Wednesday, 2 March 2011

World Book Night

I'm conflicted.

On the one hand, excitement courses through my veins like, well, sugar courses through my veins after one too many Cokes: I've signed up to be a 'Giver' for World Book Night - though that term is a bit Never Let Me Go for my liking - and am planning an afternoon of book busking in the centre of Norwich on Saturday afternoon followed by attending an event at the Millennium Library in the evening. Public celebration of books, building communities of readers, encouraging all to read great literature: these are the things I get most excited about. As a book lover its a chance for me to share some of the books I love with others, as a reader it's a chance to get my hands on copies of books I've long wanted to read but never quite got around to buying.

So far, so good. But there's a rather large BUT on the horizon. In fact, it's three huge BUTs:

1) BUT...what is the point of World Book Night?
As a major public engagement programme that a number of partners have committed serious resources too, I am amazed at how poorly the idea seems to have been developed. It seems to me that this is something that got off the ground thanks to a big idea - lets give away 1 million books! - and snowballed without anyone ever stopping to determine, or inform anyone else, what exactly the point was. There are no grand ideas that surround WBN, it doesn't appear to want to target improved literacy, introduce great books to those who might not otherwise read them, or even promote a discussion about contemporary literature. Let's give away 1 million books appears to be as far as the aims discussion ever got. The figure of 1 million books doesn't even appear to have been thought through. Why 1 million other than its a round number? Has anyone actually investigated whether there is a market for these 1 million books?

As someone who wants to be a committed cheerleader for reading, books, and World Book Night in particular, I find this lack of clarity frustrating and rather surprising.

Books can be so much more than just books. Charity can be so much more than just a free book. That there has been no effort to use World Book Night for the good of society amazes me. And that leads me on to BUT 2...

2) BUT...who actually benefits?
As far as I can see the only people who really gain are the 25 selected authors who benefit from widespread media coverage, front of store display in bookshops across the country, and an army of committed word-of-mouth fans promoting their book. And of course, that 20000 strong army of readers gets free books and the chance to give these away to people who will enjoy them. That in itself is one of the greatest joys for a reader.

But publishers who are spending thousands of pounds on printing special WBN copies of the titles receive what, except for front of store display for their books? And even more so, what of all the other authors not selected as part of WBN, who have been vocal in expressing their concern? Who is going to go out and buy, for instance, a copy of The Afrika Reich by debut author Guy Saville (published a couple of weeks ago to widespread acclaim) when there are a million books flooding the market. What reader will take a chance on a book they don't know much about when there are these 25 golden books served on a plate to them complete with the endorsement of readers throughout the land?

And what does that mean for booksellers too? It's not as if bookselling is particularly profitable at the moment anyway. That is why, on top of taking part in WBN, I will be purchasing a copy of another book (as yet undecided) from an independent bookshop - The Book Hive in Norwich - and personally matching it with someone I think will love it. If everyone did this as well as finding homes for their 48 copies for WBN, this mad project could be made to work for a far greater number of people.

This links nicely to my solution to BUT 3

3) BUT...what do I do?
So more than 20000 people have been sent 48 copies of a book they chose. What next? As with the lack of clear aims and objectives, there seems to be a whole scale lack of clarity about what exactly is the process for disseminating these million books. The much vaunted interactive website is still to go live and, as of today, Wednesday 2nd April, there isn't even a section on the current website for innovative ways for readers to get together and deliver WBN in their communities. This is a vast idea that appears utterly rudderless.

Sure, there are events taking place across the country, including a big one in Trafalgar Sq this Friday, but how is anyone to come along to such an event with a huge box of books? Trafalgar Square - billed as the biggest ever book reading - was programmed so late that few outside London will be able to attend, particularly since tickets must be collected from the local Waterstone's by 4.30pm that day.

I fear that a proportion of the one million books - and even if this is as little as 1%, that equates to 10000 books - will simply not find a home. They'll be given away slowly to friends and relatives, until everyone who wants a book has it, and then the left overs either dumped in the attic to gather mildew, or donated in their droves to charity shops everywhere. And what is the point in that?

