Q&A with Director of Edinburgh Book Festival Nick Barley

By   Jantien Abma 5 min read

We spoke to Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, visiting lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University and President of the Word Alliance – an international network of the world’s leading literary festivals. He shed some light on how one goes about planning a literary festival of this scale, the importance of highlighting translation and the effect digital natives have on the festival.

Image result for Nick Barley1. You spend the majority of the year cultivating a festival programme of over 700 events, which then plays out across two weeks. Can you describe how your job changes once the festival itself has launched?

Actually these days our festival consists of 800+ events across 18 days, plus a number of additional events and festivals that we programme during the course of the year as part of our wider engagement programme. So it’s a year-round thing not just for me, but for 20 other members of staff. The busiest time is when we’re finalising the programme in April and May, and writing the programme brochure – but the research period, which involves talking to hundreds of publishers, looking at thousands of books and travelling to scores of other festivals around the world, well that’s busy too. The festival itself is like a hallucinogenic holiday, full of amazing people and unforgettable encounters and delicious surprises. It’s pretty emotional too, as you see a year’s work come to life, and thousands of audience members having their lives subtly changed by the experience.

2. How do you and your team begin building the programme? How important is it that you reflect publishing trends? How do you keep the programme as diverse as possible?

We begin building the programme 18 months before the festival takes place. We start by asking ‘what are the big issues facing writers and readers going to be in 201X?’ For example, in 2014 we knew that the Scottish independence referendum would be a major issue in Scottish public life. We then create thematic strands that we try to programme into. Next, we visit as many publishers, editors, agents, scouts, authors and festivals as we possibly can, to find out which authors we can invite, and which new books are going to be published. Then we commission and create some big bespoke projects – things that are unique to Edinburgh. Finally, we look at great books that have been published in recent years, and decide whether to add them to the mix.

In a festival as big as Edinburgh’s, diversity is essential. Not just gender or ethnic diversity, but a diversity of opinions, perspectives, nationalities, genres and intellectual disciplines etc. We spend our year trying to uncover new perspectives; travelling and making contact with people elsewhere.

Reflecting publishing trends? We think it’s most important to keep up with the issues that are making the world tick. In my experience, publishing trends – in terms of content – will follow that pretty closely. As for digital vs print trends, I think the content is more important than the medium. If someone’s written about it, and it’s relevant, we’ll host an event.

 3. How important is the in-house content created during the Festival? How much engagement do the podcasts and YouTube videos amass from people around the world who aren’t there in person?

We did our best to plan for the advent of the ‘digital festival’, but it took us by surprise in any case. The digital revolution hit us when people started live-tweeting words and pictures (and videos) from events. Suddenly, people were tracking the festival’s discussions from the other side of the world. Meanwhile, official live-streaming by media partners including The Guardian and the BBC have secured some pretty healthy viewing figures: our Game of Thrones event with George RR Martin two years ago was the most-watched broadcast on BBC Arts for that year, as far as I know. Meanwhile, we are still experimenting with the best format for YouTube and podcast content: there are many options and we are searching for the formats that are most satisfying.

 4. Tell us about the Trading Stories programme. Why was it introduced last year?

Trading Stories was a special programme of discussions for 2015 featuring writers in translation. Having spent much of 2014 in Scotland engaged in a discussion about the future of our own country, I wanted the following year to be the most internationally-engaged, outward-looking festival we’d ever produced – and especially because the migration crisis was growing in scale as we built the programme. There will be plenty of legacies from the Trading Stories project for our festival, but each year we’ll do something different, and the 2016 festival has different special projects. 

 5. The Edinburgh International Book Festival is part of The Word Alliance, a cooperative that includes eight of the world’s leading literature festivals. How does being part of this alliance make a difference to the festivals involved?

The Word Alliance is an initiative I set up together with friends from Berlin and Toronto in 2010. It includes top festivals from around the globe – in Berlin, Beijing, Edinburgh, Melbourne, Jaipur, Toronto, St Malo and New York. Every year we meet and talk to each other about ideas and about emerging writers who are making a splash in our own countries. The Word Alliance isn’t directly funded or bureaucratic in any way – it’s just a light-on-its-feet network of like-minded festival directors – but over recent years it has unlocked significant sums of money from cultural organisations who work with us to help authors travel internationally. The St Malo festival had a focus on Chinese writers, for example, and worked with Beijing on selecting who to invite; meanwhile the Institut Francais funded Francophone authors to attend the Beijing Bookworm festival. I’ve lost count of the number of UK author visits we’ve taken to Jaipur, Berlin, St Malo, Melbourne, Toronto, New York and Beijing thanks to this network. At the same time our partnerships have allowed us to work with the British Council to stage special literary events in countries around the world such as Congo-Brazzaville, Siberia, Trinidad, Turkey, Guadalajara and Beijing.

One example of how this international networking can pay dividends: over the past two years we’ve been working with Mexican partners to bring the best writers to Edinburgh, whether or not they’re already translated and published in the UK. The result is that this year we’re launching a book of new Mexican writing (published by MacLehose Editions and edited by Bill Swainson) that includes a number of authors who’ve never been published in this country before. I’m really proud of Christopher MacLehose for responding so directly to our initiative to bring Mexican writers to the UK, because he was inspired by the conversations he witnessed at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last August.