The Bookbrunch Interview: Peter Florence from the Hay Festival

Jasmin Kirkbride
News - Interviews 03 June 2016

"Christopher Hitchens. Really easy. Because I’ve booked him again and again and again, and I just know that he’s spectacular. But if you were curating a dinner table, I mean God knows. You want to start with Shaherazade because, you know, she’s got some game. Voltaire because I reckon he was a fun time." Peter Florence, director of the Hay Festival, pauses. "This is actually what I do for a living, so it’s not quite so flippant for me!" We’re playing the ‘If you could invite anyone to speak at Hay, who would it be?’ game post-lunch in the artists restaurant at the Hay Festival.  With the festival bustling outside, and plates set aside, Florence and I take a quick half-hour to discuss the role of literary festivals in the industry, what books have to offer, and what might lie ahead for Hay.

Curating a festival

"Sometimes you just want to look at somebody’s work and say, ‘You know what? I love it.’ I wouldn’t want to spend a second in George Elliot’s company, I wouldn’t want to waste her time, I’d just want to say, ‘No, please keep writing!’"

Programming a festival that was once famously described by Bill Clinton as, 'The Woodstock of the mind' is no mean feat. Yet Florence has been in it from the beginning, devising the festival in 1988 with his father, Norman Florence. It started as a weekend, but today runs across ten days.

"Hay got started like every other initiative starts off, with a bunch of people round a kitchen table thinking, 'What shall we do?'" says Peter Florence. "The initial impetus was to just do something that would be interesting, on a scale that was intimate and manageable. I wouldn’t ever want to run a rock festival where you get 200,000 people in a field – I just can’t get my head around that aspect of scale. The act of reading is quite private and personal, but sharing that is something public and communal. If you come to a festival like Hay you have a whole plethora of experiences. Plurality and diversity is the aim of what we’re trying to do."

Hay has a lot of advantages on its side; living in a country that allows freedom of speech being one of them. "We like to explore all the extraordinary resonances across the range of subjects: from genetics to language study, engineering to poetry, there are lots of similarities. So many of us are so narrowly educated – brilliantly educated but narrowly educated – yet the more you understand about disciplines you’re not familiar with, the more you realise that, as in all things, diversity is wisest, diversity is strongest, and enriching."

As Director of the Hay Festival, Florence is tasked with designing the festival’s strategy and runs the programming. The festival, he says, is made up from three parts: the campaign for the event that runs in partnership with the book industry, from libraries to independent bookshops; giving profiles to the visiting authors and working with media partnerships; and lastly the "digital afterlife" of the event. He confesses this last is the one Hay has yet to crack properly, but that they’ve made huge inroads.

So, how is this year’s festival going? "There are thrilling sessions all over the place, lots of very inspiring speakers, lots of people meeting each other starting new ideas, new conversations… But it’s too soon to tell. The way it sinks into people’s understanding takes a long time." Although people having a good time is vital, Florence is more concerned about how the ideas heard at Hay play out in people’s lives back home. "The seeding is going quite well, but how you deepen it we’re not yet able to tell. You get feedback throughout the year, people write to you.

"Festivals are evangelical. They are high profile, highly visible. They bang the drum and they say, 'Language and ideas are vital and thrilling,' but you have to have the follow-through. When people go home, they have to have access good independent bookshops, libraries, book clubs. How we coordinate all these wonderful visitors - their passion, energy, enthusiasm - into keeping that fellowship going all through the year, that’s the really interesting challenge."

Talking trade

When it comes to facing this challenge, Florence is keen to highlight Hay’s work with larger organisations like the Booksellers Association and the Reading Agency. All festivals, he says, offer different things to the industry. "I would hope that what Hay offers is a combination of things. One is a very high visibility. Waterstones fed back to us a couple of years ago that sales of their Hay bookcases featuring books promoted at the festival were hugely successful. We also offer a bloody good time for writers and publishers to come and hang out and be part of the festival and the celebrations.

"Occasionally, we offer the opportunity to recognize and discover people who are not big headline stars already, and that’s in many ways the most satisfying thing. It’s fine to pull a big crowd for someone everyone’s heard of. It’s much more rewarding when the audience here discover somebody and take them to their heart. We have a huge admiration for people who work in all branches of the industry. I revere publishers who have curatorial taste and passion for books."

