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Introducing Helen Smith, Author and BritCrime Online Literature Festival Founder

The lovely Helen Smith

The lovely Helen Smith

A couple of months ago, I was extremely lucky to be asked to be part of BritCrime, an incredibly successful online literature festival which saw 45 crime writers come together on social media to discuss their work and writing crime fiction. I made a lot of new friends at the festival and feel privileged to have been part of something that is part of a growing phenomenon – the online festival. These are growing in popularity – see my interview with Sam Missingham – and I was so lucky to be involved in such a successful one. Here Helen Smith, Author and BritCrime Founder, discusses Britcrime and its successes.

Please introduce yourself and give us a brief overview of your career.

My name is Helen Smith and I live in Brixton in south London. I had my first book published in 1999. Since then I have written poetry, plays, children’s books and screenplays, but at the moment I’m making a living writing novels. I’m currently writing a mystery series featuring an amateur sleuth called Emily Castles. It’s a lot of fun to write.

Can you explain what BritCrime is?

We are 45 British crime writers and one American who are collaborating to put on free online crime fiction events to connect with readers around the world. Our first event was a three-day festival in July 2015. Our next event will be a Christmas Party. We have another festival planned for next summer.

How did the idea of BritCrime come about?

The authors involved in BritCrime love attending crime fiction festivals, but we often hear from readers who are disappointed they can’t attend. I offered to set up an online festival to see if it would be a good way to connect with readers around the world while protecting our writing time.

How did you go about marketing BritCrime and generating interest for it?

I set up a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a website and a mailing list. Our publishers were very generous about donating books as prizes so I set up several giveaways to promote the the festival. We also held a draw for a Kindle Paperwhite for new subscribers to our newsletter. Interestingly, the buzz began as soon as the website, Twitter and Facebook pages went up as people in the industry speculated who was behind the idea. Once we shared the idea with readers and book bloggers, there was a lot of enthusiasm for the festival. We gained a lot of new followers very quickly.

What was your method for getting authors on board? Did you already personally know the authors, or did you have to approach them to get them on board?

It was self-selecting. I put up a post on Facebook saying that I planned to set up a one-day online crime fiction festival and needed twelve writers to join me. A couple of minutes later my friend Alex Marwood responded with an enthusiastic yes… and we were off! I tried to cap the numbers at 30, then 36… Within about 24 hours we had 41 writers involved and the date set for a three-day festival. I liked the serendipity of it. Had I approached writers individually, it would have taken weeks to set up. Also, as everyone involved had approached me and asked to join, it meant they were engaged with the project and they were fun to work with. As time went by, we were approached by various creative partners and I said yes to all of them for the same reason, and the partnerships were productive because they were all so keen to be involved.

BritCrime-Logo

What were the challenges of hosting an online festival? How much work goes into the logistics of hosting an online festival?

It was all quite straightforward, really. We used the free platforms that were available. There was a quite a bit of of work involved in planning and programming the festival – which I enjoyed – and a lot of admin involved in getting the information for 41 authors and their books up on our website and blog. The other authors helped out promoting it and running the Twitter and Facebook accounts, but I worked non-stop for six weeks, 15-19 hours a day to set it up and make sure it worked properly.

For the festival itself, we hired two assistant producers. One of them, Stephanie Cox, is asking these questions. I wanted them to be involved in the creative/logistics side of the festival and to have fun while they were doing it, so I kept them away from the admin and gave them clearly defined creative roles that were challenging and interesting and took advantage of the skills they had to offer. It was really useful to have a dedicated resource to help me that weekend.

What were the highlights, for you?

The creativity and the collaboration: I loved creating the virtual world where our online festival would be held, including The Slaughtered Author pub and the BritCrime Readers’ Cafe. Making the opening ceremonies and thank you videos was fun. I loved the “Our Authors Prepare” and “BritCrime Writing Dens.” photo galleries we created on Facebook. Working with the other authors was wonderful. If you get 41 creative people collaborating on a project, something exciting is going to happen.

Do you see the online literature festival as a concept that will grow in popularity?

Yes!

What were the biggest lessons or insights learned from the experience?

I was reminded how much fun it can be working on a creative project for the hell of it, with no expectation of any financial reward. I knew there would be a lot of work involved in setting this up, but I hadn’t appreciated how much love I would get back, from authors and readers – and publishers, too. I got a lot of love for doing it. It was humbling and gratifying.

Have you received positive feedback from it?

Yes! The readers, bloggers, authors and publishers involved have all been really enthusiastic. We surveyed everyone who participated. The feedback was all positive. As soon as this festival ended, people started asking when we were going to do the next one.

What’s next for BritCrime and the BritCrime team?

We’re currently planning our Christmas party, the BritCrime Ball, which will take place Sunday 13th December, with a Twelve Days of Christmas Treasure Hunt in the run-up to it. It will be completely different from the summer festival and should be fun for everyone who participates! There will also be a festival next summer, with more authors involved.

