Interview with City Read founder Andy Ryan

When mum Andy Ryan was made redundant she turned her fear of not being able to earn money into an opportunity, and launched Stellar Libraries and Cityread – generating over £1.2 million of income for the library sector in London and across the UK in just four years. We find out how.

What’s your career background?

Prior to establishing Stellar Libraries in 2010, I was marketing and office manager at London Libraries for five years. Before London Libraries I spent four years at Arts Council England in the Interdisciplinary Arts team.

My route to the Arts Council is a heady mix of selling shares in racing greyhounds, healthcare PR, bar work, recruitment consultancy and events management.

How did it change after having kids?

I was very fortunate that when I had my first daughter, Stella, I was working at London Libraries (a membership organisation established in 2000 to create joined up working opportunities for London’s 33 public library services) and employed by our lead borough, Newham.

This meant I had great public sector maternity arrangements, including eight months paid leave. I worked for a small and very flexible team, which made working from home and condensed hours possible.

You were made redundant in 2010 when you were trying for your second child. How did you feel?

Terrified! Our first thoughts were that we should abandon all attempts for Child Two. But we also wanted Stella to have a sibling close to her in age, and that won out. We tried to put it in long-term perspective and realised that getting the family stuff right was more important than anything else.

I’ve always worked, and although my husband’s salary, luckily, would have covered our mortgage and essentials, the thought of not earning my own money was horrible. And still is!

Why did you decide to go freelance instead of looking for another job?

My position at London Libraries was amazingly flexible, I was able to work from home and manage my own time, leave at 5pm on the dot to make it to my childminder, and time off for baby illnesses or doctor’s appointments was never questioned.

I was convinced I’d never be able to walk into another job that would give me that amount of flexibility from the outset – those sorts of perks need to be built up over time in most office environments.

My redundancy was the result of London Libraries’ closure due to funding cuts. I’d built great relationships with libraries over my five years’ employment in the sector, and had a couple of projects that I thought I could deliver on my own, certainly while I was looking for a ‘proper’ job.

I was fortunate to pick up a part-time six month consultancy role for Brent Libraries straight away, and it really helped to have some regular income immediately after the redundancy.

What is Stellar Libraries?

Stellar Libraries is the community interest company (CIC) I founded in 2010 to create exciting, daring and innovative campaigns to promote reading for pleasure and get more people using their libraries.

When London Libraries closed there was a real gap in provision for the capital’s public libraries to promote their services. So, working with a small team of freelancers and volunteers, I dream up marketing opportunities that – I hope – challenge people’s perceptions of what libraries are all about.

For example, in 2012, in the wake of the publication of 50 Shades of Grey, we designed a female-focused erotic fiction campaign that ran in 30 library services across the country – Between the Sheets. Libraries brought a collection of erotica, from classics by Anaïs Nin to 80s bonkbusters by Jilly Cooper, and programmed events with author or writing workshops.

It was really well received by libraries, by customers, and by the press – The Sun sent a journalist to cover our Between the Sheets event at Swansea Library.

Where did you get the idea for Cityread?

I pinched it! City-wide community reading projects aren’t new. They kicked off in the US years ago, and Brighton and Dublin have both run successful programmes for eight or nine years. But, I guess, because of the sheer size of London, and its political composition – 33 councils, plus the GLA – no one had attempted a similar capital-wide project.

We kicked off in 2012 as part of the Dickens 2012 global celebrations. We worked hard to engage all 33 London library services, and are going into our fourth year still with 100% sign-up from the boroughs. This is largely unheard of for cultural programmes in London!

Our programme has changed quite a lot since 2012 – we’ve imported ideas from other city reads, and added some of our own.

We always choose a book set in London (Oliver Twist, Dickens, 2012; A Week in December, Faulks, 2013; My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, Young, 2014), and we ask the whole capital to read it together.

We work with libraries, museums, cinemas and book shops to build a programme of events that brings the book to life for readers and non-readers alike. Last April, over 47,000 people joined us at a Cityread event.

In 2014, we worked with award-winning theatre company, Look Left Look Right, to dramatise sections of the book in a series of pop-up performances across the city. They included transforming Foyles bookshop into a WW1 field hospital and setting up a wartime enlisting station on the main concourse of St Pancras International, where we gave away 1,914 copies of My Dear I Wanted to Tell You to commuters during morning rush hour.

