HAY-ON-WYE, Wales (Reuters Life!) - For all the talk of a bleak future for books, the founder of one of Britain’s largest literary festivals held each year in a small town in Wales is confident the written word is secure.
Peter Florence has turned the Hay Festival into a major cultural event, which this year features authors like Bill Bryson, Roddy Doyle, Philip Pullman and Tom Stoppard and speakers ranging from President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed to British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
About 100,000 people are expected to come to the festival in Hay-on-Wye, a town of 1,500 souls nestled in the Black Mountains of Wales which, with 42 book stores, has more per capita than anywhere else in the world.
“The first festival was held in the back of the British Legion in a room that had space for 40 people,” he said, sitting in the marquee tent Green Room, in a farmers field, where the likes of Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer and Booker award winners Ian McEwan and Roddy Doyle go to relax.
“Now we’re on this ludicrous 25-acre site.”
Florence started the festival, now in its 23rd year and running until June 6 this year, with money he won from a poker game, a loan from his mother and a love of good writing.
“It grew largely because of the great fortune of living in this place,” he said, adding that luck also played a role.
Poets Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke spoke at the first festival and Florence persuaded playwright Arthur Miller to come to Hay for the second festival.
“He (Miller) thought Hay-on-Wye was some kind of sandwich, and he wanted to see the town with so many bookshops,” Florence said. “Once he came in the second year, no one would say they wouldn’t come.”
And so over the years, everyone from former U.S. president Bill Clinton (in 2001) to Archbishop Desmond Tutu (in 2009) have made appearances. And the festival has grown beyond its Welsh borders to 10 other countries. This year the festival will launch in the Maldives, Mexico and India.
Asked about the future, Florence said he’s not sure where Hay will go next. But he is also not worried about doomsayers forecasting the demise of books.
Last year in the UK publishers sold about 763 million books, down nine percent from 2008, according to the Publishers Association. Book publishing and the way people read books is undergoing vast change.
“I don’t think the future of writing will be menaced by new technology,” said Florence, who has been using a Sony Reader for years. “I love the sharing of big ideas and stories,” he said.
And there’s a lot of that at Hay. People chat to each other in queues, mingle while browsing in the festival bookshop and they can even buy mini 20 pence books at the shuttle bus stop taking them from the festival to the picturesque town nearby.
“There’s a very special atmosphere here,” said Jasmin Mellor, of Staffordshire, who has been coming to Hay for eight years with friends in her book club.
“I always meet lots of people and have very good conversations,” she said, adding that seeing and hearing authors speak about their books is always stimulating.
This year she enjoyed hearing Kazuo Ishiguro speak about his latest book called “Five Stories of Music and Nightfall,” and the inspiration he gets from films and music.
“I like buying books here, because it’s special and you get to see the authors and get them signed,” she said.
Authors enjoy engaging with the public as well.
“It’s a great event, there’s a tremendous energy to it,” said Ahdaf Soueif, whose book “The Map of Love” was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999.
While the National Trust is demonstrating its app on the recently launched iPad, Rachel Hazell is sitting at a wooden table offering to help people make books the old-fashioned way.
“Books are never going to die,” said Hazell. “The day I made my first book, I knew I’d be a book-binder for the rest of my life. I‘m never going to sit by the fire reading a Kindle.”
Meanwhile, Tina Brown, formerly the editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, who is now the founder and editor in chief of The Daily Beast, a news website, was espousing the virtues of electronic media in another marquee.
“The iPad is very seductive,” she said. “I see people already carrying them around... I think it’s going to win.”
Her talk was so convincing Rupinder Nagra, of London, was ready to buy an iPad after hearing her speak. That said, he was thrilled to have three signed books he bought at the festival.
”I think the festival is great,“ he said. ”The fact that it’s expanding and that numbers are going up shows the future is bright. “There’s a commitment to literature and to technology and I think there’s a middle ground where the two can meet,” Nagra said. “But who’s going to sign your iPad?”
Reporting by Sharon Lindores