How to build a literary festival in a town where most people don't care about books

How to build a literary festival in a town where most people don't care about books

In 2015 I sat in a solicitor’s office finalising my divorce. This was not the worst set-back in a knock-down, drag-out year, but it wasn’t easy. I leafed through a book on the table: 10 Keys to Happier Living. Do good things for others, get more exercise, connect with new people...Yeah, right.

But the book planted a seed: one thing I knew would make me happier was feeling part of a community. So I decided to throw a party and the party snowballed into a literary festival in my hometown of Margate.

That my home town is Margate was my first challenge.

Margate will never be twinned with Richmond or Harrogate. We’re bottom (or top, depending on how you look at it) ten for heroin deaths per capita in the UK, crime is endemic and the literacy rate is plummeting towards Dickensian levels. The last time I read a book in public in Margate, two skinheads spat on me. Gerald Manley Hopkins was clearly always trouble.

I needed cash to get it going. The initial funding was a lucky break. My (now ex-) agent called with seven hundred quid for a Turkish translation of one of my business books. Enough to pay for a room at trendy Resort Studios, the services of a social media savant and a table of Kentish Tapas at the Lifeboat.  A festival was born. Sort of.

Walking with the Waste Land @ Margate Bookie 2017

I went to as many litfests as I could find. Because you and I live in a bookish world, we forget that books are a minority interest. Readings – be they in a pub or in a theatre – attract a homogenous audience. I’m not just talking about a lack of diversity here. I saw exactly the same seven people in Waterstones as I did at a poetry reading in a draughty church hall. Getting an audience for the Margate Bookie needed a different strategy.

I looked up the word volunteer. People who work for love, fun and connection rather than money. Who were these fools?

The list was gratifyingly long. A literary charity delivered a pallet full of children’s books that went to the local Sure Start and to a church in Cliftonville, the most deprived borough in the south of England. The U3A centre, book groups, universities, dance studios and youth clubs all listened to the Bookie. The Prince’s Trust funded our Poetry Journey project for local 18-24 year olds.

The response from authors was amazing. Local writers  - Sophia Tobin, Andrea Bennett, Iain Aitch among others – let themselves be press ganged into coming. Friends from the Faber & Faber novel writing academy ventured tentatively out of North London. Writers who should have known better – Maggie Gee, Nicholas Rankin – fell for my snake oil patter. David Quantick and Jay Rayner told me to stop name-dropping.

Not everybody got it. That willowy novelist I’d been chasing at yoga told me she’d rather chew glass than head to the Isle of Thanet. Then my new-found resilience kicked in. Did she have a mate that might fancy a trip to the seaside?

I was also very lucky with my timing. Margate was being regenerated, the Old Town was cool again and the iconic Dreamland Funfair was open after a decade of increasingly regular fires. I wrote about the big skies, cheap rent and long strolls along the beach and how that was heaven for literary types. Margate’s online trolls suggested I fuck off back to London, even though my parents had lived opposite Margate Lido since 1965.

Margate audiences are not Cheltenham audiences

Authors understood the festival before I did. They came because it was fun and they got to meet other writers and lots of readers. You could say every litfest offers that (there’s certainly no money in it) and, yes, we worked at making it a strong marketing platform. Every presenter gets a podcast, professional photos and a signing session in our pop-up bookshop in the Turner Contemporary.  Use that right on social media and you’ve got a marketing roll your hands.

The debate from a few years ago about paying authors to appear at festivals seemed irrelevant. They wanted to kick back with other writers and connect with new readers. People know we’re a charity and know that most of our events were free. 

All of that matters, but Margate itself also counts. The town is small, friendly, cheerful, unpretentious and still very scruffy. Hear the seas and the screams of the funfair, dig into your cod and chips, and you are back in your childhood – and smiling.

In 2017 the Margate Bookie got over 1,300 visitors. A single afternoon in a single room had mushroomed into a four day fest spread over five venues. Instead of dragging authors down to Margate, I bumped into them in the Lifeboat. I got it. When you regenerate a town, you regenerate its people. And that includes me.

This year the Margate Bookie is running two festivals at Turner Contemporary. The Spring Bookie is over the first Bank Holiday weekend May 5-7, with free entry for local families.  It’ll be the only litfest you go to with a TS Eliot yogic rave mashup; you can book tickets here.