Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

BooksFebruary 18, 2024

New Zealand book festivals: A field guide

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

The lineups are (mostly) yet to be released, but 2024 promises to be another great year for Aotearoa’s literary festival scene. We’ve compiled a list of all* the festivals, when they’re happening, and why you want to go.

Writers / book / literature festivals sound like they’re about books and writers and literature, but really they’re about conversations, and gathering, and tote bags. New Zealand has a healthy smattering of such festivals from February to November to provide a year’s worth of road trips and brain food. Each one has a different flavour and sometimes a specific focus. They can be controversial, unpredictable, even downright loose.

If you’ve never been to a book / writers / literature festival before you might well ask why go to one at all. There are many reasons, but the main draw is that they’re buzzy. There’s nothing like a room full of people all together listening to other, very interesting, people talk about their lives, or debate big (or weird, or hard, or fun) ideas, or perform a piece of writing that will send shivers up and down your spine. These festivals are about being in the moment: off screens, rubbing shoulders with strangers and finding kindred, curious spirits. 

This field guide to lit festivals in Aotearoa is your map to stimulating conversation in beautiful places, and a novel (if you’re a festival novice) way to discover what Aotearoa’s writers are up to. The guide is arranged in chronological order with websites where available. 

Going West Writers Festival

When: precarious and uncertain (see below)

Where: Titirangi and online

What’s the vibe: Going West Writers Festival is Auckland’s first writers festival. It started in 1996 and according to the history section on Going West’s website the first writer to speak was Ngahuia Te Awekotuku in a session called Ngā Kupu Kōrero, which is quite something if you consider the sidelining of kaituhi Māori across most histories of book festivals in Aotearoa. Going West has done a thorough job of audio archiving, with recordings of sessions available online going right back to 2003. The Covid years saw then-director James Littlewood transform Going West into a short film production house. If you go to the website these days you can explore a series of videos of writers exploring the landscapes of West Auckland.

Unfortunately, due in part to the chronic underfunding of Creative New Zealand (a funder of most of NZ’s book festivals), Going West is on ice. Like most festivals Going West is run by a voluntary board, with festival directors and workers in place only when there’s enough funds to support the role. In December 2023 former director James Littlewood wrote (on The Big Idea) about the festival’s declining funds and how that has affected the organisation: “We obtained our [Creative New Zealand] assessors’ comments and scores, but they don’t add up to much. For the most part, they’re bursting with fulsome praise, identifying our innovations, celebrating our new direction.” What Littlewood describes is a now common scenario: applications are good and the project worthy but there’s not enough money to go around.

In the meantime, though, Going West is busy restoring Maurice Shadbolt’s former home so it can be used as a writers’ residency. More about that here.

Same Same But Different

When: 12 February – 18 February

Where: Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland

What’s the vibe: Peter Wells founded this festival in 2015 and created our first lit fest that celebrates LGBTQIA+ writing in Aotearoa. This year’s theme is Camp Rage which is chef’s kiss on all levels. The festival is on right now and the dynamic set of events is here.

Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts

When: 23 February – 17 March

Where: Te Whanganui-a-tara / Wellington

What’s the vibe: Because this festival is only a week away, they’ve launched the programme – here are the events and tickets. As one of the oldest festivals in New Zealand that has an international focus, this one tends to draw some big literary names. This year’s festival includes Irish novelist Anne Enright (talking with Noelle McCarthy), major US writers Richard Ford and Jane Smiley, and the iconic Sandra Cisneros, too. There are some particularly great workshops on writing for kids and using movement to unlock creative energy. Also, if you love The Spinoff’s column Help Me Hera, there’s a live event with Hera and editor Mad Chapman (rumour is that it’s sold out but worth try). Also Kim Hill is appearing live three whole times so fans can get a fix (Hill is interviewing Patrick deWitt, Emily Perkins and Rebecca Priestley). The festival at large includes loads of theatre, dance and music programming but we’re solely focused on the writing which is all between 23 Feb – 25 Feb. 

Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street is coming to the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts’ writers programme (Image: Tina Tiller)

Aspiring Conversations

When: 4 – 7 April

Where: Wānaka

What’s the vibe: Part of the Wānaka Festival of Colour, Aspiring Conversations has a seriously stacked programme (just announced). Max Harris’s event talking about health campaigning from a personal and policy perspective looks excellent, as does the AI vs. librarians session, where ChatGPT and librarians compete to give audience members personalised book recommendations. Our books editor Claire Mabey is speaking with Irish writers Claire Keegan (author of Small Things Like These which has not left the bestseller list in over a year) and Audrey McGee. Also Sam Low, author of one of the best cookbooks in ages! (sorry though, looks like Low’s event has already sold out). If you need an excuse to hang out with some very beautiful mountains and interesting people, consider this your reason. 

