LAST week was a hell of a busy week for Nick Barley. He was ping-ponging between Edinburgh and London - launching his eighth programme as director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and gathering the jury of the Man Booker International Prize for the final decision on who won. Then as chairman of the Booker judges he was front and centre at the awards ceremony where Israeli writer David Grossman won for A Horse Walks Into A Bar, a book which Barley describes as “an ambitious high-wire act of a novel”.

“For the Man Booker prize we read 126 novels," he says. "To get down to six is a really difficult process so those six are all loved by the jury.”

Barley describes the process he has just been through as “the most extraordinary, turbo-charged book group. And in the end you end up with friendships, just like book groups create friendships.” It has, he says, been “a profound journey”.

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“Some of the judges have emerged from the judging sessions feeling like they’ve been through the wringer. Every person on the jury has had some book that they’ve had to say goodbye to that they were on the brink of tears about losing.”

As chair, Barley pulled together a jury of writers – authors Daniel Hahn, Elif Shafak and Chika Unigwe, and poet Helen Mort – rather than journalists or celebrities. “I’ve looked at other prize juries in the last ten years or so and I’ve always thought that juries that are made predominantly of writers tend to make choices that I like better. Very often if there’s a celebrity on the jury then the choice of winner gets slightly skewed.” His appointment as chair of the prize, he believes, says a lot about the current status of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and reflects “well” on Scotland’s “approach to literature, and the openness and internationalism of the culture we have around the festival.”

Back when Barley - a former editor of the Scottish arts magazine The List - first got the job of EIBF director, there were grumbles from those who considered him an outsider, and even a Facebook campaign demanding the appointment be rescinded – its chief gripe being that Barley was executive director of The Lighthouse, Scotland's national centre for architecture and design, when it went into receivership only two months beforehand. Barley, who grew up in Yorkshire, is one half of an arts couple, along with Fiona Bradley, director of the Fruitmarket venue, who came and settled in Scotland in 2003, and have raised a family here.

Now, however, he's the consummate insider, and has more than made his mark on the book festival which set up its first tent in Edinburgh in 1983. Today, the festival is one of the largest of its kind in the world, and growing. Last year it hosted 800 authors; this year will bring over 1000, and it spread its venues out from Charlotte Square onto George Street.

Over his eight years, he believes the festival has changed “fundamentally”. “It’s always been world leading,” he observes, “but now it’s following the spirit I’m interested in which is the ways in which literature helps us make sense of the world. So there’s a kind of political dimension to writing and to reading; political in the sense of how individuals connect with society, how we understand ourselves in relation to society. Literature is such a crucial way of helping you to do that.”

He sees, he says, the festival as a kind of “grassroots democracy”, and is big on playing up its international credentials. For proof, check this year’s programme, which, among other things contains a project called Outriders, a commission in which the festival sent five Scottish authors – Jenni Fagan, Stef Smith, Harry Giles, Malachy Tallack, Kevin MacNeil - on journeys across America, in the company of local writers, to look at the post-Trump landscape. Barley hopes these writers will bring back tales from the “voiceless”, and deliver the kind of truths not often provided by contemporary media.

Meanwhile, among the headline names being brought to this year's festival are Chimamanda Adichie, the Nigeria-born author who became a feminist icon after her Tedx talk, We Should All Be Feminist, went viral, and the American literary giant Paul Auster, who, Barley notes, is also, like the festival itself, 70 years old.

Barley also wants to see the festival lose its elitist feel. He wants to see in the audience “people who would have previously thought, ‘Book festival, that’s not the kind of place I would go'.”

In this age of social media, he says, we need book festivals more than ever. “We live in a world that’s atomised,” he says, “and in which individuals are further individualised by social media. I think that’s why music festivals and book festivals have become so popular because people have got this urge just to be in the same space as other people and to share. Just to witness things together which aren’t coming through a screen.”

The Edinburgh International Book Festival takes place from August 12-28