Alex Fane: Staging Authors in Australia, New Zealand and the UK

In News by Porter Anderson1 Comment

As tickets go on sale today for Margaret Atwood’s tour in Australia and New Zealand, Alex Fane speaks at FutureBook Live in London about staging—and paying—authors.

Alex Fane with Margaret Atwood. In September, he broadcast his production of her ‘The Testaments’ live stage appearance from London’s National Theatre to some 1,500 cinemas on five continents, selling an estimated 80,000 tickets. Image: Fane Productions

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘There Are Other Ways of Doing It’
At the 2019 FutureBook Live conference 10th anniversary edition at 9 a.m. Monday (November 25), more than 20 themed panels and masterclasses will be seen between the opening and closing keynotes, divided in to four tracks:

  • Hook the Readers sessions (purple on conference guides)
  • Take Smarter Risks sessions (navy)
  • Seize the Agenda sessions (pink)
  • Hack the Process sessions (blue)

High points among the panels include Faber’s Stephen Page and the Booker Foundation’s Gaby Wood talking with others on the issue of “getting books back to the top of the cultural agenda” (Seize the Agenda track). And HarperCollins’ Kate Elton and colleagues will be speaking about publishing globally (Take Smarter Risks track).

And a session at 2:55 p.m. in the purple-coded Hook the Readers track—”Event Horizon: Finding the Money in Live Events,” chaired by Miriam Robinson—will introduce the executive behind the head-turning, high-concept live author events of Fane Productions.

This is an instance of The Bookseller editor Philip Jones’ deft touch in programming personalities from outside the industry to break open new perspectives on old issues.

Alex Fane tells Publishing Perspectives that when he produced an evening in September with Margaret Atwood from London’s National Theater coinciding with the release of her Booker-winning new The Testaments (Chatto & Windus, September), “We think we had about 80,000 people” in the audience, thanks to a closed-circuit feed of the event to some 1,500 cinemas on five continents.

“It was also,” he says with characteristic candor, “the most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

For all its stress, so successful was the event that as Fane opens up the Australian and New Zealand markets, he’ll do the program again, a three-week tour with Atwood, taking her from Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre on February 10 to Perth’s Riverside Theatre on March 1 in nine stops, the tickets for which go on sale today. (Information and ticket bookings can be found here.)

The name is Fane, not fame, and managing director Fane’s company will reach its third anniversary as Atwood goes onstage in February. He has sold more than a half-million tickets to his young company’s events so far. And those events are primarily that “conversation with” entertainment that drew such a huge international audience for Atwood in September.

Fane and his team, now growing as the Australian and New Zealand operations come online, use venues including London’s West End theaters on their dark nights to mount events that target story-ready audiences accustomed to being at these venues.

This is an arts-friendly segment of the population that doesn’t mind the gap opening up in the digital era between page and stage. For them, the spoken word and the visual stimuli of a proscenium arch are a logical fit.

Fane originally looked at some of London’s major theaters and found, he says, “They were just being used for tribute shows but not much else. And there was a very hungry audience. These are the people who want to be in the room. They want to be listening to that favorite author or favorite podcaster or a chef talking about that favorite chapter in the book.”

Even if this is an association of “nearby” arts and entertainments, he reasoned, the performance crowd may not yet be buyers of the books in question.

“This was a way of accessing an audience that wasn’t already tapped into a book,” he says, “And it was a matter of saying to publishing, ‘The event you’d usually do might be selling a book to an audience that already had bought it,'” while what he can offer is people—by the theaterful—who can be drawn to the appeal of literature.

‘We Had a Lot To Learn: The Priorities’

Julie Andrews at Royal Festival Hall. Image: Fane Productions, Danny Kaan

Fane is an entrepreneur who in his late teens managed Crazy Coqs Cabaret and Jazz Club before opening his own Fane Management Ltd. for musicians with a list including Leroy Jones and Judy Carmichael.

It was in that 2014-2015 period of management that he started consulting with Cameron Mackintosh’s Delfont Mackintosh Theatres, developing projects including “After Show Jazz in the Delfont Room.”

His creation of “The West End Weekend” is about to have an updated and expanded echo in his all-new offering, Words Weekend, a literary festival in an urban venue that brings together authors of importance and charisma but not yet at the blockbuster level of an Atwood.

The Words Weekend series opens December 6 through 8 at Sage Gateshead with 60 events—40 percent of them free of charge—in five venues and featuring Atwood’s co-Booker winner this year Bernadine Evaristo, plus Nadiya Hussain, Kid Normal with Greg James and Chris Smith, Marian Keyes with Laura Jane Williams, Elif Shafak, Tracy Chevalier, a focus session on Galley Beggar Press, sessions for poets, and even a set from Deaf by Disco, the DJ couple, with British Sign Language interpretation.

Plans for more Words Weekend festivals are set for The Lowry at Salford, March 27 through 29, and a Regents Park event coming next year, as well.

And so what you see him doing now is bringing the kind of top-talent production skills he knows from the music industry: when United Agents acquired Fane Management four years ago, Fane went over to United as its head of music, and was there for a year and a half before forming his own Fane Productions.

‘Ways To Bring It Together’

Matt Haig In Fane’s September National Theatre ‘Authors Onstage’ event, Image: Fane Productions

In addition to Atwood, Fane’s team has produced events with John le Carré, Michael Legrand, Judi Dench, Dolly Alderton, Julie Andrews, Sir Michael Morpurgo, Jojo Moyes, William Boyd, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Stacey Dooley, Nigella Lawson, Grayson Perry, working in association on various programs with the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, actress Kathleen Turner and others.

And if you’re wondering how a music-management ace like Fane can so comfortably make the transition into producing events for top literary personalities, the answer is not entirely easily. Fane is the kind of business personality who isn’t afraid to say that.

