Derby Book Festival: how two women launched an 8 day event with no funding experience

An event for the whole family to enjoy

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The Independent Culture

March and April 2014

One thing was certain from the outset – we wanted a “book” festival, not a “literature” festival. People “get” books, but literature can be daunting and turn people off. We wanted a festival which could be enjoyed by all ages and interests.

And, so it begins. Other Festival organisers, including Lowdham, Ilkley and Huddersfield, generously share their experience and try to make us see the reality of the huge amount of work involved: venues, funding, designers, website, volunteers, pitches, sponsors – booking the authors is the easy bit it seems. We are amazed that, without exception, our idea is met with interest, enthusiasm and a wish to be involved.

May and June 2014

We each draw up our wish list of four authors, neither of us knowing how to contact an author and convince them to come to an unknown festival in Derby. At our first meetings, in London, we are asked: “Derby? Isn’t it near Durham … no … Cambridge?” We begin to adopt a mantra: “Derby, only 90 minutes from  St Pancras” to reassure those who are uncomfortable north of Watford.

Sian Hoyle and Jenny Denton founder of the Derby book festival

Then a bit of luck: we make contact with someone who comes from Derby and now works in publishing. Finding Julia is like discovering the key to a secret garden: she advises us on how to contact publishers, uncovers the secrets of the publishers’ year and tells us about forthcoming novels by authors we’ve never dreamt of approaching. We are warned – do not approach authors directly! If you can’t convince the publicists, you’ll never get an author.

It starts to take shape – Derby LIVE books Simon Yates, the climber and author, who was immortalised in his climbing partner Joe Simpson’s book Touching the Void. Déda, the city’s dance venue, secures the poet Simon Armitage and a children’s theatre show Duck in the Truck.

People tell us that we haven’t left ourselves enough time and shouldn’t be too ambitious. Wise words, but enthusiasm gets the better of us.

July and August 2014

We spot a crucial fact in a feature on Liz Fothergill, Inspirational Woman of the Year at the East Midlands Chamber of Commerce Awards. She originally trained as a librarian. We tentatively arrange to meet her hoping that we may have found the Chair of our non-existent Management Committee, and she agrees. The committee takes shape with 10 people from arts organisations and businesses across the city, a good mix of skills and immense generosity with their time and expertise. We meet informally and share our favourite books, which tells us a lot about each other.

Our first funding! Derby City Council, in spite of cuts and financial difficulties, sees the value of the festival to the city and ring fences £2,000. And, soon after, our first public event, with reading group members to gauge interest and develop ideas. The wine flows and enthusiasm grows, but we are slightly unnerved at some of the authors suggested, several of them dead!

Sian Hoyle and Jenny Denton founder of the Derby book festival

We unearth an interview with James Daunt, the managing director of Waterstones. He sounds so interesting, we email to ask if he’ll speak at the festival. He accepts within half an hour. This is getting serious!

September and October 2014

We now have a designer, a social media agency and an identity – a clean and simple bookmark – but we can’t agree on the colour scheme. The logo feels a bit like naming your first child, we so want to get it right and to love it. The committee finally agrees on two colours. 

Great excitement – BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub is keen to come and record one of its outside broadcasts at the festival with the local author Jon McGregor. 

We come down to earth fast, and agonise over applications for Arts Council England (ACE)  funds. If we’d paid our dues into the swear box on the dining table, we’d have funds for two book festivals.

November and December 2014

A meeting with Foundation Derbyshire and a local philanthropist and business woman secures our first significant funding of £5,000. We develop a range of sponsorship packages. The most successful, for £250, secures a mention in the programme and two free tickets for our closing event with the yet-to-be-found “headline” authors.

Christmas looms and we feel increasingly anxious about the ACE funding, particularly as we’ve been warned that we are unlikely to get it at the first time of asking. Finally, on 14 December, we receive the letter awarding us the full £14,500. There are tears and celebrations and we allow ourselves a Christmas Day break!

January and February 2015

It is festival year, and we publicly launch it in the Victorian splendour of our local Waterstones, now our official festival bookseller. More than 100 guests turn up, each armed with their favourite book, which proves again to be a great icebreaker. We have 300 likes and follows on social media by the end of the first day and all the local media turn out. Derby really does seem to have taken this festival to its heart. The pressure accordingly mounts.

Sian Hoyle and Jenny Denton founder of the Derby book festival

Crazy notions of contacting internationally renowned authors become reality. We secure our first headline author, Michael Morpurgo, who will close the festival and give a performance for schools. Of the city’s 62 primary schools, 58 accept an invitation to send six pupils and two teachers to this free event. Successful pitches to Penelope Lively, David Nicholls, Sarah Waters and Katie Fforde follow. Riches way beyond our initial dreams!

Dymphna Flynn, producer of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row and, for 12 years, Bookclub, is due to arrive and we carefully plan visits to three venues, including the magnificent Joseph Wright of Derby gallery in the Museum and Art Gallery. Sadly, the acoustics aren’t great, but she loves Déda’s theatre.

We have our first go at crowdfunding, and are delighted with the resulting £800.

Valentine’s Day, and we launch our Fifty Word Flash Fiction Writing competition on the theme of (what else?) Love. The five winning stories will be printed on to bookmarks to distribute as marketing material and our designers later produce stunning illustrations for each. We are astounded when more than 200 entries come flooding in.

March and April 2015

Our ACE funding enables us to appoint some support for two days each week. This comes in the form of the seriously well organised Helen – and her wheeled case full of files - and a wonderful trainee accountant, Laura. We would NEVER have delivered a festival without this support.

The “shall we eat cake?” (literally!) question for the Shakespeare’s birthday launch generates the longest discussion of any meeting.

The week’s final programme and website design come together and we are thrilled with them.


23 April 2015

World Book Night, Shakespeare’s birthday and launch day: 10am arrives but the programmes don’t and we are frantic, but they finally turn up. The media get their pictures, the guests settle, the film screens, the presentations are made and, then, the final event of the evening – the musical book swap. But no music! Finally, our indefatigable chairperson strikes up The Archers’ theme tune, and the evening is saved.

Now we have just to sell the tickets … but surely that can’t be difficult?

The Derby Book Festival runs from 31 May - 7 June. For more information, go to