Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post by Annette Marfording of the Bellingen Writers Festival

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

Having been intrigued by comments made by Annette Marfording, Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival, about running a literary festival, I approached her about writing a guest post for my blog. I thought her experience might intrigue at least some of my readers here too.

Marfording chairs one-on-one conversations and panels at the Festival, and is also a broadcaster at Bellingen’s community radio station 2bbb fm for which she created a monthly program on Australian writers and their work. Marfording’s recently published book, Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors, is based on in-depth interviews broadcast on this program. All profits from the sale of the book will go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. What a generous gesture! I have bought a copy of this book, which includes writers like David Malouf, Cate Kennedy and Larissa Berendt. You can too at

Now, here’s Annette’s post …

Some time ago, Sue asked me as Program Director of the Bellingen Writers Festival (full name Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival) to do a guest post for her wonderful blog on the joys and challenges of organising a writers’ festival. I’m delighted to do so.

This year the Bellingen Writers Festival (full name Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival) had its fifth birthday. In the period since our first in 2011, there’s been an explosion of new literary festivals all around Australia. With the exception of big city specialised sub-festivals, such as the Sydney Jewish Writers’ Festival and its Festival of Speculative Fiction, and some school or suburb festivals, such as the Abbotsleigh Literary Festival and the Sutherland Shire Writers’ Festival, most of the new festivals are in small regional towns and not specialised in any particular genre. Even though not all of them survive (for example the Gloucester Writers Festival), at the time of writing there are at least nine such regional festivals in New South Wales alone in addition to the big ones: the Sydney Writers’ Festival, the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival and the Newcastle Writers Festival.

On the one hand, this proliferation of festivals is wonderful for readers and book sales and demonstrates that the book is not dead. On the other, for several reasons, it is cause for concern:

  1. All these festivals compete for government grants and sponsorships.
  2. They also compete for authors, and understandably authors tend to prefer the greater publicity and book sales associated with the big festivals. Our invitations are often declined on the grounds that the author is overseas at the time/wants to concentrate on her/his next book/can’t possibly attend every writers’ festival in the country.
  3. Several of the festivals are scheduled in winter, enhancing the competition for authors during those months.
  4. Sadly these difficulties are compounded when other regional festivals choose to schedule theirs at the exact same time as another, as the newer Batemans Bay Writers Festival did with the Bellingen Writers Festival. Thus two of the authors we had invited appeared in Batemans Bay instead. Similarly it is confronting to find that other regional festivals have copied your advertising slogan, as the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival in Bowral did with their adoption of ‘Be a part of the story‘ (in comparison to Bellingen’s ‘Be part of the story.’

Even if there were only one literary festival in the country, organising a festival is not for the faint hearted. The large festivals attract big money from government agencies and sponsors while the smaller ones have to make do with far less. That usually means that large festivals have a large number of paid staff, while the smaller ones tend to be organised and run by volunteers.

In Bellingen all festival committee members work as unpaid volunteers, which means they have to be brimming with passion and enthusiasm for there is a lot of work to be done: books must be read, authors and chairs selected and invited, contracts drawn up, funding applied for, sponsorship sought, venues booked, an experienced bookseller chosen, transport and accommodation organised, possibly a schools program organised, the program put together and proof-read multiple times for print and website, newsletters written for the website, social media and print publicity employed to spread the word. For the event itself, you need an event producer/organiser, sound engineers, microphones for all venues and multiple speakers, additional volunteers and an organiser for those volunteers. After each festival there are clean-up tasks, author payments and accounting to be done. Over the five years we have lost several festival committee members due to burn-out or the need for an income-generating job. We have also gained a few new ones each year, but they don’t always stay. Only four members have been involved since the beginning.

Government funding bodies often demand the introduction of a new aspect or theme for each year’s festival. For 2013 the Bellingen Writers Festival chose Celebrating Women Writers and Women’s Stories, because 2012 marked the beginning of a conversation about gender in literary culture. In 2013 the Stella Literary Award was awarded for the first time. As the readers of this blog may remember, a number of women authors, critics and publishers pushed for the introduction of an award for women writers after women had been left off the shortlist for the Miles Franklin Literary Award for Fiction for two years in a row. Another response was the creation of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge. For 2015 the Bellingen Writers Festival chose Politics and Society and attracted a number of politicians, journalists, screenwriters and fiction writers exploring social issues and added three forums on mental health issues with Professor of Psychiatry Gordon, clinical psychologist David Roland and author of Australia’s first memoir on youth suicide Missing Christopher Jayne Newling.

Festival visitors often don’t realise that authors need to be paid not only for their transport costs and accommodation, but also earn a fee for every festival appearance (in accordance with standards set by the Australian Society of Authors). In small regional towns such as Bellingen, where small businesses often struggle, it is very difficult to attract sponsorship from local businesses, especially since Bellingen hosts several music festivals as well. Government grants are difficult to obtain on a recurring basis, especially in these times of funding cuts to the arts. This means that smaller festivals become ever more reliant on ‘big name’ authors to attract visitors prepared to pay for tickets. The further away authors live from the festival location, the higher the authors’ transport costs. This means that authors who live on the other side of Australia, in Tasmania, let alone the US, are unaffordable for the Bellingen Writers Festival.

