As we continue our campaign for fair pay and treatment at festivals, we spoke to Michelle Hodgson, Director of Huddersfield Literature Festival.
Michelle Hodgson has been Festival Director of Huddersfield Literature Festival since 2012. Prior to that she worked in the publishing industry for many years.
The Huddersfield Literature Festival is celebrating its tenth year! How has the festival grown and developed in that time?
The festival was established in 2006 and has grown steadily over the years but almost folded in 2012 after the previous Festival Director stepped down. It seemed a shame that a town the size of Huddersfield might not have a book festival, and having previously worked in publishing for many years, I felt I could use my experience and contacts to revitalise it.
We relaunched the festival with long weekend of events in 2013 and found there was support from the local community, from audiences and volunteers to local business sponsors and the University of Huddersfield.
Over the past four years the festival has been re-established as a not-for-profit limited company, with clear aims and policies, driven by a large volunteer team of students and townspeople, all passionate about books and raising the profile of the festival and the town. The festival is firmly rooted in the local community, partnering with schools, charities and other organisations and promoting local talent, but also attracts major names – this year’s authors included Irvine Welsh, Alan Johnson MP, Ben Miller, Lemn Sissay and Joanne Harris, who lives locally.
Has the festival had a positive impact on the town and community of Huddersfield in a wider sense?
Absolutely. We work closely with local schools on specific projects, support local charities and have a close relationship with the University of Huddersfield. One of our aims and objectives is to bring people into the town for the benefit of the local economy and we know from our feedback forms that people attending HLF events spend money on books, food and drink, parking. It also gives a platform to local talent through events such as our open mic nights, poetry slam and PechaKucha.
"One of our aims and objectives is to bring people into the town for the benefit of the local economy."
How important are local connections? How do you keep the balance between celebrating home-grown talent and bringing authors to audiences that otherwise might not enjoy them?
Local connections are vital – there are scores of successful arts and cultural groups that have been running in the town for many years, as well as established and exciting new authors and poets. Every year our aim is to put on a balanced programme of bestselling writers, local talent and innovative events, including multi-arts and experimental events.
What can literary festivals offer that one-off events or, say, fortnightly readings, cannot?
Each has its place in the creative calendar. However, for the festival we focus our marketing into a shorter period of time, which means that performers will benefit from being featured in 25,000 brochures, on social media, and in the local media as part of the festival as well as any targeted marketing we do for their individual event. At HLF we try to keep the number of events manageable and generally don’t programme against ourselves, so that each event has the best chance of generating the audience it deserves.
One of your aims and objectives is to ‘provide access to events for those who might not normally attend because of financial or social issues or for reasons such as disability.’ How do you do this?
Accessibility is potentially a broad term but we are focusing in particular on social inclusion and disability, with the aim of continual improvement year on year. Looking at social inclusion, we work closely with local schools in disadvantaged areas, both running events on the premises and inviting students to attend events. We have also signed up to the Huddersfield Town of Sanctuary movement and through it we invited an asylum seeker to perform his poem at one of our events. It’s also about programming events that will appeal to the wider community, for example this year we ran a Bollywood dance and storytelling session, with tickets priced at just £1, and actively encouraged children with disabilities to attend as the dance teacher had experience with this group.
Pricing is key when it comes to accessibility: we always hold some free and ‘pay what you like’ events, including a free family day every year, but the majority of our ticketed events are priced at between £3 and £5, with concessions at £1.50-£3. We also offer some free tickets to specific community groups.
This year we worked closely with Stagetext, providing subtitling at two of our events to make them accessible to those who are deaf, deafened or hard of hearing. The plan is to increase the number of subtitled events next year and we have invited Stagetext to provide additional training for our stewards so they are aware of the specific needs of these audiences.
As far as possible we use accessible venues and we are currently consulting with DisabledGo – the leading provider of access information for disabled people in the UK – to find out where we can make improvements, and also with our local council to see how we can encourage more volunteers with disabilities to get involved with the festival.