“That’s why so many good names came to Fane Productions straight away. They were like, ‘I’ve done 30 years of festivals and never been paid.'”Alex Fane

“We had a lot to learn,” he says. “We had a number of big authors come onboard straight away,” but there were steep, quick learning curves to handle about what he terms “the priorities” of the international publishing world: “Selling books, keeping booksellers happy, and a publisher’s campaign” all had to be taken into consideration and coordinated.

Today, Fane says, he and his team are much more conversant in the needs of publishing and its players. “We’re able to work together and really help an author. You might look at a poster now,” he says, “and the book jacket is there, the bookseller [for the event] will have been chosen by the publisher, all of the press will have been done for the book and the tour at the same time. So there are ways to bring it together, and the publishers now are very receptive to that.”

What authors will be cheered to know is that a Fane contract pays its writer as what the entertainment industry calls “the talent.” This is not train fare and a hot lunch for appearing free in a book fair 125 miles from home. And part of that comes from the fact that Fane knows what the right author brings to one of his events.

“It’s how they communicate,” he says, that counts when the time comes for a live audience to encounter a beloved writer.  “And that could be through social media, it could be through a podcast, or a radio show or TV program happening at the same time.”

In fact, he says, “What we’re finding now is that niche crowds” can be among Fane’s most successful draws, not least thanks to author outreach to them.

Agents: ‘They Tend To See the Bigger Picture’

At FutureBook Live, Alex Fane talks about production values in his company’s stage shows with authors. With him are Penguin Connect’s Jonathan Phillips and Waterstones’ Rosie Beaumont-Thomas. Image: Porter Anderson

If anything, Fane says, the literary agents were the first in the publishing community to see the value of his approach, “because they tend to see the bigger picture,” he says.

“And I think that’s what’s really important to reiterate here,” he says, speaking with an impresario’s understanding of building a following.

The first flush of an author’s release, Fane reasons, may not be the moment to fire all the cannons on a marketing team’s deck. Patience is important. “If you actually can extend a live event for an author across a number of weeks, you can keep them in the bestseller charts for those weeks, too, and you can develop an audience that’s going to buy more over time.”

He uses the example of Dolly Alderton (Everything I Know About Love, Penguin, February) who “did her first show with us in a 300-seat venue. And we did a show pretty much every week for 10 weeks. And after that, we ended up selling out the Palladium in an hour and a half for her. And that’s a 2,500-seat house.”

And you hear that same wisdom—not always common in a 20-something’s skill set—when it comes to the American market. Australia, yes, and Fane has recently placed Peter Richardson of the Bentley Restaurant Group in charge of his new Australian operation. Their connection goes back to Fane’s Corbin & King years at Crazy Coqs when Richardson was a manager there.

Ask him about the States and he won’t deny that he’s got his eye on the potential there but it’s not yet the moment to dive head-first into that deep pool.

“I think there’s a lot of work to be done in the UK market,” he says, “and how the publishers and authors see these events, a lot of education that we need to do about what we’re doing and why it has to be done. And I think there’s a conversation that just needs to be had in general about fees because the reason we’ve got so many authors is that we’re paying them properly. And that’s why so many good names came straight away. They were like, ‘I’ve done 30 years of festivals and never been paid.’

“But the next step for us is to find more ways to communicate with our audience.”

This is what the Words Weekend series Fane is kicking off in December is about. It not only will field a strong brace of talent in an immersive format based on good access to fine writers and complementary events for literary-appreciative audiences, but it will also show Fane new elements of outreach and leverage he can offer to his authors and publishers in a different format from the big-name blowout events that work for one sector of author and audience but not for all.

He’s going into the new format without sponsors, without advertising, he says, with many events free and with authors being properly paid, and with sign language for hearing-impaired attendees.

“It’s probably completely mad,” Fane says, “And I might lose a lot of money, but it’s trying to say that something can be both commercial and attractive to audiences but also have amazing outreach projects. That doesn’t have to go hand-in-hand with a festival that’s charitable” in its business model.

‘I Really Want To Listen’

Podcaster and memoir author Elizabeth Day in the London Literature Festival. Image: Fane Productions

Fane is looking for the commercial way to produce live events in publishing and nourish literature and its consumers without resorting to a nonprofit framework.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” he says, “because we don’t want to be seen as attacking any of these festivals or [belittling] the way things have been done. But I do thin this is important. And that’s why I’m going and doing this on Monday,” when he joins the panel at FutureBook Live.

“If you can extend a live event for an author across a number of weeks, you can keep them in the bestseller charts for those weeks, too, and develop an audience that’s going to buy more over time.”Alex Fane

“I think we need to speak about why we do these things and about how we do have booksellers at our events.”

What Fane is doing, he asserts, is good for publishing, good for authors, good for readers, just as a traditional festival approach is.

“It’s just that I think there are other ways of doing it.”

And as Fane talks with the FutureBook audience in London on Monday—and those tickets are going on sale for Atwood in New Zealand and Australia for the spring tour—you’re reminded that even a young man can be surprised at what’s been accomplished so far.

“We’ve done just over 3,000 events.” In under three years. “And what keeps me awake at night is keeping everybody happy” in a complex industry like publishing with so many stakeholders. He talks of balance.

“It’s not just about creative financing,” AlexFane says. “It’s about relationship, making sure that everyone is getting what they want. I’m a listener, you know. I really want to listen to people’s feedback. We’ve had a lot in the last two years and I think that’s important talk.”

Below you’ll find Fane’s video trailer for Atwood’s September event.


More from Publishing Perspectives on the FutureBook and its conference is here. And more from us on the UK market is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.

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