As most of you probably know, Wigtown Book Festival like many others had to transition to the digital space and become an entirely online festival, which has opened the door for an evaluation of processes and presents a whole new set of challenges. Festival Director, Adrian Turpin, spoke with The Fountain about the disembodied online world and trying to create a sense of place with this years Wigtown Book Festival.

TF: How did you find the online event went this year in comparison to the in real person side to Wigtown that we are so used to?

It’s hard to say definitively because like everyone else we haven’t got anything to compare it to. Someone from Edinburgh said to me that you get very nervous beforehand, as you get really terrified that your tech is not going to hold up, it’s not something that you have been doing for ten years, or for twenty years or whatever and you know what all the tech looks like, you are in a completely different set up so that is the first thing that you are kind of worried about I think. We are pretty pleased with it all. When we started the thing that we were absolutely determined about was that Wigtown has always been so defined by it’s people, the fact that it’s a book town, it’s location, the countryside, and we’ve always tried to use all of those things as assets. It makes it feel very much like a unique place. We were determined that we weren’t going to produce a festival that felt like it could be a festival event anywhere or a festival of nowhere, that it had to have that real feeling. I think that was the key thing, I think we did manage to do that. We managed to do that in various ways, we managed to do it by bringing in video. So we had videos of the bookshops, we had videos of the saltmarsh and we had videos of wild swimming and we made sure that between events we got out and about and took little creative pictures of the town and gave a sense of what was going on.

The town felt like itself but not like it would do normally at this time of year. And I think that was probably the thing, the thing I most wanted, aside from the tech not breaking, the audience figures etc, it was that feeling. The Book Festival has always been set up as a let’s bring the world to Wigtown, and obviously if you can’t do that, then you have to ask yourself what are you trying to do with the festival. And I suppose if the thing the festival was only going to be was a placeholder, a kind of festival that said we gotta keep going and show the punters we are doing something, and that was not where we were it, this is the real festival. We were very clear that we didn’t put in any events that were physical because we didn’t want to confuse people about it being a digital festival. But we didn’t speak about it as Wigtown Book Festival Online, we tried to treat it like the Wigtown Book Festival and that requires the things that make it feel like the Wigtown Book Festival and it’s that sense if place. I think that is the thing for me personally that has been satisfying, is that I think we have conveyed that and we’ve conveyed that to some of our existing audience but also to some of those that would never be able to come.

TF: Wigtown is obviously a Bookshop town, with a whole host of Bookshops that get peak business normally at this particular time of year, and Covid has made things very difficult here. Did any of them manage to get themselves online and keep trade that way?

Obviously the bookshops like most other people have had a pretty terrible time this year but they are pretty robust. I think some of them worked during that initial lockdown period to get themselves online. I know Old Bank Books have spent a lot of time on their online presence, we opened an online festival bookshop. We have an actual bookshop as part of the Booksellers Association that we put online as well. What was noticeable in the summer was that when lockdown ended it was actually really quite busy and actually the bookshops did as well as they could have from people holidaying in Scotland. I was in Wigtown in August and I’d never seen it so busy.

So that’s been good but we then felt that it was part of our job this year to kind of really point it out. We made ten two minute videos for the bookshops which are beautifully done, but they are not just for the festival, they are assets now for what can be used all year round, and for the first time really give visitors that are thinking about coming to Wigtown the kind of things they might find in the bookshops. So I think it had knock on benefits for that, and it was a conscious decision to try to think about what the effects of lockdown had been on individuals or audience who couldn’t go to things, or authors who had their books to sell but also on these shops that couldn’t get customers. The previous year the festival generated £4.3 million for the regional economy and most of that is from tourist visits and from spend during the event itself. So we really felt that anything we could do to consciously fill that gap and I think it’s been good. I think with this digital thing for us is that if there have been any silver linings it’s set new hairs running. I think we had a positive response. I hope it’s recalibrated the relationship with booksellers and it’s made us aware of how central they ought to be to what we do. You can’t have a booktown without booksellers. In previous years we have done our crafts and arts and run our crafts and that all went online this year as well. And that message of buying local and buying quality, it all fitted very well to the general book festival message. It definitely wasn’t accidental, it was part of our strategy for this year, and we wanted it mean something rather than being a placeholder.

TF: You touched upon a lot of the challenges with obviously doing it online, did you find that some of the online allowed you to improve upon processes?

Yeah, I think so. People often forget that if you are doing a festival in a pretty rural place that everything becomes a little bit harder. If you are doing a festival in Edinburgh you have hundreds of people that know about stuff on your doorstep so let’s say the person who is going to chair it goes under a bus with a week to go, there is probably an easy replacement at the end of a taxi ride, a lot of academics, a lot of writers. And of course, with all sorts of things, with the choice you have with tech teams or choice you have with anything else, it’s more difficult for us. But luckily we do have good people.

The plus sides were obviously getting people geographically to Wigtown on a certain day at a certain time of the year, slotting time within their schedule is difficult. It is much easier to get someone to turn up for an hour whilst they are sitting at home. There were benefits of access and I think there were some benefits in terms of audience. We have had a lot of people come back and say that they had never been able to come in the past for various reasons whether that was transport, money or looking after relatives but this is the first time they have been able to come. Looking at the statistics of where they are watching from and seeing that it’s a lot higher, the level of international representation obviously than it would normally be the number of people travelling. So obviously that’s the plus side.

With all festivals whether they be book festivals or not, the one thing that is very clear is loads of us who have been running events for several years, you get used to what the metrics are, terms of success are, audience, and even though it can be complicated to work out, you know what you are working out. But with this, what does success look like? As a sector, as a group of festivals, we are all going to have to sit down and really give that some hard though. We can get X thousand of some YouTube views or X thousand Facebook views or whatever but what does it mean? How many of those people are having an intense literary experience? How many of them are going away and buying a book? How many of them have been engaging in a way that you would expect a group of people to engage in a marquee? Those are very practical questions about how you measure that but I think they are almost philosophical questions about what you are trying to do in the first place.

TF: Certainly when it comes to the Children’s programme, engagement is a much bigger issue isn’t it?

I think it is, I think the schools thing is really interesting. Are some of the models that we are using right anyway? With the children’s festival are there going to be enough parents that are going to be bothered to sit down with their children in front of a screen? They might be trying to get their children away from anyway, 11am on a Saturday morning and I think if it’s a once a year thing and the festival comes to town, yeah it’s part of your year. But that’s a disembodied thing of yes, I will put in my diary that Saturday a week away that I will sit down with the children in front of a laptop and watch an author I’ve never heard of. That is a hard sell, really.

Photo courtesy of Colin Hattersley

You can catch up with much of the Wigtown Book Festival 2020 here