Hay: attendance, book sales and marriages - all up at the 'Woodstock for the mind'

• 20 June 2014

The tents have been struck, the grass is once more growing and Director Peter Florence (left) is embarking on plans for Hay 2015. But first a few reflections on 2014.
Has the Festival changed in terms of what you've learned and therefore how you programme?
The great delight in programming is to weave threads of ideas and connections throughout the days. When you have nine venues running simultaneously for 13 hours a day it's a lot like running a school timetable, or programming a huge range of TV channels. I think what I've learned to trust is that you cannot be too niche, and the audience is always more curious and adventurous than you can dare to believe. They want a rich and diverse festival experience, and they've entrusted you with their entertainment. The same's true for the writers. I'm always thrilled by how many events the speakers go to when they're here and how those relationships and friendships develop.

What sort of events and authors work best and who were this year's star turns?
About 50% of the events at Hay are related to new publications. Agents and publishers have already established that these authors are brilliant. We need to find ways of sharing the best of what's available with the widest possible audience. I've never yet heard a brilliant writer who wasn't also fascinating onstage if interviewed properly. Super-articulate on the page always translates to conversation. The challenge is getting the best interlocutors.  We were very lucky this year with the "known" superstars - amazing events with Joan Bakewell (below), Richard Dawkins, Jennifer Saunders; and the great Toni Morrison did three sessions, each of which were thrilling.

The breakthrough stars were the most satisfying though, less well-known people who really resonated with the audience. Some of them are big stars in other parts of the world, but aren't necessarily household or even recognised names here: Karl Ove Knausgaard has been to a number of Hay Festivals but only really took off as a headliner this year. Tony Fadell's session on new technology with Stephen Fry was astounding. I think the three writers that the Hay audience were most wowed by were Laura Bates, Henry Marsh (who was interviewed by Ian McEwan), and Roman Krznaric. We had hundreds of people at each of those sessions who came away saying their lives had been changed. In fiction - I'd recommend a betting woman to place some heavy dosh on Dinaw Mengestu's All Our Names for any prize he's eligible for.

What were your personal highlights? 
I had the best seat in the house to hear the great Morpurgo talk about war and horses and refuge. And I listened in awe to Toni Morrison talk about Beloved. That was an extraordinary privilege: greatness and humanity and wicked humour. It's an occupational irony that I don't get to see much as it happens unless I'm chairing the event - I catch up later on iPlayer or via our Film and Audio recordings. Of the sessions I did get to, the one that blew me away was a conversation with Margaret Drabble about Pure Gold Baby. She was the very first novelist we ever had at Hay in 1988. Twenty-eight years later she gave the most eloquent, brilliant insight into fiction and the relationship with "reality" that I have ever heard. Class act. Old school. And she was cheered and cheered by 900 people in the room.

How and why has Hay emerged from a small event in a small market town, albeit one that's always liked books, to be a preeminent litfest at home and abroad - and indeed how is that brand working internationally?
I think there is a common and familiar need for people to sit around and tell stories - whether it's in a tent in Wales or on a beach in Colombia or in a library in Bangladesh. Hay's always mixed music and comedy and politics with literature because you're blending the intensely private and intimate act of reading with the very public and social act of "gathering" and celebrating; and that can be a strange collision. It needs a soundtrack and some levity and good wine.

And Hay's contribution to the local economy?
Local can be both the community of Hay - which does well and remains sustainable through the tourist trade - and the "local" sector of the publishing industry. We work closely with publishers and booksellers to develop a year-round mutual support. We're a not-for-profit organisation, and with libraries, festivals are the only part of the publishing world that is not commercialised. Our challenge is to try and balance sustainability with the "feel" of an accessible festival whilst making it worthwhile and fun for everyone involved. Hay's average ticket prices at £6-7 are much lower than the £10-plus charged by our colleagues at Oxford, Cheltenham and Edinburgh for similar sessions because we want to attract greater footfall. The new partnerships with the BBC and the New York Times are opening up extraordinary new reach for the writers and we're piloting a download scheme for events which yields a 50% of net royalty for the writers. If we can make that work then whole new opportunities may arise.

What about Hay in facts and figures, at least those you're prepared to reveal?
Attendance was 7% up on 2013, booksales up 20%. Three more marriages of readers who met here that we know about. Twitter reach (admittedly skewed by our new President Stephen Fry) is now factored in millions. Benedict Cumberbatch's passionate fans meant that Letters Live was the second fastest sellout in Hay's history. As Simon Garfield pointed out - "if Benedict had been only 3% sexier he'd have overtaken Seamus Heaney". I love it that Margaret Drabble outsold World Cup winners Geoff Hurst and Ossie Ardilles by a factor of 2:1.  #onlyinHay

And what were your father's initial ambitions and what would he think now?
I think my father would laugh and say - "how can you make it better?" and maybe "when are we opening in China?" And he'd be thrilled by Owen Sheers: that 14-year-old boy he judged a poetry prize-winner in 1989 was headlining the Festival this year as poet, playwright, novelist and the Raymond Williams Lecturer.

Finally a teaser for 2015?
We're working on the Hay Levels project collaboration with Tata to produce 90 inspiring three-minute films for A-Levels for launching in the autumn. That's pretty thrilling, and Mary Byrne our Hayfever Director and I are looking at a very specific Children's Festival opportunity for 2015. I'm excited by Gareth's idea about live-streaming events to other indie bookshops too. We've done that in Colombia with libraries and the BBC link may make it easier here. Cristina is programming our 10th anniversary festival in Cartagena for January - and that'll be a biggie.

We've just booked the writer I've most wanted to interview so I'm discreetly-but-skippily gleeful, though we'll have to max this one when we announce!  

Hay: 11 days, 600 signings and everything at full price