When it comes to other literary festivals, he’s prepared to admit that he doesn’t know exactly how they work. "They’re all completely different, they’ve all got different models, but they all work for different reasons. You have to be integrated, you have to be a coalition of interest. Some of those interests are commercial, some of them are altruistic, some of them are philanthropic and you just have to make sure that as many people as possible can participate. The great thing about festivals is they are rallying points for everyone to come together."  

This year for the first time, the industry statistics experts Neilsen have stepped up to record sales in the Hay Festival Bookshop. "Let’s see how it goes," Florence says when I bring this up. "We don’t know, this might take us in new directions. What it also might do is it might give people a realistic vision of the fact that Festivals are not solely about selling books. Selling books is vital and we’ll be the biggest selling bookshop in Britain this week by quite a long way, but it’s only ten days. If we all do our work properly, it will help raise the profile of quite a number of writers who wouldn’t otherwise be getting space in bookshops around the country."

One debate that has raged across the industry this year concerns author payments at festivals. "We pay people," says Florence simply. "We give them an option of what they’d like their fees in. Not much. Depending on what we ask them to do depends on how much we pay them. You work in whatever economic situation you can to put on the gig. I think you’re constantly trying to find new ways of working with all sorts of people, including authors. We’re working on a digital proposition that will hopefully allow Hay speakers to derive royalties from sales of the digital versions of their work that get sold here. If you go out on a corporate speaking tour, you’ll earn a lot of money, if you want to do TED, you won’t earn anything. TED doesn’t pay fees, it regards the platform and the willingness to share in a free platform as something that is attractive to people who want to speak. There’s no set model, everybody’s coming up with new models all the time. But if you make it a free market, it will have winners and terrible losers.

"I’ve never met anybody who managed to run a festival viably and economically, that was also really attractive and viable as an event. Everybody is investing a huge amount of good will and hope. A festival’s quite a big risk, for quite obvious reasons, they take place in a very short period of time, your pour twelve months of work into four days or ten days of exposure, which can go horribly wrong! If you were in it to make money, you wouldn’t run a festival because it’s an unstable financial proposition, which you have to have some..." he searches for the right word "...You have to be willing to take some risks."

What next?

Florence grins secretively when he talks about the future of Hay. His is tight-lipped on the details, but new ideas look set to come into play in 2017. "It’s our thirtieth anniversary next year and we’re looking at trying to remake what it is that we do. Keep the bits that are core to what the identity is now, but also use the capacity that we have and the audience that we have to do something extraordinary. We think we’ve got some really thrilling opportunities to explore. We’ve dreaming about it for about a year, because what we don’t want to do is look back and say, ‘Well, that’s nice but…’ We’ve got to base camp and now it’s like, right, let’s have a look up, see which the best route forwards is!"

Books lie at the heart of Hay, however, and that isn’t set to change anytime soon. "For five hundred years, this is the way we store and care for everything we know. Literally all knowledge. It’s a very durable bit of technology, we know it lasts hundreds of years, doesn’t need batteries, it’s very portable, and it works in terms of disseminating information.

"People are lonely. Books connect you to each other. They give you a home that’s yours and that you have co-created as a reader. They liberate your imagination and they educate you in ways that sometimes people can’t. They demand time and they demand care. It’s not like watching a TV program, it’s ten hours – on average – of your life, which you invest in conversation with someone who is writing a story and that’s extraordinarily enriching. It makes life better. That’s why books matter. All books matter.

"They’re also a great gift. Sometimes books can change your life by liberating your mind or opening your heart. It’s the act of sharing. It’s why World Book Night’s such a sweet idea and it’s why festivals work. This private thing that you do alone in your bedroom or on the bus or wherever you read, you can then pass on. Their shareability is important. And I don’t just mean forwarding something, or clicking ‘share’, or Tweeting, I mean getting a thing – an artefact – and giving it to somebody else, in the knowledge that you’re giving them a whole new outlook. Books have that extraordinary ability to help you imagine the world from the point of view of somebody else, no other art form does this, and that’s the great gift: it takes you literally out of your ‘self’ and empowers your imagination, and that’s why books matter."

Even so, whilst Hay is a certainly a literary festival, it’s reach is broader than books alone. "While much of it is based around loving books, we take a very promiscuous view of great writing – it could be songwriting, film writing, journalism… Great communication is great communication."

To catch up on all that has happened at Hay, you can read Jasmin Kirkbride's Hay wraps here:

Hay wrap - Day 1

Hay wrap - Bank Holiday weekend

Hay wrap - Day 6

Hay wrap - Day 7

Hay wrap - Day 8

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