Between the Lines

When: 11 April  – 14 April

Where: Central Hawke’s Bay

What’s the vibe: Small book festivals can be gloriously quirky and Central Hawke’s Bay’s beloved Readers and Writers Festival is no exception. The festival is returning for its fifth year with an eclectic mix of visiting authors from across New Zealand, speaking at some wonderfully small and unique venues. Spread over four days, the festival kicks off with a Young Writers programme, giving primary school students the chance to work with a well-known author and ignite their passion for the written word. The 2024 programme is about to drop but we have been told to expect some highly acclaimed authors from the worlds of fiction, poetry, food and screen.

Featherston Booktown

When: 8 – 12 May (including the Young Readers programme)

Where: Paetūmōkai / Featherston

What’s the vibe: As a “booktown” (a network of bookish places all around the world) Featherston has cultivated a special relationship to literature; it has seven bookshops, which is a lot considering it only has a population of around 3,000 people. That means that when you go to this festival you’re really in it: the whole town gets on board and the buzz factor is sensational. The events are always varied and fascinating (check out last year’s festival here, and we think the 2024 programme should arrive in March), and you can get there by train!

Catherine Chidgey (author of Pet) speaking at the Anzac Hall at Featherston Booktown.

Auckland Writers Festival

When: 14 – 19 May

Where: Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland 

What’s the vibe: This whopper of 200+ events and tens of thousands of festival goers generally welcomes a thrilling range of international writers (last year, there was a talk between three Booker Prize winners – stacked guests!), as well as lots of New Zealand’s best writers and thinkers. The winners of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards are announced during the festival which is always hotly anticipated – especially since the longlist was announced a few weeks ago. We’re looking forward to what an entirely new AWF team come up with for 2024, especially given new Artistic Director Lyndsey Fineran has come from Cheltenham Literature Festival where she spearheaded a load of inventive collaborations. The programme will be announced on 13 March and we are excited.

Mountain, Film and Book Festival

When: 21 – 28 June

Where: Tāhuna / Queenstown and Wānaka

What’s the vibe: An extravaganza of alpine content, the festival celebrates the cold and the adventurous, with films and books from Aotearoa and around the world focussed outdoor adventure. New Zealand has a great tradition of outdoor writing; some of our recent favourites are Nic Low’s Uprising and Dave Vass’s Not Set in Stone. The festival has an online programme too which this year will run through the month of July.

Marlborough Book Festival 

When: 26 – 28 July 

Where: Te Waiharakeke / Blenheim

What’s the vibe: All the writers want to be invited to this one because it’s set among the vineyards and wine is a flowin’ and no doubt fuelling some future bookish inspo. Most people don’t linger in Blenheim, but this boutique festival is a reason to spend a little more time in the top of the South. To get a feel for the kind of events they put on you can listen to podcasts of past conversations here.

Hamilton Book Month

When: August

Where: Kirikiriroa / Hamilton

What’s the vibe: Every August Hamilton Book Month presents a range of free and ticketed events in various venues in Kirikiriroa. Last year’s programme featured Richard von Sturmer (a profoundly brilliant poet), films based on books, a talk with Lee Murray, workshops, and more (see the programme here).

WORD Christchurch

When: 27 August – 1 September

Where: Ōtautahi / Christchurch

What’s the vibe: Fun! The buzz factor is high as WORD events take you around cool and beautiful venues in the heart of Ōtautahi, including their jealousy-inducing (for us Central library-less Wellingtonians) Tūranga library. This festival includes lots of free events, as well as paid ones, with a juicy line-up of international authors alongside heaps of Aotearoa writers. WORD are also responsible for kicking the challenges of covid in the ass with their ingenious Faraway Near in which international writers are beamed into impossibly intimate settings with very small audiences who can ask questions and chat like they’re all in the same room. See their 2023 festival to get a feel for what WORD will come up with for 2024. 

The Spinoff’s own Gone By Lunchtime podcast live (Ben Thomas, Annabelle Lee-Mather, Toby Manhire with Lianne Dalziel) at WORD Christchurch. (Photo: Te Aihe Butler)

Young Writers Festival

When: 12 15 September (10th birthday!)

