Recently my friend and colleague, Kim, and I were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to organise a large literary event through work. We had an enormous amount of fun doing this and hope that we delivered an enjoyable afternoon for attendees too (feedback indicates we probably did!). And so, having organised my first literary event, I thought I’d share with you how I organised it, and some tips that I wish someone had given me when Kim and I started planning our event. Before I move on to the tips that I picked up along the way, I’ll first give you a quick overview of the event that we hosted.
Ours was a programme to help celebrate the bicentenary of Charles Dickens and, whilst we ran a series of events, the largest was an afternoon tea accompanied by a couple of short talks by Dickens experts and a small display of Victorian artefacts relating to Dickens, all held in a beautiful hall, with famous paintings hung to all sides. Just over 100 people attended (despite our limit being 100) and we spent a very enjoyable afternoon talking about Dickens’s classic, Oliver Twist, and getting to know each other a little better. We had a wonderful range of attendees; from students to local book groups, and everything in between. This was the first major event that either Kim or I had organised and, whilst we don’t claim to have run it perfectly, hopefully some of our experiences will come in handy for any of you setting out to host a literary event, regardless of the scale.
Our Dickens afternoon tea
Create a Vision
Kim and I were given the roughest of briefs for our event and left to more or less shape it as we saw fit. This was an incredible luxury, and we were very lucky, but it also meant that we had to be very firm in our own minds about what the sort of event that we wanted to run. To me, starting with a very strong vision is hugely important; it gives you something to work towards, an end goal to have in mind when you hit difficulties or have decisions to make. More importantly though, it is incredibly motivational, and motivation can be a big thing when you’re trying to pull together a lot of different strands.
My best tip for creating a vision is to think big. You can always scale plans back later, but start with a big, rich vision of the event you want to run. Imagine it vividly, what it looks like and how it feels to have achieved it. This is a technique used to help achieve goals in all sorts of fields, and it works brilliantly if you commit to your vision. Kim and I thought big – beyond the boundaries of what was expected of us – and we worked relentlessly towards this goal. It’s amazing how much falls into place when you have a resolute mind and a clear vision.
Establish a Budget
After creating a vision for your event you need to start working out the details, and how you are going to go about achieving them. Before you take action though, you need to establish a relatively detailed budget. Money doesn’t need to be a limit on your ambition, but for planning your approach to organising the event you’ll need to know how much you can afford to spend, and on what.
If you have a pre-determined budget, great. If not, you need to work out how much you are going to be able to allocate, raise from ticket sales, or generally beg for the project. The most sensible approach is to decide upon a ball-park figure and then itemise this. Once you have this you will be able to go about trying to raise the capital with an informed plan.
Whether you have an accurate budget or a ball-park figure, you need to break this down into individual spends. Every event is different, so you need to think yours through carefully, and work out all of the things you will potentially need to spend money on. For most events the key expenses will be on; the venue, catering, licensing, marketing, and speakers fees, usually in that order, although you may be able to strike a deal to limit some of these costs or negate them enirely. It is also a good idea to include a contingency of 5-10% to allow for the unexpected expenses, which inevitably crop up.
Once you have your forecast budget, you need to make sure you have your hands on the cash to fund it before you do anything else. This means speaking to whoever is funding the event, raising the money, or simply setting money aside to use before income from ticket sales come in. In any case, it’s good practice to have the money to cover your budget sitting in a bank account, to which you have access, before you start committing to things financially.
Book a Venue
The venue is very often the biggest expense when running an event. Certainly there are spaces that can be used for low fees or even for free, but most suitable venues will come with a charge.
Hopefully your vision will give you a good idea of the type of venue you will need to accommodate your plans, but it’s important to think about when you’ll need the venue and for how long, how many people you expect to attend your event, where they will be travelling from, and any special requirements you will have (e.g. catering, projection/IT facilities, accessibility, etc.). Make a list of your requirements and your venue budget and then search for venues that meet those requirements.
It’s a good idea to have a shortlist of potential venues, and to get a quote from each of these for comparison purposes: the more information you have the better! When you speak to the renters of each venue space make sure you have a list of questions to hand that covers all your requirements. If a venue can’t meet some of them, don’t be afraid to ask for a discount to compensate for this fact.
When you’ve got quotes from all of your shortlist, compare the facilities they can provide and consider the cost of each venue relative to their suitability for your event. In most cases you’ll be able to find a venue that can accommodate all of your needs at a reasonable price, and most venues will be happy to negotiate if they know you have spoken to local competitors.
Nb. It’s important to get the venue booked in as early as possible. Kim and I made a lot of plans on the assumption that we would be able to book our venue for a particular date, only to find that it wasn’t available when we wanted it – or for several weeks either side of our date! This led to some quick rearrangements, and luckily we were able to move forward without any major alterations. But be careful – venues should be booked 3-6 months in advance in most cases, although this does vary, so speak to your target venues as early as possible and find out what their calendars are like.
Most literary events feature authors or speakers in some capacity, and it’s these that will normally determine interest from potential attendees. With that in mind, it’s important to think about your intended audience and who is likely to appeal to them.
