LOVE FOR LITERATURE – Sally Dunsmore: Orchestrating a literary festival


love for literature

Sally Dunsmore is the unsung heroine and powerhouse behind the Gibunco Gibraltar International Literary Festival. Due to her reserved nature, shyness and modesty she walks down Main Street and very few people would recognise her. It is largely due to her work that the festival is becoming recognised as one of the most important literary events in the English speaking world. It now enjoys Royal Patronage with HRH the Princess Royal as its patron.GibMag_August2016 small_Page_030_Image_0001

Sally is the Director of the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival, the Woodstock Festival, now known as the Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature, Film and Music and is the Special Consultant to the Gibunco Gibraltar International Literary Festival. Last year, she gave up her full-time job. She works on the trio of festivals from her home in Woodstock where she has lived for more than a decade. Every day when she is at home, she takes her two dogs, Toffee and Sweep, a Yorkshire terrier and a miniature schnauzer, for a long walk around the grounds of Blenheim Palace

Sally, after obtaining her A-levels, decided not to apply for a university place. She now says that this was the wrong decision and given her time again she would opt to study for a degree. This has not stopped her reading voraciously. After four years working for Oxford University Press, she joined Phaidon Press in 1990, a British publisher of books on visual arts including architecture, photography, art and design, and also worked for the Museum of Oxford Art now known as Modern Art, Oxford.

Since 1994, she has been the Director of Conference Oxford, a consortium of Oxford Colleges and University Departments at Oxford University set up to market and promote the conference and special events facilities of the University. This now has a turnover of many millions of pounds. She also founded Oxford Events to promote art events in the University city.GibMag_August2016 small_Page_032_Image_0001

The Oxford Literary Festival was set up in 1997 which is regarded as being the most successful literary event in the United Kingdom. It started as a modest event with a handful of talks over a couple of days at the Student Union. Today it enjoys a budget of more than £1 million and runs over nine days featuring more than 500 speakers. She said, “I love and believe in each festival, so I want to make it an undoubted success.”

Today, her main problem is finding funding, which in this age of recession and cutbacks in potential sponsors budgets is not easy. The Oxford Literary Festival does not receive any public subsidies or grants in any way whatsoever. Sally said, ‘We are in an area which is very competitive and naturally, we have to go out each year to find the money to enable the festival to be staged. Though interestingly, in recent years, we have been approached by potential sponsors and partners wishing to become involved. HSBC is a major contributor and Blackwell’s Bookshop runs the onsite book concession.”

GibMag_August2016 small_Page_033_Image_0002In opening the 20th Oxford Literary Festival, she drew attention to the title partner FT Weekend and said, “The partnership with the Financial Times has enabled the festival to reach global audiences and develop our international programme. For the first time, BBC World Service will be broadcasting from the festival as part of the BBC’s ‘identity’ season. Special editions of two flagship BBC World Service discussion programmes, The Forum and Newshour Extra will be recorded at Oxford. Alone among the United Kingdom’s leading literary festivals, the Oxford Festival receives no state or local authority funding. We rely entirely on the generosity of our sponsors and partners.”

This might sound as if the financial problems are now over. The reality is that Sally has to run a very lean and tight operation. The 100 plus staff working during the festival are largely unpaid volunteers, not all authors are paid to appear. For those authors whose books remain unpublished within six to seven months from the date of the festival, they will be offered an honorarium of £100. The Society of Authors recommend appearance fees of £150 a session for all authors not exceeding an hour and £350 for a full day. Sally said, “The structure of the Oxford Festival’s finances does not presently allow us to do that. The festival’s purpose is to bring the written word to the public and to sell books for the authors. One of our main challenges, however, is not to get too overblown and ambitious. Sometimes it’s like I’m holding down a beast that wants to escape. That is not to say we’re not being innovative or bringing in new partners and sponsors, but it is just being clear about why we are doing it and what the purposes are.”

The organisation of this year’s Gibunco Gibraltar International Literary Festival has undergone structural chances. Sally will be known as a special consultant with responsibility of booking 30 speakers – rather than Festival Director as in the past. This label will now fall to Nicky Guerrero, Chief Executive of the Gibraltar Tourist Board.

Sally’s main task is persuading the authors, celebrities and other participants to come to the festival with her commercial partner Tony Byrne providing specialist advice in other matters such as finding sponsors and partners.

Nicky explained how the Gibunco Gibraltar International Literary Festival has evolved over the last four years. “Three years ago, we had no experience in producing a literary festival although we had experience in organising other types of festivals and large events. The actual groundwork and organisation of the Literary Festival is done by the Gibraltar Tourist Board, the teams at Gibraltar Cultural Services, Ministry of Culture and the Garrison Library.”

The Ministry of Tourism is given a budget and pays all bills. The festival would not be possible without the generous support of sponsors and partners. The objective is to ensure that the festival costs the local tax payer as little as possible and Nicky is always on the lookout for new sponsors and partners to find ways of making the festival more financially efficient.

The event is part of the Government of Gibraltar’s event-led tourism policy that sees the Rock busy with events all-year-round. This series of outstanding events attracts visitors, adding an incentive to an already unique tourism destination. Partners are those entities that work towards the organisation of the festival such as government departments or agencies. There is no charge for some of the venues but the Tourist Board pays for items such as security and cleaning. Sponsors, on the other hand, provide cash or services in kind and are headed by the principal sponsor, Gibunco. There will be a new provider of the online ticket service,, and the information online will be more comprehensive and clearer. As always, a box office will also be available and tickets may be purchased at the door.

The speakers are not paid an appearance fee as they are invited to stay in Gibraltar for three or four days, are given air tickets and hotel accommodation coupled with generous hospitality. There is also a frenetic social programme and some speakers will be invited to appear on GBC to be interviewed by the local media. Last year, Maureen Lipman and Nicholas Parsons did numerous interviews with United Kingdom regional radio stations which resulted in a positive message about the festival and the many and varied attractions to be experienced on the Rock. This was heard by millions of listeners.

It is Sally who draws up a list of authors and subject matter for the annual Gibraltar lecture which is delivered at the Oxford Literary Festival. The list of possible speakers is sent to the Gibraltar Tourist Board and the decision is then taken as to which speaker will deliver the Gibraltar lecture.

What makes the Gibunco Gibraltar International Festival unique is the fact that all the speakers spend four days together meeting and bonding with each other. In other major festivals, the speaker arrives, delivers the lecture and then departs without meeting many of the other speakers. By the end of the festival, the speakers will have eaten meals in all the major hotels and have been taken to some of Gibraltar’s more exotic restaurants. Most meals are covered by the sponsors and the outstanding hospitality is also an incentive to return.

The positive reports that a set of very influential people take with them after experiencing the festival is great marketing for Gibraltar and also makes them want to return over other festivals.

Furthermore, many will be interviewed on GBC which also means that when walking down Main Street, they will be stopped, invited to take coffee and asked to pose for a selfie. Where else does this happen? Every talk is reviewed in the Gibraltar Chronicle, which, hopefully, means increased book sales and one other reason why authors attend books festivals the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.

This year, the participants will be shown considerably more of Gibraltar than hitherto which will highlight the tremendous diversity that is to be found on the Rock.

Nicky Guerrero paid this tribute to Sally Dunsmore, “Sally has done a tremendous job over the first three festivals. She goes about her duties with tremendous professionalism, is always courteous and knows the majority of authors, literary agents and journalists. I and the team are most grateful for all her expertise and hard work in the rapid expansion of the Gibunco Gibraltar International Literary Festival and for her major contribution to this year’s festival which will be the first under the patronage of the Princess Royal.”