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Behind the Desk

19 Jun 2019
Nick Barley

Name:                Nick Barley         
Position:            Director

Company:          Edinburgh International Book Festival

Number of employees: 26 permanent team members, which increases in August to around 120
Short overview of organisation: Set in a specially created tented village in the heart of Edinburgh, the Edinburgh International Book Festival offers something for just about every age and interest, bringing readers and writers together for inspiration, entertainment and discussion. 

The Book Festival welcomes around 1000 authors in over 900 events for adults and children each year including novelists, poets, scientists, philosophers, sportsmen, illustrators, comic creators, historians, musicians, biographers, environmentalists, economists, Nobel and Booker prize-winners and many more besides.


What is the greatest recurring challenge you come across in your role, and what’s your strategy for dealing with it?  

The biggest challenge for any festival director is having to deliver, year in year out, a programme with a WOW factor. To achieve that is not simply a question of having the right names in an address book; it's about gaining a reputation for imaginative programming as well as quality and integrity so that even the most hard-to-reach participants are aware of the festival, and willing to travel to Edinburgh to take part in the kind of event that no other festival has dreamed of.

Who, or what, drives you or inspires you?

My inspiration is the idea that a good festival is a forum for sharing ideas, and a laboratory for testing new ideas. Book festivals are about much more than books. They are places where people inform themselves and participate in public discourse. Writers are a lens through which to look closely at particular topics. I'm inspired by the idea that festivals can offer a delightful, imaginative space for thinking through complex or difficult ideas – something that social media seems to be getting badly wrong at the moment.

What is your long-term vision for the organisation that you lead? 

My vision is to bring public discussion of big ideas to the widest possible audience. If I'm right that we're creating a kind of grassroots democratic forum, then everyone should feel welcome to participate, regardless of their background or their level of education. At the moment, we have a hugely loyal and passionate audience. Our aim is to bring new visitors to book festivals, and we are using a variety of initiatives to make contact with new 'communities of thought'.

What keeps you awake at night?

Nothing much keeps me awake at night – I am fortunate to be a very sound sleeper!

What makes a good leader great?

A good leader is an excellent listener and a facilitator of others' greatness. But a great leader is also someone who has the courage to carry on leading with conviction even when things get tough.

Have you had a mentor, and what did he/she add to your development?

I have always felt the need for a mentor throughout my career. Currently I am mentored by the chair of my board of trustees, the BBC journalist Allan Little. His confidence in my ideas is matched by my admiration for his own abilities as an interviewer and as an insightful analyst of world events. It's a relationship of mutual respect, I think.

Even leaders aren’t the finished article.  What’s next in your leadership development journey?

I'm working with my team to build a series of leadership development workshops, to help us all think about how we can cope with the extraordinary growth of the Book Festival in recent years. Sometimes I am too eager to take on the next project; take the next leap forward, when what's needed is to consolidate and strengthen what we've only just achieved.

What is the ‘next big thing’ that will transform your sector?  

Live streaming, or as-live distribution of screened events to wider audiences, looks likely to become a factor in attracting certain authors to take part in festival events. That's why we're investing in the right technology to make possible the screening of events outside Edinburgh, in selected venues.

What piece of technology do you rely on most?

My smartphone. Would anyone answer that question differently anymore?

What is your favourite social media platform, and what does it bring to your business/organisation?

I prefer Twitter for Book Festival activity. I like the immediacy and the brevity.

What needs fixed?

The UK's visa and immigration system is currently aligned to the government's 'hostile environment' policies. The result is that a number of authors and artists are struggling to secure short-stay visas to visit festivals. This needs fixed because it's causing long-term reputational damage; authors and artists are asking themselves whether they want to bother with the potential humiliation of being refused a visa. If the UK wants to be 'open for business' it needs to be open for international dialogue too.

What leadership advice would you give your younger self?

Be honest about your weaknesses as well as playing to your strengths, and make sure you surround yourself with people who are strong in the areas where you are weaker.

For more information, please contact

0131 557 5488


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