My background in book events stretches back 25 years to my first job in bookselling in Waterstone’s in Edinburgh in the early 1990s. The branch that I worked in had a great track record of signings and in my time there we welcomed an eclectic cast of characters including Michael Palin, Luke Goss (from Bros), Beryl Bainbridge, Hugh Laurie, Quentin Crisp, Leonard Nimoy and Margaret Thatcher!
I then opened what was the largest bookshop in the UK at the time, Waterstone’s Sauchiehall Street, and embarked on a programme of events both in the store and using external Glasgow venues such as the GFT, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and the Armadillo. This brought unforgettable encounters with the likes of Norman Mailer, Maeve Binchy, Stephen Fry, Ray Davies, Michael Moore, John Cale, Elaine C. Smith and Rikki Fulton.
My first involvement with the Aye Write! festival came in 2005 when I had left bookselling to work for a publishing company. I was asked to join the steering committee for a new book festival in Glasgow and I have been involved with the team at the Mitchell Library ever since.
Those first few years on the steering committee really gave me my first insight into how a book festival is put together. As a publisher, I was suggesting my authors that had new or forthcoming titles to be part of panels, debates or stand-alone events. I was also able to see how the various teams of marketing, publicity and operations worked together to deliver the festival. We managed to attract some really great names to those early festivals including the actress Kathleen Turner, Antony Beevor, Germaine Greer, Andrea Levy and Edwin Morgan.
As well as contributing to the programming committee I very much enjoyed chairing events at the festival and used to look forward to my email from the then programmer Andrew Kelly with suggestions for that year’s festival. I got to meet and interview a few heroes like Ben Watt (from Everything But The Girl), William Boyd and Maggie O’Farrell. The Glasgow audiences are a lively bunch and it was always interesting being in the chair waiting for the questions from the audience. At the end of 2014 I got an invitation to come in for a chat about possibly programming what would be the tenth festival, taking place in April 2015. In many ways this was my perfect job, drawing on my experience in both events organisation and publishing, plus it was an opportunity to programme a major literary festival in my home town, so of course I accepted.
So, where do you start when putting a festival together? As with any creative project, it starts with a blank page. We have a very useful programme advisory committee made up of authors, publishers, book trade representatives and academics and together we talk through any potential themes for the festival.
We take into account what has worked well in the past and also if there are any audience development opportunities. It’s usually at this point where we decide if we are going to mark any anniversaries or work with any external bodies (such as Amnesty, P.E.N. or any charities). I then tour round Scottish publishers and take a trip to London to visit the publicity departments and see what new titles they are promoting and to find out which authors may be available. And I begin the process of inviting and pairing up the authors into what will become the sessions.
There are always lots of big names and publishers are keen to get these authors promoting their titles. Along with these keynote speakers, Aye Write! has always had a commitment to new writers and it had been so gratifying to watch the careers of writers like Louise Welsh, Alan Bissett and Robert Douglas develop over the 11 years of the festival.
The early days of programming are a joy when you have a nice clear schedule, but as the days fill up and you are trying to juggle author availability (especially when programming more than one author into a particular event) and travel arrangements, there can be a few stressful moments. No festival ever gets every single author they invite and there are always disappointments (ones to keep in the back pocket for the following year) but, after about six to eight weeks of negotiation, it’s done.
My hope for each new festival is that there will be something for a wide range of people with different interests. Book festivals can provide unique, never-to-be-repeated moments of inspiration and entertainment. A good programme is the launchpad for great discussions and debates, moments of laughter and reflection, and that special opportunity to shake the hand, ask a question or grab a selfie with an author whose books you’ve loved for years.
Bob McDevitt is festival
programmer for Aye Write!