Penarth Book Festival: Interview with Fay Blakeley (Festival Organiser)

2012 saw the launch of a new event on the literary calendar, the inaugural Penarth Book Festival. The festival was held for a week in late October/early November and saw thirty-five authors head to the seaside town of Penarth on the outskirts of Cardiff. As well as a range of events for adults, the festival featured a Children’s Day with appearances by Catherine Fisher, the first Young People’s Welsh Laureate and Susie Day, former winner of the BBC Talent Children’s Fiction prize. Intrigued by the challenges of setting up a literary festival in the current economic climate, I caught up with Fay Blakeley, one of the festival’s organisers.

What inspired you to launch the first ever Penarth Book Festival this year?

The idea came from my good friend Cathy Farr, a children’s book writer (Moon Chase & Moon Crossing). She read an article about the woeful levels of literacy of 11 year olds, and decided she wanted to do something to encourage reading in our local area.  As a writer, Cathy visit lots of schools and knows how much people love talking about books and being read to, especially – a book festival seemed the perfect solution; she also wanted to do something for Penarth as a town to help make sure that it can survive in the future.

 What was the timescale between having the original idea for the festival and opening the doors to your first event?

It was just over a year in the planning and organising.

 What were the first steps you took in organising the event?

Cathy spoke to a friend, an avid reader and huge fan of Hay.  They bounced a few ideas around and then spoke to a local independent bookshop in Penarth; they were so enthusiastic that is just progressed from there. A small committee of four enthusiastic book lovers with complimentary skills (and contacts) was established. The committee was made up of Cathy Farr (writer), Anne Hallet and Rachel Davies (of the Windsor Book Shop) and Fay Blakeley (a branding & marketing consultant).

 Did you encounter many difficulties in getting the event off the ground?

 Raising sponsorship was difficult, especially in the current recession.  We had quite a few promises of money that didn’t come to anything which was disappointing.  In the end, Cathy put up some of the money and stood surety in case the event made a loss.  This meant we had to cut down some of our plans a bit in case it didn’t work but actually as a first year I think we did really well and we will be eternally grateful to HSBC, Penarth Town Council, Core Web Design and TWL Voice & Data, all of whom did sponsor us in the end.

How did you promote/market and advertise the festival?

 On a shoestring! We created a website, printed posters and book marks, which acted as flyers. We printed a small event programme and a specific flyer for the children’s day. We had great support from the local paid newspaper The Penarth Times – who gave the festival weekly coverage for the month leading up to the event. And of course, there was the digital media – Facebook, Twitter and the various interest related websites. We also tried to be targeted in our approach when appropriate – getting in touch with niche interest groups who may be interested in a specific talk.

Given the large number of literary festivals across the country throughout the year, how easy was it to encourage authors to appear at your festival?

 As a local bookseller, Anne Hallet of the Windsor Bookshop has good relationships with many of the publishers, which made the approach easier. We also pulled in every possible favour, and relied on the good will of friends and friends of friends who were happy to draw on their contacts. The authors who came were all so supportive and enthusiastic. Many have already offered to come again next year.

 How did you reach the decision to support your chosen charities (Motor Neurone Disease Association, Book Aid International, The MS Society and Ty Hafan)?

 Book Aid International was chosen for obvious reasons; the other three were chosen for personal reasons of the committee members.

 What has been your own personal highlight of the festival?

 As corny as it sounds, for me it was meeting all the writers and the overwhelming support of the volunteers who freely gave their time during the week of the festival – without them, we never have pulled it off.

Are you hoping to continue the Penarth Book Festival in future years?

Yes. Although it was a lot of hard work, and at times quite stressful, we have already started to discuss next years festival. We’re planning to have a rest over Christmas, then hit the drawing board in the new year.

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