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We have all had to make the switch to digital this past year and we couldn’t have hosted a digital conference without talking about how the publishing industry adapted to a new format and the successes and challenges that were faced. Ain Bensenouci, Partnerships & Events Manager at PRH, chaired the event and was joined by Nyla Ahmad, Reading Communities Manager at Scottish Book Trust; Nick Barley, Director of Edinburgh International Book Festival; Lyndsey Fineran, Programme & Commissions Manager of Cheltenham Literature Festival; Ann Landmann, Sales Representative at Birlinn Ltd; and Georgina Moore, Director of Books & Publishing at Midas PR.

To begin, the panellists were asked how they had handled the shift to digital and the main challenges that held. The first hurdle for most seemed to be the decision on whether to cancel or to try and provide something digitally and to have to create a whole new programme or campaign from scratch. Not all teams had the infrastructure to be immediately able to make the shift, and they all found themselves having to pick up new skills to accomplish this.

In many cases, some events had already taken place, so at least there were some examples of what other publishers and book festivals had managed to create in a digital space, and there was a real sense of collaboration in the industry. Nick made a great point, 'It’s been an extraordinary year of innovation and of hard work', that these events were not just about selling books, it’s learning how to present ideas online, to create discussion and to make people feel as included in that discussion as they would in-person. All of the panellists agreed that it has been a fascinating journey, with an amazing amount of creativity shown across the board.

The lessons learnt from these experiences were extensive; accessibility and audience expansion were the most highlighted. Being online has opened up these events for those that have never been able to attend due to illness, disability, or mental health reasons. Events were also accessible to audiences and authors who wouldn’t be able to attend in person because of geographical location; they didn’t have to worry about conflicting schedules or travel time and expense. However, Nyla mentioned that she was very aware of the digital-access gap and having to be conscious of whether books, reading and writing are still available to everyone.

There was surprise in the panel that there was still such a strong sense of community at these events, at the quality of the engagement and the intimacy of the digital format, that even with connectivity issues and a lack of immediate audience feedback for speakers, they still had fun with the process. Another revelation was the appetite for catch-up options so that audiences didn’t have to be selective about what they wanted to see and were in fact more open to trying new events that they might not have before.

When asked about their expectations of future events, all were keen to continue the hybrid version, knowing people still want the in-person experience but continuing to be that bit more accessible, although it was acknowledged that it is not as simple as it may sound. Georgina made an excellent point in reminding us that virtual events are just as draining for the authors or speakers as live events are, as they have to give an awful lot often in quite an isolated setting. Ann brought up a very good point that not everyone will have the budget, a big enough team or team members with all the right skills to be able to successfully continue with a hybrid-events calendar, and that for smaller, more community-based publishers and festivals, it will most likely remain more geared towards in-person events. Lyndsey mentioned that the noticeable difference will be as things open up a little more, it will not be feasible to host a full programme with full capacity and stream everything as well. They have to decide what gets streamed and made available on catch-up, and consider what content will provide a diverse and accessible experience.

To close this very insightful session, the panellists were asked what their tips would be for anyone looking to run book or publishing related events. And the answers were really helpful:

Finding something that excited you is important, you need to be enthusiastic about it.

Ask yourself the question: 'Who gets to enjoy this?' and think about eradicating barriers when you consider your audience

Collaboration is a powerful tool – don’t be afraid to ask people for their advice and learn from other people’s mistakes.

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