Independent publishers and the Hay Festival
In the first of a series of interviews with leading literary figures, Prabhu Guptara discusses the value of independents and the post-lockdown future of publishing with Cristina Fuentes La Roche of Hay Festival
Prabhu Guptara: How important are indies to festivals?
Cristina Fuentes La Roche: Plurality of views is very important to Hay as a festival of ideas. The big houses are important of course, but diversity of thought tends to emerge more from independent publishers.
PG: Plural and diverse in what ways?
CFLR: Festivals are in the business of weaving tapestries for the public. So we are interested in publishers of different sizes, and of different and even contrasting viewpoints. English is not my native language, so I’m especially interested in translations—and some of the best translations and the most amazing authors come from small specialist publishers, like Charco Press in Edinburgh. Our UK festival tends to focus on the newest books, but internationally we focus more on curating programmes around themes and subjects, so our speakers may not have had a book out in years.
PG: What’s your view of publishing during the lockdown?
CFLR: We need to distinguish between what’s happened in the richer countries versus the less developed ones. In Europe and America, publishers have generally done well, and some have even gained more readers because of lockdowns. We all hope that many of these new readers will keep reading. In poorer countries, many more people have lost jobs and economies have been more badly hit, so even if they have time on their hands, there is less money available from individuals, families or governments.
Worldwide, publishing schedules had to be shifted about. Some titles were dropped entirely, with no clarity regarding when others might come on to the schedule, whereas other books jumped to the top of the queue. Bookshops, which are really the first necessity for publishers, have also been hit, and need support from governments as well as publishers and others to keep going. E-publication has certainly grown, though much more in the UK and the US than in other countries, and we wait to see the balance of print and digital once lockdowns are lifted.
PG: What changes do you foresee in publishing after the pandemic?
CFLR: Non-fiction may become more important. That’s already so in the world outside the Anglosphere, where we are thinking more about the reset that is required in the way we live, individually as well as globally.
We have suddenly realised the importance of simple things that we didn’t need to worry much about before, like logistics. In Latin America, publishers used to sell only through bookshops, and are now selling direct to customers via e-platforms, but again the transition back to normal will need to be managed as bookshops return. The new importance of online promotion by publishers will continue. We may all need to think about wider things too. For example, the digital Hay Festival in Colombia had more than one million participants, and the hunger for interaction and fellowship was unbelievable. Readers are not only individuals: they are part of communities. We can’t forget that people are loyal to their bookshops, and we have to think about how to enable those shops to become better nodes of the community.
PG: What is the theme of the next festival you’re organising abroad?
CFLR: Mexico, from 1 to 5 September, is a ‘maximalist’ festival, with themes such as climate change, immigration, geopolitics, minority rights, feminism, indigenous cultures and human rights. Local authors and translations are important of course, but we also have them in conversation with big international star authors. Festivals are part of the book industry, but they are also part-showbusiness. South-to-south conversations have become more important—people in Latin America don’t just want views from the US and UK, but also from Africa and Asia: after all, their conditions are more like ours, and therefore are more relevant to us.
PG: What advice would you give indies wishing to approach festivals?
CFLR: Our relationship with indies is vital to us, and we want to get to know you. But make it easy for us: don’t just send us your whole catalogue, but tell us which three authors would be of most interest to us.
Cristina Fuentes La Roche is international director at Hay Festival.
Prabhu Guptara is a publisher, poet and board consultant. His interests include Salt Desert Media Group, publisher of the Pippa Rann Books & Media imprint and the forthcoming Global Resilience Publishing list.