Cheltenham is the best organised; Hay has the best countryside--but do they help sell books?

<p>Harriet Dennys</p><p>Hay is the Glastonbury of literary festivals; as Bill Clinton described it at his memorable appearance in 2001, it is "the Woodstock of the mind". This year, the 10-day festival attracted about 90,000 people; 400 high-profile events were staged between five different venues (the largest of these, the EOS Marquee, has a capacity of 1,300); and an estimated &#163;3m was pumped into the local economy of the small Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye.</p><p>But take away the publicity froth, the visiting London members bar with its VIP section, and the chance to see your favourite author lurching unevenly into a tent after one glass of morning champagne too many, and what is left in terms of actual value to the book trade?</p><p>Does Hay, and the numerous other literary festivals that are springing up around it like mushrooms, have a marked influence on the volume of books sold by the industry? Or is it best enjoyed, as festival director Peter Florence recommends, as "a spectacular holiday party for friends to gather and indulge their tastes for the finest books, food, drink, comedy, music, art and literature"?</p><p>The answer, according to the festival's official bookseller, Diana Blunt, is that the festival has an "inestimable" impact on the number of books sold by her local independent bookshop, Pemberton's. Although reluctant to disclose precise figures, Blunt estimates that the festival period makes up 40% of her shop's annual sales, with the most popular authors selling up to 200 copies of their latest book. This year, sales were up 10% on 2005.</p><p>She says: "Hay is bigger than Christmas, author events and Mother's Day combined: it increases sales by an enormous percentage, and it raises our status as an independent bookshop--it makes us established."</p><p>Will Self, who was among the authors trooping into the book tent to sign after his event, expects strong sales at Hay because the festival attracts his key readers--"a pretty specific bunch". He says: "Hay is exceptional, because people come here for the express purpose of buying books."</p><p>The festival's emphasis on selling large quantities of new books is at odds with Hay-on-Wye's roots as the world's first Book Town, with its proliferation of antiquarian and second-hand bookshops--not everyone is happy when the festival circus rolls into town. Second-hand booksellers such as Anne Brichto of Addyman Annex say that although they buy in some new books by festival authors for the duration of the Hay bandwagon, the event has little or no impact on their sales.</p><p>Meanwhile, bitter bookseller Richard Booth of Richard Booth's Books wants the event to be renamed the Duckpond Festival--a reference to the Hay Festival's move in 2005 from the castle to a greenfield site on the fringes of the town. Booth, self-appointed King of Hay and the man behind the town's designation as the world's first Book Town back in 1961, says: "My bookshop does not benefit from the Hay Festival at all. I am unhappy with the situation where the standard of quantity (the bestseller) is imposed upon the standard of quality (the second-hand book)."</p><p>But "the standard of quantity", as Booth disparagingly puts it, is what literary festivals are all about. Last year, the official bookseller at the Edinburgh International Book Festival--the bookshop is run independently from any of the city's booksellers--reported sales of 60,000 books with an approximate value of &#163;500,000. Organisers of the Cheltenham Literature Festival say that their official bookseller--Ottakar's Cheltenham branch--takes more money on every day of the festival than it does on the last Saturday before Christmas. The 2005 festival saw a 10% rise in sales on the previous year, which was in turn up 20% on 2003.</p><p>Good for the local economy</p><p>Jo Swait, events and floor manager at Ottakar's in Cheltenham, says: "Now that the festival is so established and attracts such prestigious authors, we find that our association as sponsors and official booksellers is a vital part of our business and profile. The event responds to the needs of the local market--schools in particular--and has a high national standing. The Times became sponsor in 2005 and ensured that the event remained news for the duration of the festival."</p><p>In addition to the vast number of books sold at the festival bookshop, the Cheltenham Festival also improves sales at Ottakar's in the town: for the two-week period covered by the festival, the high street bookshop sees its sales increase by 15%. Ottakar's also benefits from the festival by taking large numbers of orders for signed copies of books from around the country, and by catering for a strong collectors' market. Swait says: "We sell a large number of books after the festival by having signed copies of them. We send out a list of signed books to all the Ottakar's branches and send them stock, so it is of general benefit to the company."