Helen Smith is a novelist and playwright who lives in London. She’s the founder of BritCrime.
Website: http://helensmithbooks.com
Blog: http://emperorsclothes.co.uk
Twitter: http://twitter.com/emperorsclothes
Facebook: http://facebook.com/authorhelensmith
BritCrime website: http://britcrime.com
BritCrime blog: http://britcrime.blogspot.com
BritCrime Twitter: http://twitter.com/britcrime
BritCrime Facebook: http://facebook.com/britcrime

Do you have any questions for Helen? Please post them below and I’ll make sure she gets back to you!

Introducing Hollie Belton, Founder of Books on The Underground

I’m really pleased to host this week’s interviewee – the woman behind Books on the Underground, one of the not-for-profit companies that make me really want to live in London! Read on to find out more about the phenomenon that is gripping the commuters of London, and soon, hopefully, beyond…

 

Hollie wanted to share her love of books with the rest of London!

Hollie wanted to share her love of books with the rest of London!

 

Please introduce yourself, and the others behind Books on the Underground, and give us a brief overview of your careers?

I’m Hollie, I started Books on the Underground in November 2012. I’m originally from Lincolnshire, but I moved to London 7 years ago after graduating from university. I’m a Creative at an Advertising agency, where I’ve been for the last 4 years. I met my BOTU partner, Cordelia, on Twitter. She reached out to me to to help out and now has become an integral part of the project and we’ve been doing it together ever since.

Please can you explain the concept of Books on the Underground to those who are unfamiliar with it, and the logistics of how it works?

The idea in a nutshell – I leave books on the London Underground for commuters to take, read and then leave back on the tube for someone else to enjoy. The idea lives on Twitter, where we update people on the latest book locations. It’s like a mobile library, without the late fees 😉

How did this brilliant idea come about and how did you set about kick-starting it?

Well, I have about an hour commute to work everyday, from Dalston to West Kensington, so reading is a nice escape for me. One day, I finished the book I was reading on the tube and just thought what a lovely surprise it would be for the next person to find. That day I didn’t leave my book, because I realised there were a lot of hurdles to overcome and I didn’t want it to be just a book out in the world alone, I wanted it to be part of something bigger. So I designed and printed the Books on the Underground stickers, started leaving my books and that’s how it started. It’s really simple, I place a sticker on the front of the book and leave it either on the train seat or the station benches and tweet where I have left it. I use the #booksontheunderground hashtag so people who find the book can let me know.

How has it developed and grown since its conception?

It has grown slowly over the last few years. I started it with my own books, then started raiding charity shops to replenish my stock, so at first it was very small. But then publishers and independent authors started hearing about it and wanted to get involved. And we’re now getting a lot more books sent to us, it’s practically turning in to a full-time job. We have over 8,000 followers on Twitter and we’re booked up everyday until mid August. We recently set ourselves up as a not-for-profit company. So we get people to pay for the stickers and then any profit leftover we donate to reading charities within London, such as http://www.beanstalkcharity.org.uk/

Was the concept well received when you first began? What kind of reception and feedback did you get from it?

It has always been well received. I don’t think I’ve heard a bad word about it. The first time someone found a book I screamed out loud in the office. The tweets are normally so positive. I think it’s because finding a book feels so special to you. It’s still on a small scale, in relation to the amount of Londoners who commute everyday. So you have to be super lucky to find a book.

How do you measure your success?

When I started, I said if just one person finds a book and tweets I’ll have succeeded, so I’m over the moon that so many people know about it and not only that, want to get involved themselves.

Some of the big names in the industry have written about you, including the Guardian. Does this exposure help boost the popularity of your organisation?

Yes definitely. I think it really took off when we got mentioned on the ‘London for Free’ Facebook page. And then Timeout got in touch and our followers have grown from there.

 

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Has your new Book Club, the Underground Book Club, enjoyed success since you started?

Yes. It’s been ace. It’s been running for a year now. And we still meet once a month. It’s been so rewarding, bringing together a group of people who I didn’t know before. All of them are from Twitter, and it we meet once a month to discuss a book and normally stuff ourselves with Thai food!

What have been particular highlights for you so far in launching this initiative?

Last October, I was asked to be a speaker at Chicago Ideas Week about the Sharing Economy. I didn’t even know I was part of the sharing economy until they invited me! I also got to launch ‘Books on the L’ in partnership with Chicago Ideas week whilst I was there. And they made an awesome little film about me too, I was so flattered.

What’s next for you?

I’m moving to NYC at the end of August. So I will be helping Rosy, my American counterpart to get more exposure for Books on the Subway and make it as big as Books on the Underground is in London.

Finally, what are you both currently reading?

I’m currently reading animals by Emma Jane Unsworth. Bloody hilarious! Discussing it at book club this Monday, July 27th.

 

To find out more about Books on The Underground, click here.

Follow Hollie on Twitter @holliebelton

Follow Books on the Underground on Twitter @BooksUndergrnd

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