We also worked with the Museum of London Docklands, who hosted our Cityread Family Day. Over 700 children and their parents and carers joined us in activities that explored our city’s First World War heritage – complete with wartime sweet shop and food historian, music hall performances, storytelling and Punch & Judy. This short video shows some of the highlights of this year’s campaign.

cityread london

This year Cityread involved a programme of over 700 events. Who organises them?

London is so diverse – geographically, as well as ethnically and socio-economically – and, in my opinion, no single cultural organisation has a better connection with the city’s communities than our public libraries.

For Cityread to work and reach communities at a local level, most of our events – from book groups and film screenings to local history and author events – are organised by our library partners.

Centrally, Stellar Libraries co-ordinates our events with key partners such as our publisher, The British Library, Picturehouse Cinemas etc. We also manage PR and marketing, and run a series of training events to upskill library staff to ensure they’re confident to deliver Cityread locally.

What have you got planned for this year?

This year’s book is the unputdownable Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Partly procedural police crime fiction, part magical urban fantasy, with river spirits and vampires inhabiting a very real modern-day London, Rivers of London is a perfect choice for Cityread 2015.

We’re hatching all sorts of plans with Look Left Look Right, Museum of London and other partners, and are thrilled that Ben will be visiting all 33 London boroughs this April.

You’ve generated an income of over £1.2 million for the library sector in London and across the UK in just four years. How did you do it?

I spend at least 50% of my time fundraising. Our budget for Cityread 2014 was a mixture of cash and in kind support totalling about £480K.

I started writing my first Arts Council application when I was eight months pregnant with Daisy, daughter two – it was submitted three days before she was born! In addition to Arts Council funding, this year we were also awarded a grant by Heritage Lottery Fund. The funding landscape is pretty scary at the moment, with more and more organisations chasing fewer funding opportunities.

It’s a full time job in itself. In addition to public funding, this year we were supported by Exterion Media who provided us with loads of digital advertising space on the Tube network, to the value of £124K.

Is your family supportive of your work, and how important is that?

I couldn’t do any of this without my husband, he’s been amazingly supportive of me setting up on my own. Neither of our parents live in London, so childcare is divvied up between us and Terri, our fantastic childminder. She’s looked after Stella since she was eight months, and Daisy since she was four months and has been a life-saver on more occasions than I care to remember.

How do you work around your children?

To be honest, the whole work-life balance thing is always a struggle, and I don’t think that anyone with kids and a job can find it easy 100% of the time.

I consider myself extremely privileged that I’m the one who gets my girls up and ready for school every morning, and that we are generally able to sit down every evening to eat together as a family.

Stella occasionally goes to Morning Club or After School Club if there’s a meeting I can’t fit into my regular 10am to 3pm hours, but we’re usually able to spend that time together. School holidays are a balancing act sometimes, but my parents love having them to stay for a week or so during the summer and at half-term.

I spend an evening or two a week catching up on emails after the girls are in bed, and sometimes spend Saturday morning at my office, but I love the flexibility that self-employment offers.

When Daisy was tiny, I regularly took her to meetings with me – she came to a meeting with Foyles bookshop when she was less than a week old, and I delivered a presentation to 30 heads of library services with her in a sling when she was about three months.

At the time, I worried what impression that gave to my clients – I think as a working mother you have to prove yourself twice as much as anyone else – but afterwards found out that I gained a lot of respect from both men and women during those months of serious baby/work juggling.

As an employer I ensure that the same flexibility is built into working arrangements for my staff. One of my freelancers, Rosie, has a three-year-old, and we frequently find ourselves emailing back and forth at 11pm, or having meetings at 6.30pm (with gin) once we’ve passed the childcare baton onto our respective other halves.

What’s your ambition?

I’d quite like to never have a ‘proper’ job again, and to take remote-working to the next level…  maybe spending summer holidays working from our campervan as we pootle around the south of France.

Who inspires you?

I’m continually inspired and motivated by my team of freelancers and volunteers. Their commitment to the campaigns we deliver really support me and give me strength when I’m hit with rejection letters from funders or something’s not going smoothly.

You turned your own redundancy into an amazing opportunity. What advice do you have for other mums facing it?

I would never have started my own business were it not for my redundancy, but I have absolutely no regrets about Stellar Libraries.

Being my own boss is the most liberating, empowering feeling in the world. Also, running a business is nowhere near as hard as bringing up two small children, I’d encourage more mothers who are struggling with that office/home balance to give it a go.

You can find out more about Stellar Libraries on their website, and Cityread on theirs. Find Stellar Libraries on Facebook and Twitter. Cityread are also on Facebook and Twitter