</p><p>Another official festival bookseller is the Aldeburgh Bookshop, which started the Aldeburgh Literary Festival out of "economic necessity". John James, co-owner of the bookshop and festival organiser, says: "Sales of books in a small seaside town in the winter months were so poor that we didn't know if we could survive. Mother's Day is a waste of time, World Book Day is useless, but the literary weekend is essential to our business."</p><p>James and his wife Mary make a profit from running the March event--now in its fifth year--thanks to "very good" sales at the festival site combined with a 200% increase in sales at the Aldeburgh Bookshop.</p><p>The types of books that sell well at literary festivals can be surprising, since sales are linked to the speakers that give the strongest performances. This can be problematic for the naturally solitary writer--apart from Will Self, formerly in a band called Will Self and the Abusers, who describes himself as "very comfortable" in a performance situation--meaning that non-literary books and famous faces can be the ones to set the cash tills ringing.</p><p>Self and Eric Sykes shifted the most books at Hay this year, with each selling 150 copies. Another sensation was Oxford-educated nun Karen Armstrong, who appeared in two debates about myths. The increased number of events at times left Pemberton's struggling to keep up with demand, and facing disgruntled readers.</p><p>But not all big name authors won over festivalgoers. "A really fantastic book won't sell unless the author gives a good performance," Blunt says. "Conversely, a bad or a difficult book backed by a great performance can be a real success."</p><p>Festival booksellers also sell many more books if an author does a signing session after their event. Last year at Cheltenham, Maya Angelou was too ill to do a signing--despite a sell-out show--and Ottakar's noticed a corresponding drop in her sales. Swait says: "As hoped, Maya was wonderfully eloquent and extremely charismatic, but she was not in good enough health to do a signing. This had a significant impact on the sales of her books, which we had ordered in large quantities."</p><p>Meet and greet</p><p>But literary festivals aren't just about the volumes of books sold. For publishers and authors, the value of literary festivals is measured in terms of exposure and publicity: a longer-sighted approach to driving up sales. </p><p>Taken on these merits, festivals can be a good place for publishers to launch unknown authors: both DBC Pierre and Yann Martel went on to win the Booker Prize the year they appeared at Hay. This is what Hay director Peter Florence refers to as the festival's "big boom" effect--fuelled by its main media partners the Guardian and Channel 4. "That's why it's useful for getting word out about new writers," he says.</p><p>Bill Scott-Kerr, publisher at Transworld, whose author Andy McNab made his first festival appearance at Hay this year, says: "Book sales at festivals rarely cover the cost of taking the authors to literary festivals, so the value to author and publisher lies in exposure and publicity. As bookshop events have declined in influence, so the role of the festival has increased. As a result, they are beginning to play a pivotal role in finding and maintaining core readerships for both existing and new authors."</p><p>Amelia Fairney, Penguin publicity director for Viking, Fig Tree and Hamish Hamilton, agrees that sales at festivals are secondary to the event's publicity potential. Her approach to festivals is to make the most of the "huge publicity machines" that generate valuable column inches, and to ensure that her authors have "a good festival experience". "Authors love to have direct contact with their readers," she says. "Festival audiences challenge writers and provide stimulating discussions of their work."</p><p>Publishers say that the publicity-related value of literary festivals is hard to quantify. Bill Scott-Kerr volunteers: "If an author's sales are on the up, then the festival circuit is a necessary part of maintaining that curve, along with all the other factors which have their part to play."</p><p>Author Sebastian Faulks, who granted The Bookseller a one-minute interview at Hay before dashing off to speak about his latest novel, Human Traces, comments: "[Literary festivals] must have a cumulative effect, but I think you would be hard-pushed to say that a day at Hay equals 500 copies of your new book."</p><p>Despite this unquantifiable element, the current willingness of authors to promote new books at festivals--and, more importantly, the eagerness of book buyers to spend rain-soaked weekends under canvas listening to them--shows no sign of abating. A dazed-looking Faulks, who receives 70 invitations to literary festivals a year, adds: "Every town, village and hamlet now has a literary festival; we are reaching saturation point."</p>