At this point I want to emphasise that I'm not trying to knock all those who have worked hard to make this happen. Simply getting 1 million books out to 20000 givers is a logistical nightmare that I'll be impressed to see completed. But if there is ever a next time, a bit of planning, fore-thought and consideration for all those involved - whether directly participating or indirectly affected - would make for a far more effective programme.


Anonymous said...

I disagree completely with all your negativity. As a WBN giver you've had plenty of time to consider where to give out your books and, to sign up to be a giver you had to say who you planned to give them to. The winners from WBN are everyone who will benefit from the generous free publicity this word of mouth reviewing is generating. And folk like you who want to naysay it and folk like me who support it.
I'm giving out Atwood's The Blind Assassin. I called my local education authority and they're delighted, they'd happily take them all and any others I can hand in. They prefer class sets so that everyone can have a copy.
And they like more than one copy in the school library.
I'm also giving out to local colleges who don't have the book in their collection.
And I'm giving out at a public event in my local library. So, 48 books isn't enough.
I think you're being unfair. This is the first WBN so there are bound to be hiccups and things to learn from.

Crafty Green Poet said...

I couldn't think of a campaign i would be able to do for the event so i didn't sign up. A wholefood shop in Edinburgh is giving away copies of its book in connection with asking customers to come in with their homemade preserves and there's to be a competition, with the first 50 getting a copy of the book then a tasting to select a winner who gets gift vouchers too

Sam Ruddock said...

Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. Please don't get me wrong: I am keen for WBN to be a resounding success. It sounds like you have a clear idea of what you are going to do and I salute you for it.

I don't think I'm being overly negative, though. Or not intentionally, anyway. I have had a rough idea for distribution ready since day one. But almost everyone I speak to still hasn't any idea what they are going to do. I would suggest that is a sign that there is still a great deal of confusion about what World Book Night is really all about. And when such vast resources are committed to a project like this I'd hope there would have been a bit more foreward planning into aims and objectives, as well as how the volunteers would deliver it.

I'm be the first to commend those who have made something of this scope happened. Getting these books out to the right people is a really great achievement. But that doesn't mean we have to cheerlead when there are legitamate concerns to raise.

Good luck with your distribution, and if you have any spare you can always send one to me! The Blind Assissin is one of the books I most want from this weekend's festivities.

Sam Ruddock said...

I think a lot of people were put off by having to think of a good idea, CGP. That's why I'm frustrated that there is no sense of delivering what people promised. Everyone who applied by a certain date received books so that whole 'what would you do?' has been a bit of a white elephant.

Great to hear of the wholefood shop in Edinburgh though. Even these testimonies/ideasa could and should be shared better for the benefit of everyone.

Kinga said...

I nearly signed up for WBN, but I had doubts as to how I'd distribute the books in my small town, to which I am a newcomer. I then had second thoughts about the fact that bookshops are closing, the big "supermarket" ones and the small independent-owned ones. Is it a good idea at this time to hand out books for free? Publishers and authors should try and help these books to stay alive, to get people through their doors. Maybe handing out "5-quid off your book of choice" vouchers would have been better? It would have still raised the profile of reading but allowed bookstores to profit, as well.

Sarah said...

Like Sam I am very torn on this whole night. I've been working closely with the Reading Agency trying to organise one of the big events and luckily it has all come together. Just.

It is all too short notice in many ways - great to host a big flagship event with the biggest audience you can get. Pulling it together in 12 days not so much fun.

I love the idea of giving out books, and All Quiet on the Western Front will be given out on my behalf on Saturday. I've also had a ball (mostly) reading all 25 titles but I can't really see how giving away a million books is going to help either libraries or bookshops and keep everyone in business.

Like Sam I will also be making a point of buying a book or two soon as presents - I'm already known as Auntie Bookworm in the family so I shall have great fun doing this as well as sharing my free book.

