Image: Nicholas Herrmann

Fossil Free Books organiser: ‘We have been called both anonymous and attention seeking’

Author Jessica Gaitán Johannesson on FFB’s campaign that caused literary festivals to break with their sponsors
July 10, 2024

Just a year or so ago, nobody had heard of Fossil Free Books (FFB). But of course, why would they have? Even now, the campaign group has just 3,000 followers on X. However, the group’s actions have prompted a maelstrom encompassing the UK book industry. 

FFB’s campaign began last year with an open letter calling for Baillie Gifford, the Scottish asset manager and sponsor of numerous literary events, including the Hay and Edinburgh book festivals, to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Major authors including Ali Smith, Gary Younge and Zadie Smith quickly signed. FFB later extended its campaign, calling for Baillie Gifford to divest from companies profiting from “Israeli apartheid, occupation and genocide”.

This spring, things began to snowball. Swathes of authors started pulling out of festival appearances at the last minute. Artist withdrawals alone apparently cost Hay a projected loss of over £500,000 in refunded ticket sales and reduced on-site spending. First Hay made a decision to suspend sponsorship; Edinburgh followed suit. After that, Baillie Gifford announced it would end its existing deals, erasing about £1m a year in funding. Many saw this as a terrible own-goal, further stymieing an already cash-strapped arts sector. “We’re working to fill the gap as a priority over the summer and secure the Festival’s education and outreach programmes for the future,” a source close to Hay told me.

After what’s been a hectic few weeks, Jessica Gaitán Johannesson, an author and organiser with FFB, says that the campaign has taken its toll on the group. “People in FFB have been individually targeted both online and by the media.” FFB members have been painted as “anonymous activists”, she says. “We have been called both anonymous and attention seeking…”

Critics of FFB argue that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Baillie Gifford invests far more in green energy than in fossil fuels (which account for about 2 per cent of its portfolio) while its ties to the Israeli defence industry are mainly located in investments with Meta and Amazon, which almost every author uses to sell books. “If it’s only a small percentage for them, then why not consider divesting?” Johannesson counters. “For anyone else, this is not a small amount of money: when it comes to the fossil fuel industry, it’s billions of pounds, and it has a real, felt effect on people’s lives.”  

“We are asking festivals to work with us for sustainability and human rights”

“Publishers have structural ways of working with Amazon which make it very difficult for individual authors to make decisions about this,” Johannesson says, regarding the Amazon double standard. “With book festivals, we had a way of leveraging our work to bring these investments to light.” She believes that at the core of the reactions against the campaign “lies the idea that artists should be grateful for whoever throws money their way... What we want to work for, and are asking festivals to work for with us, is sustainability and respect for human rights.”

Johannesson says that the FFB’s recent activities have attracted new people who are excited to get involved. Book festivals “have been neglected by one government after another, and the result is that they ended up dependent on a sponsor that, evidently, didn’t care about them,” she says. “If Bailie Gifford wasn’t willing to divest from what they claimed was a fraction of their holdings, then this is a necessary step in building new models which prioritise people’s lives and livelihoods.”

FFB has become a lightning rod for people’s impatience with moral absolutes and protest. However, writers often don’t see their work as labour—which produces value and can be withdrawn. Public anger aside, FFB has attempted to redefine that paradigm.