At festivals the performers are the draw so we feel strongly that they should be paid. It’s not only for the time they spend at the event itself, but also travel time, preparation time and for each individual’s unique contribution to the festival. Having previously worked in publishing for some years, I’m very aware of how difficult it can be to make a living from writing alone.
At the 2016 festival, author fees, travel and hotels accounted for almost half of our budget. As well as paying a fair fee, we fully support the Society of Authors Minimum Practice Guidelines and go out of our way to make authors feel welcome. There are always going to be some occasions when things don’t quite go as planned, but overall we receive fantastic feedback from authors who take part. Ultimately it comes down to a choice of how you spend your budget. For example, I would feel very uncomfortable spending thousands on a huge launch dinner then pleading poverty when it came to paying authors. It does mean we rely heavily on the passion and energy of our volunteers but they all say how much they enjoy meeting the authors, working as a team and gaining useful experience and skills.
"At festivals the performers are the draw so we feel strongly that they should be paid."
What tips would you give authors who want to appear at festivals? How can they get invited? What are the dos and don’ts of appearances?
First, check on the festival website. You’d be amazed how many emails I get that start Dear Festival Director or even Dear Sir, when my name and details are on the home page of our website. Also people sometimes contact me two weeks before the festival asking to take part, when again our festival dates are easy to find on our website. While I’m happy for publishers to phone or email with a list of suggestions, individuals should apply via a form on our Get in Touch page – it means we have all the information in one place. As I have a day job running a copywriting business, I prefer to be contacted by email in the first instance, but of course some festivals will have full-time programmers so it will vary from one festival to another.
As far as how to get invited, there are no hard and fast rules. Someone once asked at a meeting of festival directors if we programme for ourselves or our audiences and the answer for me is a mixture of the two. There may be issues I feel passionate about that have led to events at the festival or types of fiction I prefer reading, but equally I will programme events that I know audiences will like that aren’t necessarily my cup of tea. A local angle can help but is neither essential nor a guarantee of a place.
Dos and don’ts of appearances: most authors I’ve dealt with seem to have a pretty good idea about this already! It’s mostly obvious things like providing a contact number in case of emergency on the day, being well prepared if you’re interviewing someone, asking questions in advance rather than the day before when the festival is in full swing. And as a smaller festival, we would also say, give us a chance – people are invariably pleasantly surprised when they come to Huddersfield: by the town, the venues, the audience engagement and often the book sales too. We have a beautiful town hall and we sold out 1,200 seats for the explorer Levison Wood this year – the biggest audience he’d drawn to date. People appreciate authors coming here and will turn out to support them.
What advice would you give to those thinking of setting up a new festival?
In no particular order: pay authors and look after them; develop connections with publishers; match the venue to the performer; be creative with your programming; don’t only run events that appeal to ‘typical’ festival goers; work with your local community; build up a good team of volunteers; try not to rely on one source of funding – and be prepared for an awful lot of hard work!
"People appreciate authors coming here and will turn out to support them."
Do you attend other festivals? Which do you enjoy and/or admire?
When I worked in publishing I went to many festivals, from Hay to Dartington to Edinburgh; now because of my day job, I mostly go to events in the Yorkshire region and not as often as I’d like. However, I do follow what others are doing and re-post their events on social media. There are some really creative ideas and events taking place all year round – at festivals of all sizes.
What are your hopes for the future of the festival?
To continue with managed growth, while making the festival even more accessible. Although we make every penny count, I’d like to see the festival established on a firm financial footing so that we are less reliant on grants. If there are any rich benefactors or large corporate sponsors out there – please get in touch!
Who would you ask if you could invite any author from all of history to make an appearance?
That would have to be Iain Banks – we were friends for almost 25 years until he passed away in 2013. He is very much missed. I was his publicist for 10 years so probably went to close to 200 of his talks, but I would give anything to hear him speak again and to go for a curry together afterwards like we used to.