I think it’s obvious from the above that the challenges are formidable. The joys of organising a writers’ festival require far fewer words, but nevertheless win in the end for those who are engaged and passionate about reading and/or writing. The joys of introducing favourite authors to new readers, observing the audience’s enthusiastic faces, rapt attention, and long queues for books and autographs. Even better if the authors have a good time, too, and in Bellingen, they always do. For me personally, involvement in the festival has also made it easier to interview some of the authors in my recently released book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Writers which has sold 80 copies in the first two weeks – to the benefit of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which will receive all the profits from the sale.


Thanks so much Annette for this wonderful behind-the-scenes insight into running a festival. Readers like me owe a big debt to people like you who are willing to undertake the hard yakka of putting on a regional festival. I wish I lived closer to Bellingen!



12 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post by Annette Marfording of the Bellingen Writers Festival

  1. Wow, I hadn’t realised that the proliferation of festivals could create the sort of problems you describe. I must say, however, that lately I’ve been spurning the big festivals in favour of the smaller ones, because I like the atmosphere better. Big Names sometimes means Big Hype, and the cost of the Big Name means that the room must be large enough for many bums-on-seats and so the speaker is far away at the front of a very big room. And if the Big Name is big enough, you can often hear what they have to say on the ABC anyway.
    But on a more positive note, I like the cosiness, intimacy and friendliness of suburban festivals (Williamstown, Kingston, Stonnington &c) and beyond the city I like the Woodend Winter Arts Festival, Airey’s Inlet Festival of Words, and the Bendigo WF. (There’s one in Queenscliff too, but I couldn’t get to it this year). I like getting out of town, staying somewhere nice overnight, checking out the cafes & restaurants and walking to the venues: no parking or transport hassles. At a small festival you are more likely to meet the interesting authors that perhaps you haven’t heard of, and to discover lovely new books that the media majors haven’t got time to review because they’re too busy with the Big Names. And I like the feel-good factor that comes with supporting regional and rural Australian initiatives like festivals as well.
    So well done, and I hope I make it up to Bellingen one day!
    Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers, Melbourne

    • Thanks Liaa. Couldn’t agree more, for all the reasons you give. I’m a big believer in the idea that small is beautiful. Sounds simplistic, I know, but as a rule of thumb it suits me fine. Big places, big crowds, are not appealing to me for all sorts of activities. I was thrilled with Annette’s post.

  2. I don’t recall ever having read such an honest account of the difficulties of putting together a literary festival. As a writer and someone who has organised (smaller) events I certainly appreciate the enormous amount of work that goes into these festivals. And I agree with Lisa that the smaller festivals definitely have that intimate atmosphere going for them. I’ve been wanting to get to the Bellingen festival for some time now. (I wish it was closer too, Sue.) Maybe next year.

    • It’s a great post isn’t it Irma? I was thrilled when Annette agreed to do it. She apologised for the length but I don’t think it’s too long at all because it’s Interesting and relevant to those of us interested in the topic. And Bellingen is such a beautiful place too … So well worth making the effort.

  3. There are getting to be more and more festivals in the US too and I’ve been wondering what sort of effect it might have. I suspect it might be similar to Australia. Such hard work involved in putting it all together, but I can say as a reader, I really appreciate it!

  4. Sorry that I didn’t comment on your comments earlier – life is sometimes all-consuming…
    In fact I have now handed over the Program Director position to Irina Dunn, former Chair of the NSW Writers Centre, who has moved to the mid-north-coast and will ensure a fabulous program for future festivals. I needed my life back – not that it has happened as yet…
    As a visitor of writers’ festivals, I much agree with those commentators who favour smaller festivals. I stopped going to the Sydney Festival a few years back because of the masses converging on it, and Byron is now on a very similar path, unfortunately!
    I was especially excited about your comment, Irma, because you had been on my list of authors to invite after your wonderful short story collection, until, alas, I discovered the transport costs….

    • No worries, Annette, but it’s nice to hear from you now. Good for you handing over. You’ve done a great job but it’s nice to have a break from such a challenge I reckon.

      I must say I’m not a big fan of jostling with crowds, and the good think is that some of the big talks from the big festivals appear on RN so we can still hear what the authors have to say without all that crush. Small is beautiful is my mantra!

    • I’m so thrilled to hear that you enjoyed Two Steps Forward, Annette. And I can imagine what a challenge the budget is for these smaller festivals. Even though you are moving on (enjoy reclaiming your spare time!) it’s probably worth putting on the public record for others that the ACT Government through artsACT has a wonderful Quick Response Grant program that can cover the costs of travel and accommodation to festivals (among other things). Writers must apply, and can only do so once every two years, but it’s a useful resource and many local writers and festivals aren’t aware of it. Perhaps this is because other states don’t offer a similar program? Would be interested to hear from writers outside of the ACT.

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