Article published on February 1, 2016.
In the last few weeks before this increasingly high profile festival launches, Ros Green took time out to give us the lowdown on what it’s like to be – notionally – in charge!
What on earth possessed you to take the role of Festival Director?
I love books and I love festivals: it’s a simple as that!
How has it shaped up so far?
It has been an enormous challenge. Possibly a much greater one than I imagined at the outset. The Festival takes places right across Essex: 60+ events in 40 different venues. It’s a very complicated matrix bearing in mind all the 100+ participating writers and artists, different partners, venues, agents, booksellers who are involved in the festival, and given that we are a tiny team of organisers. The flip side of all of that though is that I get to work with wonderful people and to hear and see an enormous range of writers, artists, playwrights, and filmmakers talk about their work.
What experience did you have of events beforehand?
I have been involved in festivals since the 1980s, working on various international festivals extending from The Edinburgh Fringe through to Melbourne Comedy Festival and Wellington International Festival on the other side of the world: sometimes in an administrative role/management capacity, other times as a producer. In more recent years I was the Director of the Gypsy Arts Festival (2006-2012: Suffolk, Kent, Edinburgh) and the Polish Arts Festival (2008-2014: Ipswich, Southend-on-Sea).
When did you start planning and how does it feel right now as the countdown begins?
We start thinking about the programme in June. This is when we start putting out feelers to publishers and agents. To be honest the real countdown begins in December when the brochure goes to the printer and everything and everyone is suddenly set in stone. But in terms of how I feel right now? Half of the time I feel like a headless chicken running around trying to do 100 different things at once, the rest of the time like a six-year-old waiting for Christmas.
Can you give us some highs and lows?
Ah. The ‘lows’ are definitely when something goes wrong – often beyond my control – such as, an author cancelling at the last minute due to sickness or personal circumstances. Lots of our events take place in tiny libraries across Essex. Our audiences are very loyal and so they’re really disappointed if the annual Essex Book Festival event doesn’t take place on their patch. The ‘highs’ are when people (authors or audience members) come up to me after an event and say “that was a wonderful event”. It’s got very little to do with me but it always makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
How do you decide on venues when you don’t know how many people will attend?
We have been using most of our venues for many years now so we have a fairly good idea of what will go down well there. Last year we put on a lot more events in Southend than in previous years – that was a bit of a shot in the dark – but it has opened up a whole new audience for the Festival. Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.
How easy has it been to get the authors you want?
Essex Book Festival is very committed to supporting new and emerging writers, along with programming better known ones. Obviously it is always easier to persuade someone at the start of their career to travel to a tiny library in deepest Essex which can only hold 40 people, than it is a ‘celebrity’ writer. Having said that though, we are delighted to be welcoming some of the UK’s leading writers to Essex in March, including Helen Dunmore, Vince Cable, AN Wilson and Louis de Bernieres. I think the fact that we are a very friendly, welcoming, community-based festival makes a lot of difference in terms of garnering support.
Where do you stand on the recent coverage of author payment for events?
It’s complicated. Every book/literary festival is different, so I can only speak for the Essex Book Festival.
In an ideal world it would be wonderful to pay everyone participating in the Festival – that includes the writers, event chairs, and volunteers. We always pay our writers to run workshops and for participating in certain special events. We also always offer to pay authors travel and hotel expenses, which can be expensive depending on where the authors are coming from and the location of the venue. For example, one of our author’s this year is coming from Colchester, another from Glasgow, and another from Geneva… travel is a major expense for the Festival.
Up until now we haven’t been in a position to pay all of the authors participating in the Festival. We have 100+ participants (excluding event chairs) and many of our venues are very small. Given that our tickets are more affordable than most other book festivals (our average ticket price is £6); the fact that most of our events take place in libraries spread out across the county; and our deliberately strong focus on new and emerging authors, we would cease to be a viable operation very quickly if we paid everyone fees, plus accommodation and travel expenses, using our current festival format.
However, in the light of the current debate we’re now in the process of reviewing this for 2017. This may mean reducing the number of events and venues for 2017, perhaps focusing more on the larger venues in the big towns, and programming more ‘safe bets’, i.e. established writers.
As I said, it’s complicated. My only fear is that it will be the new and emerging writers and those living in the more remote places in the county who stand to lose out. Potentially, it may come down to a profit share between the Festival and the participants. Whatever happens we will try and find the fairest, most sustainable solution that suits everyone.
Which events are you personally keen to attend?
Don’t ask me that! All I can say is that I have 40 events in the diary for March stretching from Epping to Southend and I’m looking forward to every one of them.
What will you do when it’s all over? Alcohol, sleep, something else?
Last year I slept for a week after the Festival was done and dusted – that was my first one. This year I intend going for a very long walk with a very good book – I’m not telling you which book though!
MGM British Studios: Hollywood in Borehamwood by Derek Pykett
Casualties by Elizabeth Marro
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