In summary WBN is a great idea but needed a heck of a lot more time and planning, but anything that makes as many people talk about books as it has done isn't all bad.

Sam Ruddock said...

Thanks for joining the discusion, Sarah. Have you managed to get through them all yet?

Your last sentence sums up my thoughts exactly.

"In summary WBN is a great idea but needed a heck of a lot more time and planning, but anything that makes as many people talk about books as it has done isn't all bad."

Sam Ruddock said...

That's an interesting idea, Kinga. After all, that's what World Book Day does. They could certainly have done a mix of the two, perhaps giving away 24 copies of the books, and then a £5 off voucher as well. That way you get the publicity and cohesion of a specific set of books, while at the same time ensuring the sustainability of bookshops.

Had a flash of lightening today about why it's 48 books each (rather than an even number like 50) - pallets of books for easy shipping. Now that was good planning!

Kay Sexton said...

I hesitated to say anything about this issue, but now I will. As a writer who has a book out on 7 March, anything I say will sound like sour grapes, although my book cannot in any way be impacted by WBN as it's not the kind of book that could ever feature on that list of 'great and good' books.

Even so. Why GIVE people a BOOK? Why not LEND them a book or GIVE them some MONEY (as in a voucher or token) to BUY a book of their choice from a shop of their choice?

I love the idea of group reads, I'm part of a reading group, I try to promote reading in all its forms for everybody, but this doesn't seem to me to be purposive: it hardly benefits such well-known authors to have even more books out there; it doesn't help bookshops to have books given away; I can't see how publishers benefit from donating books that could have been sold, and as a fiction writer in three genres I am unclear about how this event might help me ...

Is there something I've missed that explains it all?

Sam Ruddock said...

Thanks for your comment Kay. Very best of luck with your book launch on Monday, I hope it goes fantastically well.

I have to disagree with you on one point though: I LOVE the idea of giving away books. There's something so wonderfully exciting about the chance to share things with people in such a de-monitised way.

However, I do think that there could have been some sort of way in which the books being given away would also have contained a voucher to be redeemed at any bookshop on a non WBD selected book.

Although I realise that would have cost more, it would make use of this amazing platform to drive people into bookshops and towards authors they might never otherwise read.

Maybe next year!

Anonymous said...

I agree with your reservations and, as someone on a low income (as are many people at the moment), also love the idea of being able to give books to people without money having to change hands. I also like the fact that it makes a book feel like a "proper gift."

Too often recipients of books for Christmas or birthdays look askance after unwrapping the book you've chosen so carefully, and their faces seem to say, "Oh, it's just a book." If WBN achieves only one thing, I hope it will be that it highlights the sense of occasion one should feel when being given a book as a gift.

What I do regret, though, is that givers weren't given the opportunity to receive a selection of all the books, rather than having to choose just one - so that their gifts could then be passed on or swapped amongst their circle of recipients, thus keeping the WBN experience going for even longer.

Nice website, by the way - though you might want to check your use of the superfluous apostrophe in the Philip Pullman quote in your header (unless he's the one responsible!)

Sam Ruddock said...

Thanks Anonymous - I love your obvious passion for sharing books and completely agree that WBN has done a great job in celebrating the intimacy of a gifted book.

Your idea of receiving a selection of the books is an interesting one and one I'd have been keen on as well. Unfortunately I fear it would have created an horrendous logistical headache. The reason everyone receives 48 books rather than 50 is that books are usually shrink wrapped in crates of 48, so it was easy to ship them out to people as such. Had they done a mixture of titles, it would have been an even bigger task getting them out on time.

I also wonder whether that would have run the risk of readers just saving their copies for themselves rather than sharing so widely. But that is pure speculation.

Still, it's a good idea that I agree would have made the night even more exciting. I had a very hard time choosing which book to give so being able to chose more than one would have been fantastic!

(p.s. - thanks for the heads-up regarding my header - apostrophe's and me just do not get on!)

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