Latest News | 23 February 2023

Why Derby Book Festival is a real page turner

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Derby Book Festival is building a reputation as one of the largest and most successful literary festivals in the East Midlands, attracting celebrated authors and poets to the city. Over the years, the festival has also developed a thriving community programme, but, as a registered charity, needs support from the business world to continue to encourage all of us to embrace the joy of reading. Festival director Sian Hoyle explains more.

Like many good ideas, Derby Book Festival was born over a glass of wine – in QUAD.

It was 2014 and I was chatting to Jenny Denton, a fellow QUAD advocate, about never having been to a literary festival despite my love of books, and we agreed that it was just what Derby needed.

In May 2015, our first festival took place, thanks to the unanimous support of arts and educational partners and local businesses, who all took the festival to their heart.

We were fortunate in establishing a wonderfully supportive board of trustees, led enthusiastically by Liz Fothergill CBE, herself a former librarian, and including representatives from Dains, Geldards, Déda, QUAD, Derby College Group and the University of Derby.

We’ve never looked back. Eight years on, and we organise two festivals a year, with a total of over 30,000 tickets sold across 573 events, as well as a packed year-round community programme, working with nearly all of Derby’s primary and secondary schools, as well as supporting health and well-being of adults.

For people who haven’t been to the festival, you are missing a treat!

The programme is designed to offer something for everyone. Over the years we’ve included genres as far-ranging as real ale, trains, foraging, walking, football, bird watching – and this year: motor racing and Concorde.

There is always a real buzz at the events with people eagerly anticipating the chance to meet their favourite authors, listening to interesting debate and discussion, buying their books and getting them signed.

As the daughter of an English teacher, I’ve always been a keen reader and, with Jenny’s experience and contacts in business and the community, plus my background in communication and event management, the organisation of the festival was a natural fit.

From the outset, we were clear that it should be a ‘book’ and not a ‘literature’ festival as we wanted it to be it to be inclusive for all ages and interests.

And, although our audience demographic can often be similar, our community programme enables us to reach a rich and diverse audience, which more widely reflects the population of Derby.

In the last eight years, we have welcomed two Poet Laureates, four Children’s Laureates, many award-winning authors: Sebastian Faulks, Margaret Drabble, Tracy Chevalier, Lionel Shriver, David Nicholls, Melvyn Bragg; politicians: Ken Clarke, Vince Cable, Alan Johnson, David Lammy, Rachel Reeves, Ken Livingstone and celebrities: news presenter Dan Walker, comedian Susan Calman and the Great British Sewing Bee’s Esme Young.

We’ve also supported local writing talent, including Stephen Booth, Joanna Cannon and T.M. Logan.

The festival has also given Derby children the chance to meet their favourite authors, including Michael Morpurgo, Charlie and Lola creator Lauren Child, and the Queen of teen literature, Jacqueline Wilson, all inspiring their audiences.

But none of this would be possible without the support of various organisations.

The festival is staged in partnership with all the major arts and cultural partners in the city, with our main funding from the Arts Council England and the University of Derby, as well as from businesses and individuals.

Many of our sponsors have been loyal supporters of the festival since the start and have enjoyed the benefits of being part of a successful event.

Cosy, Geldards, Dains, Smith Partnership, Penguin PR, QUAD and Deda, have all been behind us.

But for the festival to grow and compete with the long-established festivals we need financial backing from firms in the city who are looking for interesting ways to build their own brands.

There are many ways to support us, by sponsoring individual events or projects or by encouraging staff to be ‘Shared Reading’ volunteers and giving up an hour or two every week or fortnight as part of their CSR.

Shared Reading events, where people meet up, read, listen and chat about poems and stories, are held in care homes, libraries, the hospital and at colleges.

Reading together has a unique power to connect us, help us share our thoughts and feelings and be more able to cope with life’s challenges.

The programme has been running for four years now and we are currently reapplying to the National Lottery for a further five years’ funding.

Over the years we have developed our community programme. Our Shared Writing project with Derby College Group and local schools has involved refugees and asylum seekers sharing their stories and experiences which have been published in eight books with designers, Burnthebook.

We have had particular success with our annual Meet the Author events for primary schools.

These are held in-person at Derby Theatre (BH) with a very excited audience of around 500 children and teachers watching their favourite authors on stage.

The event includes a Q&A session with the author followed by a book signing when the children can meet the author. These events are almost always the highlight of a festival for me.

During the pandemic these events had to go online, but the silver lining is that we now film and live stream the events into schools – in 2022 reaching 10,000 children with two author events.

We are now extending this to schools in the county to inspire even more local children.

In 2018, we introduced the Derby Children’s Picture Book Award for Years 2 and 3, which celebrates books that inspire and reflect modern Britain and enable children to identify with the book’s characters and stories.

We invite publishers to submit books published in the last year and teachers help us shortlist them.

We provide copies of the three shortlisted books to each class for the children to read in the spring term and vote for their favourite.

This year we have 51 schools taking part, reaching around 5,000 city children.

Of course, the highlight of our year is the May festival, held over nine days, where invited authors and poets visit venues across the city to talk about their publications and answer questions.

This year’s festival programme will be out on 4 April with around 50 events, including one for Marketing Derby Bondholders each year.

The impact of cultural events such as Derby Book Festival cannot be under-estimated and we work hard to keep the momentum going across the year, including our weekend Autumn Festival, as well as holding one-off events to target different audiences.

As Derby works on its City of Culture bid I hope that all the cultural organisations in the city can come together in a coordinated way to help develop a clear vision and meaningful strategy to enhance arts and culture in the city.

Ticket sales for our Autumn edition of the festival exceeded our pre-pandemic sales – a hopeful sign that audiences are returning to the city’s wonderful arts venues.

In a world dominated by visual media and online content that is designed to engage within seconds, it is remarkable that there remains such enthusiasm for books.

Of course, I am delighted that there is – there is simply no better way to explore a different life, a different era, a different world. And all from the safety of your own armchair!

*The 2023 Marketing Derby Bondholders’ Book Festival event will be on Monday 22 May from 5pm to 6pm.

It will be with sports journalist and presenter, Lee McKenzie, who will talk about her book Inside F1: Alongside Legends.

More details about the event will be released soon.

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