Virtual Sci-Fi Book Festival Makes Backlist Sexy Again

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Sam Missingham is

Sam Missingham is head of events at HarperCollins UK

Sam Missingham explains how HC UK’s recent “Virtual Sci-fi Festival” leveraged new platforms to connect backlist authors with new readers.

By Sam Missingham

Here are some hard publishing truths as I see them:

  • Readers do not have a discoverability problem – they are very capable of finding their next book
  • Only a tiny percentage of readers has any knowledge of publisher imprints
  • Publishers focus vast amounts of their time promoting and marketing the shiniest new book
  • Most readers do not know who publishes their favorite author

BFIVoyager logo badge 2 (1)At the same time, publishers have an incredibly rich backlist, books from different genres across different imprints all receiving individual attention. Nothing wrong with that, but we’ve been talking about verticals and communities and the like long enough to know that that is ONE of the ways forward, yes?

So, these truths have lead me to create two genre-driven virtual festivals (with more to follow). I’m hoping some of you may have ‘attended’ our Virtual Romance Festival in June and perhaps this weekend you happened upon the #BFIVoyager Virtual Festival organized in collaboration with the British Film Institute (BFI).

First off, the decision to collaborate with the BFI and to time the festival half-way through their Sci-Fi film season gave us maximum kudos and support. The synergies between films and literature need no explanation. From film adaptions of classic Sci-Fi novels (think Dune, The Road, the work of Philip K Dick) to new literary mythologies inspired by film (just look at the huge canon of novels that Star Wars has inspired) – the two mediums have always fed one another.

The festival’s objectives were to explore the intersection between Sci-Fi literature and films and ultimately to engage and excite all kinds of fans.

We had a wonderful festival line-up, featuring Sci-Fi luminaries like Margaret Atwood, David Cronenberg, Jeff VanderMeer as well as new stars like Nick Harkaway, Matt Haig and James Smythe. And authors from our back-list such as Doris Lessing, Ray Bradbury and JG Ballard. At HarperCollins, we are extremely lucky to have an archivist who discovered these particular gems:

Harnessing various online platforms and content such as the above, the festival was a very simple way of reconnecting backlist authors with new readers.

We had an extensive program of blog posts, author Q&As, Twitter interviews, Facebook chats and Google Hangouts over the weekend, with authors from all around the world (crowned by a Twitter chat with the incomparable Margaret Atwood on Sunday). If you’re interested, have a look at the festival program for Saturday and Sunday.

To go back to my original ‘truths,’ what we were trying to do with the BFIVoyager festival was to start with Sci-Fi fans and work backwards. We genuinely started our planning with questions like, what excites Sci-Fi fans? What are the topics they’d like to discuss? Which authors rock their worlds? What are the current topical touchstones (there was, of course, lots of comet landing chat over the weekend)? What is the best experience we can deliver on freely accessible platforms? We know they like films and books, but what else? That’s why we also involved scientists, academics and game developers.

With this thinking, you become very freed up to deliver something bigger than the sum of its parts. So, what did we achieve over the weekend?

  • 50+ Sci-Fi authors involved (from at least 5 different publishers)
  • #BFIvoyager hashtag – number 1 trend on Twitter at various times over the weekend – 11,000 tweets with this hashtag (reaching 83 million Twitter accounts)
  • Thousands registered to ‘attend’ the event
  • Huge traffic to our HarperVoyager website to the amazing blogs and Q&As
  • Direct sales; exclusive festival offer on our website
  • 89% of festival ‘goers’ said they had discovered new Sci-Fi authors/books during the festival
  • We also had fun with a Sci-Fi themed Spotify playlist for people to listen to whilst attending the festival

I guess the learnings are fairly obvious, we are all in the business of putting books into more hands. We don’t buy books from only one publisher, so why would we think our readers do? We can work effectively cross-imprint, cross-publisher, even cross-continents; these are OUR challenges that we don’t need to worry the reader about (and they’re not interested in anyway). As publishers, we are insanely content-rich and have some huge brands to work with (authors = brands) and we need to find new and exciting ways to pull readers to us and keep them engaged enough to stick around.

Sam Missingham is head of events at HarperCollins UK, co-founder of FutureBook and is far too excited about almost everything in publishing.

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