Nick Barley's departure after 14 years has been revealed with Scotland’s biggest literary festival facing an uncertain future. Mr Barley had unveiled plans in November to cut festival jobs, scale back its programme and drop the live-streaming of events.
He has predicted the event would take between five and ten years to recover from the impact of the Covid-enforced shutdown of events around the world and the economic climate.
The festival, which was staged in Charlotte Square Garden for 36 years, is also due to relocate for the third time in five years in 2024. Mr Barley said the role had been “a dream job”, but he had decided it was “the right time for someone else to take it on.”
A hunt for a successor is underway, with the intention of a new director being in place in September. Mr Barley’s successor faces having to programme the festival on significantly reduced budgets amid growing concerns about the impact of the public funding squeeze on the Scottish culture sector.
Mr Barley revealed in November the book festival, which employed around 150 staff last year, was cutting spending by around 25 per cent after suffering a “brutal” drop in income from ticket and book sales last year.
Cost-cutting was put in place across all areas of the festival’s operations ahead of its 40th anniversary season this August after a 40 per cent drop in income was recorded compared to the previous full-scale festival in 2019.
Mr Barley led plans to move the festival from Charlotte Square to Edinburgh College of Art when the event returned after the 2020 edition went entirely online. Appointed in 2009 to succeed Catherine Lockerbie, Mr Barley ran his own publishing company, August Publications, before becoming editor of The List magazine and then taking over The Lighthouse architecture and design centre in Glasgow.
He led the growth of the festival’s audience to a peak of more than 400,000 in 2019, by which time it had expanded onto the west end of George Street. The growing impact of the event on Charlotte Square Gardens was cited when the move to Edinburgh College of Art was revealed ahead of a scaled-back edition in 2021.
The festival, which added events at the Central Hall in Tollcross last year, had announced a move to a permanent new home at an Edinburgh University “Futures Institute” being created at the former Edinburgh Royal Infirmary building.
Announcing Mr Barley’s departure, the festival said his tenure had seen the event become “a place for wide-ranging conversations about books, ideas and stories, shedding light on important issues, including class, society, the economy, race and politics”.
Mr Barley told The Scotsman: “I’ve been making plans to leave for a while. When Allan Little was appointed chair of our board [in 2015] I said to him that his most important job would be to replace me, which I expected to probably be after about 12 festivals.
“When I got to 12 festivals in 2021, I told him I needed to plan my off-ramp. He consulted with the board and asked me to stay to see the festival through the pandemic. It would have been a very difficult time to leave at that point.
“I’ve seen the festival through a very tough period and a period of transition. Now, before the festival moves to the Futures Institute, feels like the right time to pass it on to the next person.
“Every festival director has a limited lifespan and I think 14 years was long enough. I absolutely adore the job and in one way I could have stayed doing it forever, but for the good of my mental health and for the good of the festival I had to find the right time and this is the best time.
"I want to leave on a high while the festival is in great shape with a great reputation. I have one more shot at doing something extraordinary.”
Mr Barley said he wanted to ensure the festival was on a “robust financial footing” before the new director was appointed. He said: “I’m so optimistic about the future of the book festival. It’s been in a period of transition, but the Futures Institute is a state-of-the-art venue, which will be one of the most extraordinary spaces in ithe city. It will transform how people relate to festivals and culture.
“There simply couldn’t be a better moment for someone new to come in and take the festival in whatever direction they’d like to take it, but it will be on a very firm footing in an extraordinary venue.”
Mr Little said: “I’d like to extend our heartfelt thanks to Nick for steering the festival through both exhilarating and turbulent times, and for leaving it in such robust good health.
“Nick has led the organisation to its position as one of the most recognised and respected literary festivals in the world and recent circumstances might well have proved insurmountable without someone of Nick’s experience and passion at the helm.”
When he announced the book festival’s cutbacks in November, Mr Barley cited continuing hesitancy over Covid, changed habits since the pandemic and reduced household budgets. He said a “cocktail of factors” had led to regular festival-goers buying fewer tickets and spending less on-site.
Mr Barley is one of the longest-serving figures in charge of Edinburgh’s festivals. Nicola Benedetti and Kim McAleese will be overseeing their first programmes as respective directors of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) and the Edinburgh Art Festival this summer.
The book festival’s cutbacks emerged weeks after the arts charity behind the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) and Filmhouse cinemas in Edinburgh and Aberdeen went into administration.
Kristy Matheson, creative director of last year’s EIFF, is leading efforts to revive the event, working from the EIF’s Royal Mile headquarters.