Bookselling in the field

Richard Lee braved torrential rain to enjoy the Festival of History, and the Historical Writers’ Association’s first gala event

The Festival of History is English Heritage’s flagship event of the year. Staged in acres of fields outside Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire, it has over a thousand re-enactors and attracts a staggering number of visitors over two days. EH have always hosted author talks at Kelmarsh, but this year they opted to Go Large, working with the newly formed Historical Writers’ Association to bring 32 writers to the event.

It is actually not an easy place to sell books. There is no discounting, and folk dearly love their discounts these days. There is also a massive amount of other stuff you can buy at the festival: hand-crafted pewter, Byzantine-style glassware, mail coifs, 2 litre drinking horns: the kinds of things you would be hard-put to find on the High Street. Also books are heavy, but the site is vast. Do you want to buy a hardback at 10.30 in the morning, and have to carry it till day’s end at 6.00?

Set against this is the oldest and best sales technique. Digital be damned, Kelmarsh gives the public real authors, excellent talks and, yes, signings. Each marquee event had at least 200 avid listeners – and this in competition with the outstanding entertainment running concurrently elsewhere. In theory it shouldn’t work. My son had to queue for half an hour to get a minute with the superb Michelle Paver. But he did queue – it did work. The best thing was that some of the authors stayed around their heaps of books, and you could meet and chat without the queue: in this way Giles Kristian and Ben Kane, who’ve been coming to Kelmarsh for a couple of years, made steady sales and confirmed new fans throughout the two days. And there were HEAPS of books (most impressive behind-the-scenes logistics!)

It wasn’t a cliquey event. Yes, most of the names on the roster are paid-up members of the HWA, but they also showcased two non-member keynote speakers: Michael Morpurgo and Michelle Paver.

If there is an improvement to be made, it is in the area of women’s commercial fiction. There was a session on clothes, a debate on sex and power, but the lion’s share of the programme was politics and war. No romantic novelists, no Great War nurses. Half of the Kelmarsh visitors are women, and sometimes the battle displays can obscure the equal passion for living history.

But that’s just tweaking. I loved the festival, as did my three kids. Where else can you watch a Knight Hospitaller tinkering under the bonnet of a WW2 jeep, then impassioned speakers arguing the niceties of civilisation versus barbarism?

Bookselling in the field – or rather the tent – has rarely been so well achieved.

Posted by Richard Lee

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