There is a particular sound that for many, along with the cry of the cuckoo, the thwack of willow on leather and the hum of a distant lawnmower, now signifies the approach of summer. It is, of course, the amplified tones of an author trying to be heard as rain drums on the roof of a marquee.
With its mushrooming tents, ranks of deckchairs and orderly queues of readers waiting to have their books signed, the literary festival is now an established feature of British cultural life. Yet just over 30 years ago, in 1983, when the Edinburgh International Book Festival was launched, it was one of only three. Today, according to literaryfestivals.co.uk, a website that tries to keep up with them all, there are more than 350 in Britain alone and a further 100 in Australia and New Zealand. Not to mention others in Gibraltar, Colombia, India, Spain, Kenya . . .
A festival organiser who asked to remain anonymous, despite being bullish about the economics of book festivals and the remuneration of authors, said, “There aren’t terrific margins, so it’s all about making sure you book the right people and put them into the right venues and you sell enough tickets.” So, though authors might be tempted to look at the figures they’ve jotted on the back of an envelope and cry foul, the organiser is more sanguine. “I think authors overvalue themselves,” he says bluntly. “It’s the festival that is taking the risk.”
It’s a view shared by Jeremy Lee, whose speakers agency last year provided talent for 2,300 corporate events. These events, says Lee, pay anywhere from £1,000 to £30,000 for a speaker. But, despite what they might imagine, most authors just “ain’t a draw . . . being a fabulous author does not mean you’re a fabulous speaker”. In Lee’s half-joking view, “The only people who make money from these festivals are the caterers . . .”