When you have a good idea of the type of authors or speakers that you want to approach, and exactly what you’ll be asking them to do, then you need to make a long-list of potential targets for consideration. From this long-list you will want to draw up a short-list of prime targets having considered the merits of your list. It’s often best to get a range of opinions on potential authors/speakers, as what appeals to you might not appeal to someone else.
Once you have a short-list of targets you should approach them (or their representatives) one at a time to check their availability. When you make contact, it’s important to outline exactly what will be required of the author/speaker (topics of discussion, length of talk, etc.) and what recompense they can expect (authors will often attend events free provided they are able to promote their latest book). If you are willing to negotiate on pay/perks then make this clear. Equally, be clear on your policy about self-promotion during the event (is it acceptable for the author to bring copies of their book to sell, etc.?).
Work through your list until you have the desired number of authors/speakers, but even then make sure to keep your list and have in mind contingency plans in case any of the authors/speakers that you have booked drop out nearer the time of your event (sadly this does happen, and can be incredibly disruptive if you’re not prepared).
This is the point that will really make or break your event. The key to running a successful literary event is making sure that the right people know about it, and that they attend!
You can never start the marketing too early. Once you have the date, venue, and authors/speakers booked in you need to start marketing immediately. From previous points you should have a good idea of the type of people you expect to attend your event, so you need to think about the consumer behaviours of those type of people and where they can be reached.
As a rough, and all-encompassing guide, you want to run a social media campaign on Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media sites that are relevant to your niche audience. This should include creating an event page on Facebook that allows users to stay up-to-date with the event and spread the word to others, and also allows you to build a mailing list quickly and easily. You also want to have a Twitter account that will tweet updates about the event, preferably using a hashtag you have designated specifically for the event.
It’s also a good idea to set up a blog that has details about booking a ticket for the event, and allows you to post regular updates about the authors/speakers and how the preparations are developing. This gives you a place on the web for people to discover via search engines, and which will hold all the relevant information for potential attendees, as well as links to pages of interest (including author/speaker websites, details of the venue and how to get there, etc.).
In terms of print media, leaflets are an excellent, all-purpose way to advertise. These can be left at bookshops, libraries, and local tourism centres. For larger events, they can also be distributed with publications (newspapers, magazines, etc.) or direct by distribution companies. In many cases it’s also worth running adverts in local newspapers and trade publications. This is often a cheap way to reach a geographical or niche audience. Posters can be used in a very similar way to leaflets, although there tends to be less distribution channels.
As a side note on print marketing, it’s always a good idea to link back to one of your webpages, normally your blog or Facebook page. Beyond simply listing your web address you might want to consider using a QR code to link to your webpage.
You need to keep a close eye on the success of your marketing, and any metrics you can collect will help with this. If ticket sales are slow, or you notice that some advertising channels are proving less successful than you had hoped, it might be time to refocus your campaign. You might want to change the channels through which you are advertising, or rebrand your material to appeal to a different niche, or even to appeal more successfully to your chosen niche. If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to check out how comparable events are advertised, or how your niche audience are reached by companies/promoters.
With everything in place, bookings (hopefully) flooding in, and the date of your event rapidly approaching, the final thing you need to do is have a plan of action for the day, or days leading up to your event.
The best way to do this is to write a breakdown of all the tasks that will need to happen during preparation for the event and the event itself (no matter how small) and who is responsible for them. You can then use this information to create a timeline and running order for your event and the preparation, which you can use on the day to check that everything is in hand and that all the things that should have taken place, have. You will want to have a physical copy of this on the day, and also a list of key contact details in case you need to get in touch with anyone whilst at the venue or on the move.
Meet with, or contact all the key stakeholders, including authors/speakers, in the week running up to your event to discuss the plan and make sure they are fully aware of what they need to do, and when. Provided everyone has all the information everything should run smoothly, however, unexpected problems always crop up. The best way to avoid these or negate their effect, other than fully briefing your team, is to plan for worst case scenarios. Before the event, sit down and think of all the things that could go wrong and how you’ll respond if they do. For example, if an author/speaker doesn’t turn up, how will you fill the time? If the catering is late, how will you rearrange the running order? And so on. This is planning in the extreme, but the more preparation you’ve done before the day, the more smoothly your event will run on it.
The other thing to prepare before the event is any materials that your audience might need. In our case, Kim and I had some handouts, discussion questions, and feedback forms to prepare, and most events will have some form of printed material that they will circulate. A lot of people will leave this to the last minute, thinking of these things as almost inconsequential. Try to be the exception, plan your materials well in advance and have them designed, printed and ready to go about a week before your event (any further in advance and you run the risk of late alterations costing you money). On the day, it’s the small touches that can really make your event special, so do the little things exceptionally.
Having spent a lot of time and energy putting together your perfect event make sure you leave yourself enough time and space on the day to enjoy it and share the experience with your attendees. If you’ve planned heavily in advance and delegated sensibly, you should be able to stay on top of things without micro-managing and spending the whole event worrying about the finer details.
Literary events are a fantastic way to share your passion with others – make sure you create that special atmosphere and then dive in and enjoy it.
If you’d like to know more about how I set about organising literary events, I’d be more than happy to share my expertise. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me about your event.
I’m also planning to write further articles on this topic, so if there are any areas discussed, which you’d like expanded on, do let me know in the comments below.