Bill Clinton called it the “Woodstock of the Mind”. The Hay Festival can certainly draw a big crowd – the sleepy Welsh village will swell from 1,500 residents to 250,000 bibliophiles at the end of May as one of the most prestigious literary festivals in the world takes place over nearly a fortnight.
Previous speakers have included the former president himself, as well as his daughter Chelsea, his vice-president Al Gore and his Democratic presidential predecessor Jimmy Carter. From the literary world, notable luminaries to speak at Hay have included Arthur Miller, Maya Angelou, Ian Rankin, PD James, Ben Okri, John Updike and Ian McEwan, as well as famous public intellectuals including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Professor Stephen Hawking.
Supposedly founded around a kitchen table in 1987 by its Director Peter Florence and his parents, the Hay Festival has grown from strength to strength in a relatively short space of time. But it is one of many flourishing festivals that have emerged in recent years.
Its estimated that there are over 250 literary festivals in the UK. Anyone would be forgiven for thinking that such a vibrant scene would have a long tradition – but they don’t. The oldest continuing literary festival in the UK is Cheltenham, founded only in 1949. Most of the UK’s literary festivals are, in fact, less than 30 years old.
As the US and UK have seen a plethora of literary festivals emerging over recent decades, they are also now a booming industry in emerging markets. Take India for example. The Zee Jaipur Literary Festival is billed as the biggest in the world, and other major cities like Kolkata, Delhi and Lucknow also host festivals that draw large – often international – crowds.
Countries like the United Arab Emirates have also made great strides in establishing festivals that have drawn leading international talent, such as the Emirates Festival of Literature in Dubai. Taking place every year for the last decade, it’s the largest festival of its kind in the Arab World. The 2019 edition was hosted under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice-President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, and saw 181 authors from 40 countries in attendance.
Literary festivals are more than just cultural events. As a leading businessman in the publishing industry of the Caucuses, I see them as a unique business opportunity.
I recently attended the 2019 London Book Fair, a multimillion-pound industry show and tell that was an opportunity for publishing houses, for both established and emerging literary talent, to secure vital distributions deals and positive industry press coverage.
Book fairs like London are an excellent opportunity for publishers like me to discuss the nuts and bolts of an industry that, despite deeply embedded traditions over many years, is rapidly changing in the twenty-first century. Licensing, distribution, design, production techniques and marketing are all important elements to a successful publishing house.
But literary festivals also play a key role in publishing success. Festivals like Hay are a laboratory of ideas that break down boundaries and cross-pollinate writing styles to inspire and enthuse a new generation of writers. It is these writers who will produce the works that will excite readers – and build a customer base – in the years ahead.
As the Founder and Chairman of TEAS Press Publishing House and the Libraff chain of bookstores in Azerbaijan, I see literary festivals as more than just an expression of the love of reading and writing. As a businessman, I see them as important investment in a flourishing industry that is set to be worth a staggering $356bn by 2022.
The number of readers in my native Azerbaijan has been increasing in recent years as the level of educational attainment has improved across the country. But Azerbaijan is home to promising writers that have yet to be translated and published in Europe. At the same time, classic books from Europe and North America have not been made available to millions of readers across the Caucuses.
The ambition of TEAS Press is to increase the number of published books, particularly by young Azerbaijani authors, into ever wider markets. At the same time, cultural entrepreneurs should not only aim to grow their client base – they should help nurture and develop them into more sophisticated market places for publishers who want to do business in the region.
Azerbaijan, as a country of the Trans-Caucasus region and a centre point of the Silk Road between East and West, has a unique place in consciousness of another literary superpower – Russia. But the growth of literary festivals around the world has played a major role in expanding the horizons readers to new and diverse geographies and cultures over the years.
Exposing readers to new styles of fiction writing and non-fiction subject matters – beyond the traditional focus of Western publishers – is a key ambition for TEAS Press. For others with similar ambitions, festivals like Hay should be the centre point of their business strategy.