Monday, 11 May 2015

DIY LitFests

by Debbie Young

On World Book Night, Thursday 23rd April, a new kind of literature festival placed indie authors centre stage in an old Gloucestershire village inn. 

I founded the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival ( for many reasons: to share my love of books and reading, to provide a literary festival accessible to a rural community, to benefit local businesses, to promote libraries and bookshops, and to showcase indie authors in a festival setting.

Guests at the first Hawkesbury Upton LitFest

Most important of all is to encourage adults to read books. Shockingly, an estimated 30% of adults never read books, despite proven benefits of regular leisure reading: greater academic and career success, stronger relationships, better social skills, and a greater sense of personal happiness.

To help erode that figure, for the last four years I’ve volunteered for World Book Night, giving free books to reluctant adult readers, but I wanted to do more. The place where I felt I could make the most difference was in the village where I’ve lived for nearly 25 years.

The festival originated from a low-key plan simply to raise the profile of World Book Night in the village. Encouraged by the staff of local bookshops and libraries, which I constantly promote on the “use ‘em or lose ‘em” principle, I aimed higher.

Weary of celebrity-focused litfests affordable only by the middle classes, I pledged that our event would be free, echoing World Book Night’s ethos. Consequently, I had no budget! Tentatively I invited indie author friends to take part without remuneration. Nearly 20 volunteered, eager for the opportunity to “cut their festival teeth”, as one of them put it. The Fox Inn’s landlords, recognising the potential business benefits of a festival bringing outside money to the village, were full of helpful ideas.

Orna Ross, Katie Fforde & Debbie Young
Sorting out secondhand books for the village shop, where we sell them to raise funds for the village school library, I chanced upon Katie Fforde’s Love Letters, a novel about a woman who starts a literary festival in a rural community. It was clearly meant to be that she would launch the event, and she generously accepted my invitation. My friend Caroline Sanderson of The Bookseller, an advocate of indie authors, also agreed to come, as did Orna Ross, ALLi’s founder.

This high-profile triumvirate adds credibility, but the event’s focus is on readers, not authors. Provocative themes should interest even reluctant readers, eg “How many words does a story really need?”, “How do you like your fiction - contemporary or historical?”, “Poetry - sublime or ridiculous?”

A sprinkling of other features will break the ice: an exhibition by local illustrators and literary calligraphy as a backdrop to informal readings in the bar. We’re now hoping to make it an annual event and a model for other communities. Already it’s inspired a village in Crete to start its own festival.

PS: After the event:

In the run-up to the Festival, I was oscillating from worrying that no-one would turn up to fearing we'd be inundated and no-one would be able to get in. On the day, we hit the perfect balance - over 100 guests, which meant standing room only in the Function Room where the discussion panels were running, plus plenty of people happy to attend the programme of readings. I was bowled over by how well it all seemed to go, and ever since, I haven't been able to venture out into the village without someone coming up to tell me how much they enjoyed the event. One particular interesting piece of feedback was this: "I really enjoyed discovering authors that I hadn't heard of before". The authors, too, who so generously gave their time free of charge, went away buzzing with enthusiasm, and I'm now starting to compile an anthology of their work, to continue to raise their profile before the local audience, and to sell to help us fund the 2016 Festival. Because, yes, by the end of the evening, we had already decided to turn it into an annual event, which will run on a Saturday, during the day, to enable us also to offer children's events. In the meantime, we've been given a free stall at the Hawkesbury Horticultural Show in August (the biggest social event of the village calendar) at which we'll hold a pop-up mini litfest, selling the anthology, promoting the 2016 event, and offering participating authors another opportunity to stage readings before a live and receptive audience. I couldn't be happier with the outcome, and am already dreaming up new events to make the 2016 HULitFest bigger and better.

Hawkesbury Show website:
Images courtesy of Clint Randall at

Debbie Young writes short stories and flash fiction, as well as non-fiction on various topics. She is also the Commissioning editor for, the blog for the Alliance of Independent Authors. She’s also the co-author of Opening up to Indie Authors

1 comment:

  1. :-) Go, Debbie! Am hoping to find my way to the Show ... I wonder if the Fox will have a B and B room ...