The latest chapter in Edinburgh’s book festival

Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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As September draws to a close, Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square – the patch of land just outside Bute House, the official residence of the First Minister – is empty, save for the iconic statue of Prince Albert.

The grass is looking a little worse for wear – the only evidence that just over a month ago, more than 220,000 visitors tramped across it during the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

For the 20 permanent staff working on the event, however, preparation has already begun behind the scenes for next year.

But alongside being one of Britain’s most lauded literary events, the annual festival, now in its 32nd year, is a slick business operation.

Creating, staging, ticketing and staffing the events accounts for around 80 per cent of the organisation’s expenditure, according to the latest set of accounts filed to Companies House for the year to the end of 2014.

In just a few weeks before the festival kicks off, a comprehensive tented village is constructed on site, in which, this year, more than 800 authors from 55 countries took part in almost 800 events in a 17-day period.

A large proportion of the costs involved – totalling £446,468 – come from creating the temporary village, which has eight stages, three bookshops and infrastructure such as a tent for authors and media, along with toilets and catering facilities.

“We’re a charity and we’re a limited company, so we’re not like a normal business in that we’re not there to make a profit,” says Sadie McKinlay, head of development at the organisation.

“We have to cover our costs, but sometimes we will make a small surplus, which will be put back into our reserves, which can be used for capital investment.”

The reserves – last year totalling £761,285, according to the accounts – are used for one-off expenses such as upgrading IT systems, or making improvements to the facilities on offer for visitors to Charlotte Square.

But the festival, which is known in the trade as one of the “big three”, alongside the Cheltenham Literature Festival and the Hay Festival, is unable to increase its income through physical expansion.

“I don’t think we would ever look to move from Charlotte Square – that’s where the Book Festival is,” says McKinlay. “But we cannot expand simply by putting on more events. We are confined by the size of the gardens – literally by the railings.”

Ticket sales for this year’s festival, which finished at the end of August, increased by 2 per cent on 2014, while book sales were up by 5 per cent – the highest ever sales in its 32-year history.

And the festival has plans to expand through “pop up” events in different parts of Scotland throughout the year, as well as to continue its Booked! outreach programmes in institutions such as schools or prisons, paid for by funding from the People’s Postcode Lottery.

“We’re also looking to do things outside of Charlotte Square Gardens and outside of August,” says McKinlay, pointing to March’s Edinburgh International Book Festival event that saw Japanese author Kazuo Ishiguro discuss The Buried Giant – his first novel to be published in a decade – at the Lyceum Theatre.

“We want to do more things like that, which are there to cover their costs or even be a potential stream of income for us, as well as events for the community, which are likely to be funded from arts funding.”

Unlike most companies, the Book Festival’s budget forecasters are unable to predict exactly what the product they are trying to sell will be.

“When we’re doing our forecasting at this time of year, we are calculating what we will make for an event that is going to be held next August,” says McKinlay. “We don’t even know at this point what will be on the programme. But like any business, we can make a forecast: we know what our capacity is, how many tickets we’re likely to sell.”

Some cancellations are inevitable – through author illness or travel problems – which can leave a hole in the festival’s finances.

“The only thing that can change once the festival is underway is if an event is cancelled,” explains McKinlay. “And if it’s one of our biggest venues, with a 500-person capacity, then multiply that by a typical £10 ticket price and it’s quite a lot of money.”

However, ticket sales are not the main source of cash for the festival. Around a quarter of its income comes from sponsorship, while a further 22 per cent is generated through “voluntary income”, including the friends and benefactors’ scheme and a patrons’ scheme, which in its first year in 2014 attracted 700 members.

The on-site cafes are put out to tender every few years, with private companies running the stands, but the festival runs the three book shops that are opened during the event through a separate spin-off company, Book Festival Trading.

According to the latest accounts, the company made a gross profit of £79,256 last year, all of which was gifted back as a charity donation to the Book Festival itself, with a small sum left as working capital for the following year.

“We can’t run coffee shops,” laughs McKinlay. “So we leave that to people who can. There’s a commercial deal in place and we review that every few years. We do, however, run bookshops ourselves. It’s great because it means that anyone who buys a book at the festival is supporting the festival. It’s also great for people to have a chance to browse and buy a book of an author they’ve seen and perhaps get it signed. It’s all part of the experience.”

The festival, which admits that a large proportion of its clientele is made up of the over-55s, is keen to attract the younger audience in a bid to extend the event’s popularity into the future.

As well as an increasingly extensive children’s book programme, directors have worked to put on events which catch the imagination of teenagers and young adults – such as spoken word performer Kate Tempest, who received a standing ovation after her sell-out performance this year.

Perhaps a signal that the strategy is working, Kate Tempest was one of the top-selling authors in the bookshop during this year’s event.

“It is when children become teens that it gets difficult,” says McKinlay. “If there are people who we can get to come to different types of events then that is very exciting for us.”