A note from Babette Cole
The big tent at Hay is the ultimate pop-up bookshop – and its figures are enough to make grown booksellers weep. Gareth Howell-Jones reflects on the unique challenges of managing it.
“HENRY WINKLER gave me a fiver!!”
The expression of incredulous delight on the nine-year-old boy’s face was enchanting. He had asked the actor, once “The Fonze” and now the inspirational author of the Hank Zipzer children’s series, for his autograph, apologising that he had no money to buy a book. But now he had not only met his hero, but was better off, eager to read, and was probably at some level realising the connection between literature and generosity. This is one of the things that literary festivals can do.
He had also exchanged his fiver for a book. That is another thing literary festivals do – they sell books. Henry Winkler sold over 900 books at Hay this year.
In spite of the weather, this was a vintage year at Hay. Ticket sales were up 7%; bookshop sales up 20% on a pretty good 2013. The BBC coverage was invaluable – the special books edition of the One Show sent sales of Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note (Canongate, £30) soaring across the country. Other local bookshops benefited too. Oxfam sold over 300 copies of the new OxCrimes collection; Richard Booth’s, Hay’s unique new/secondhand bookshop, reported bumper sales too.
The logistics of running a pop-up bookshop ready to host 600 signings in 11 days are complex, but have been honed by years of practice. For 25 years, local independent bookseller Diana Blunt ran the show until her retirement in 2012. Now the Festival has taken the bookshop in-house, the profits ploughed back in to help fund this extraordinary cultural jamboree.
On 1 May, three weeks before the Festival began, my bookshop was an empty patch of damp field. By 6 May, it was a beautiful marquee (30m by 25m) with swagged ceilings, chandeliers and an eye-wateringly bright green carpet. Two days later, the shelves and storage racking were up, and the books began to arrive. We asked for specific delivery slots – so that the 22 pallets from TBS wouldn’t clash with the 14 from Harper Collins – and the distributors met them precisely.
Inevitably, however meticulous the planning, there is a lot of last-minute freneticism, especially with early releases. David Hieatt’s book Do Purpose arrived only an hour before his event, literally warm off the press. It smelt of fresh loaves. This is where good personal contacts with publishers’ sales teams are crucial. To raise a query with, say, Phil at Hodder or Maggy at Orion, is to know that the problem will be overcome immediately and efficiently.
It’s a lean operation. I do all the ordering and recruitment myself, and we begin May with four members of staff, swelling gradually to 18 by mid-Festival. All the stock is kept in the booktent, vertiginously stacked on racking hidden behind the bookcases. After the Festival, we rent a small warehouse for three weeks to process the returns. This year we increased the bookshop space by 50%, the stock-holding by 50%, and the shelving by 80%, meaning that we can keep more stock on display. Stock replenishment is tricky in a shop at times so busy that you cannot see the shelves let alone refill them.
Eight times a day we have between six and 20 authors signing simultaneously. A bookshop with Kate Adie, Bear Grylls, Tom Hollander and Siri Hustvedt among eight authors signing at the same time is inevitably busy, but the extra space has ensured that browsers can continue undisturbed. Last year, 50% of our sales were from signings, 50% from more general browsing. This year, the browsing percentage will have increased.
This is important proof that Hay Festival Bookshop is a real independent bookshop and not just an events venue. At present, we stock only books by authors attending the festival, but with over 600 new titles (and the authors’ full backlists) this gives customers an increasingly rare chance to explore a wide range of new writing, all arranged in an alphabetical democracy. Ian McEwan is sandwiched between Colin McDowell’s Anatomy of Fashion and Alan McGee’s reminiscences of Pete Doherty and Oasis. This exemplifies the Festival’s delight in serendipitous discovery, which provides many of the most memorable moments – the enraptured customers queuing at 11.30pm for Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake after hearing Mark Rylance’s late-night reading, or the audience unexpectedly wowed by Irving Finkel’s charismatic archaeology. “He’s like a rock star”, I was told.
The booktent is gone within a month of its birth. Another month and the grass has grown back and all trace of it has disappeared. Yet for all the Mabinogion-like fantasy of the vanishing book-palace, the Festival’s success is rooted in its solid reality, its physicality. Readers and writers meet face to face, not mediated by reviews. New friends meet in queues or cafes and share their new discoveries over coffee. The sun (or rain) is a real presence. There are sheep on the green hill above and the booksellers have local accents – it’s an international festival rooted in a very particular local place, this beautiful place where I am fortunate enough to live. To those who commute to work at a screen in an office with air-con, this bracing actuality can be a revelation.
What can our experience here offer to the rest of the seemingly beleaguered book trade?
Clearly there is an important place for ebooks (for readers, the content not the format must be the priority) and there will be more technological challenges and opportunities to come. Inevitably, the convenience of Amazon is alluring to busy consumers, but equally clearly there is a keen appetite for the physicality of the printed book, especially when given “added value”, whether that be an author appearance or a local distinctiveness. This is a good news story that is sometimes overlooked. Perhaps the openings of Foyles, new independent bookshops, and new Waterstones will begin to change the media narrative.
Nor are we apologetic about the value of a book. We sell all our books at RRP – because they’re worth it. For £22, for example, you can go to hear Sebastian Barry talk about and read from his enthralling new novel The Temporary Gentleman, buy the book, meet him and get your copy inscribed and be lost in its pages for hours. And you own the book and can read it again or lend it to a friend. Alternatively, for the same money, you could watch 90 minutes of fourth-tier football – say, Mansfield v Morecambe (no offence intended to loyal supporters of those fine clubs), and you’d have to pay extra for the programme to commemorate your experience. Perhaps the book trade needs to be more confident about the value of what we’re selling. Jacqueline Wilson’s Paws and Whiskers, sold at full price, was the number two bestseller at Hay this year, in spite of its being widely discounted elsewhere. Perhaps, too, Nielsen Bookscan could report our figures, recognising that sales of books promoted by authors are important to the trade and quite as valid as those of books promoted by multibuy offers.
The Festival is obviously not something that can be replicated on every High Street (though our links with the BBC will enable us in the future to screen festival events in independent bookshops around the country). Peter Florence, the Festival Director, and Mary Byrne, in charge of the children’s events, together with the publicity, marketing and box office teams, bring the customers to my door. This is a luxury other booksellers can only dream of. But the positive message of Hay – the continued hunger for the written word, the eager openness to discovery, the excited rediscovery of the actual physical world, and the acknowledgement of the value of books – must be reassuring to anyone who cares about the book trade. Certainly, the Henry Winkler fan will be back next year.
Gareth Howell-Jones runs the Hay Festival Bookshop. He worked for Waterstones in Leadenhall, Swansea and Islington before leaving in 2001 to work as a garden designer in Hay, which he continues to do when not selling books.
Photos: Gareth Howell-Jones by Finn Beales (top) and Marsha Arnold (bottom); Hans Rosenfeldt (centre) by Liz Thomson