Where: Ōtepoti / Dunedin

What’s the vibe: The only festival in Aotearoa that is focused on young writers, this festival is also unique in that it’s entirely free. Last year, there was a fabulous poetry slam and a zine making workshop as well as more traditional talks between writers. In central Dunedin, the festival has a real feeling of aroha and mentorship for younger writers, and being based mostly in two locations means that you run into the same people all weekend. We wrote about last year’s festival here so you can see why we’re excited about going again. 

Kupu Festival

When: September (dates to be confirmed)

Where: Rotorua

What’s the vibe? A festival of Māori writing, Kupu was formed in 2022 to offer a different space in the literary calendar – with more space for Māori audiences, with sessions at marae and in te reo Māori. We wrote about it last year, and festival trustee and curator told us “Our theme is celebrating Māori writers – past, present and future so we try to ensure that our programme reflects this.” The sessions last year were an amazing mix of literary greats and new voices and we look forward to what they do next.

Sara Hirsch from Motif Poetry leads a poetry slam workshop, NZ Young Writers Festival 2023 (Photo: Armstrong Photography, courtesy of Dunedin Fringe)

Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival 

When: next festival is in 2025

Where: Ōtepoti / Dunedin

What’s the vibe: The festival describes itself as “small but delightful” on Instagram and we quite agree, except we would revise it to “small and delightful”. Last year they had Māori event curators for the first time, with events at the Ōtākou marae, as well as in galleries and theatre spaces around the city. Dunedin is a UNESCO City of Literature so this festival often highlights its literary heritage as well as inviting writers from elsewhere. Excellent excuse to visit the capital of gothic fonts and cheese rolls.

Escape! Festival

When: October (dates to be confirmed)

Where: Tauranga

What’s the vibe: The Escape festival happens in alternate years to the Tauranga Arts Festival (which includes writers events but alongside music and theatre and dance). It describes itself as “the little festival with big ideas”. The two year cycle is kind of exciting, because it means that there’s a completely new set of books and author hype that’s built up in the meantime. If you want to see something inspiring and the kind of lit-adjancent experience festivals like these can offer, check out this video of a kids’ news show for adults produced as part of the event. Also there’s a poetry slam – we love when non-traditional forms of literature get included in literary festivals. 

Hawkes Bay Readers & Writers Festival

Where: October 18 20

Where: Mostly in Karanema / Havelock North

What’s the vibe: Another festival that you could zoom off to saying that you’re super excited about all the stimulating discussion when really you’re equally, if not more, excited about the wine. This cheerful festival leans into its region’s association with vineyards and presents a lovely set of events that match nicely with a pinot.

Pukapuka Talks at the Nelson Arts Festival

When: October 24 – 3 November 

Where: Whakatū / Nelson

What’s the vibe: The programme is still months away, but this festival has historically mostly had free and Pay What You Can events which makes it really accessible. Last year, we loved the focus on workshops, including funny writing for children, new voices of young people with recently published books and the conversation about foraging. 

A photo of an event at Verb Readers & Writers Festival, at Meow (Photo: Vanessa Rushton)

Queenstown Writers Festival

When: 1 – 3 November

Where: Tāhuna / Queenstown

What’s the vibe: A “mini” festival – it had nine events last year – the Queenstown Writers Fest nonetheless manages to include workshops, talks and a writing competition. Last year it had the incredible Barbara Else talking to Megan Nicol Reed, Michael Bennett discussing the true stories in the criminal justice system that inspired Better the Blood and a book about the legend of some missing gold from a shipwreck in 1866. (The festival director notes, wryly, that finding the gold “would certainly help the Queenstown Writers Festival’s bank balance” – these small festivals make a lot happen with miniscule budgets.)

Verb Readers & Writers Festival 

When: 7 – 10 November 

Where: Te Whanganui-a-Tara / Wellington

What’s the vibe: A highlight is always LitCrawl on the festival’s Saturday night – an evening of simultaneous events in shops, cafes, galleries and bookstores across the central city which always feel impossible to choose between. Verb (founded by Spinoff books editor Claire Mabey and her partner Andrew) also hosts events and writers residencies throughout the year.

*New festivals start up all the time so it’s probable that we’ve missed one. If you are outraged that your local lit fest is missing please contact us and we’ll add it in.

Keep going!