’s a springtime party with folks like Valéria Luiselli, Anne Carson, Thomas King, and Abdourahman Waberi, to name just a few from this year’s line-up. (So, okay, not very much like Christmas at all, but certainly as exciting.)

After living in several cities and regularly attending several literary festivals – and after stumbling through the first few – I have devised some tips and tricks for creating a fabulous and foolproof festival experience.

Plan. Plan. Plan. Particularly if you are not shelling out for one of those magical, golden ticket, free-range festival passes, it’s important to pick and choose your events and map them out. I used to wait until the last minute, to see what I might be interested in that day, but I missed out on so much! Pick a few must-see events, get tickets in advance, and have a list of maybes ready to go.

Maps. Related to my previous point, please map out where you are going. I know from attending and especially from volunteering at a ticket counter, that it is very sad to miss a talk or a reading that you really wanted to see because it turned out to be across town. Furthermore, if you’re in a town you do not know very well, what looks like a couple of blocks might actually be a couple of miles.

Apps. Also, get the app! This is a new thing. Festivals have apps – either of their own making, or through a program like Guidebook. They are incredibly useful and they save trees!

Read the media and buzz about the program. We all have our own particular tastes, so choosing from a list of names you may or may not know doesn’t always yield the best results. Check social media. Read past reviews. Ask your friends who they recommend. I have missed a lot of cool things by relying solely upon myself for guidance. Don’t do that.

But…ignore the media and buzz about the program a little. Because some of the coolest events you’ll see may have attracted no attention whatsoever. Follow your gut and you may discover your new favorite writer.

Volunteer!!! I cannot say this enough. Volunteer your time. Most literary festivals are run on limited funds that took hours upon hours of hard work to raise. So they need folks to do everything from greeting patrons to setting up tables to ushering authors around. The bonus for you is often free admission to events! Which is great if you are running on limited funds yourself. It’s also a great way to meet other book lovers and members of the literary community.

Don’t be afraid to say hello. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen a writer whose work I admire sitting alone quietly, sipping a cup of coffee, and wanted to walk over and say “I so loved your book,” but was too afraid, only to find out later from absolutely everyone what a friendly person she is. It’s the worst, later, hearing, “Oh her! She was lovely. We had such a nice chat.” The worst. I have found that, for the most part, writers at literary festivals (especially if they are not über famous) are usually jazzed that people are reading their work.

My tried and true ice breaker?” I think that in a parallel universe you and I are best friends.” “Welcome to XYZ city! I’m so glad you came for the festival. Your work has really meant something to me and I enjoyed/am looking forward to your talk.” Really. I have written that on the palm of my hand more than once. (Clearly I did not become a book person because of my natural social grace. Guess what. None of us did.)

Now, if you would like to put these skills into practice, I suggest attending the second annual Book Riot Live in NYC! We’ll see you there November 12-13. Tickets are on sale now.