World Book Night is almost upon us. In case it's escaped your notice, 20,000 people have been recruited to give away a million books (48 copies each of 25 titles). It's the idea of Jamie Byng of Canongate books, supported and lauded by the likes of the BBC and various publishing industry bodies. It's been dissed as well as welcomed.
What are the arguments in favour and against?
In favour: it gives publicity to books; it will boost reading and that must be good for everyone in publishing and for libraries; it's a nice night out.
Against: it gives people the idea that books are of no value as they are given away; it cheats bookshops and authors of income; it's just a publicity binge for Byng.
Let's look at the 'against's first:
It gives people the idea that books are of no value as they are given away
'If you’re a punter and there is a charity shop full of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie that were given away aren’t you going to wonder why Muriel Spark’s other books are being sold at £8.99 in the bookshop up the road?' Bookseller Vanessa Robertson on State of Independents.
Well, no. If I go into Oxfam and there is a jumper from M&S for £5, I am not going to be surprised that other jumpers that are actually in M&S are £20 - I'm not that stupid. We are talking about people who can read, remember.
People are used to paying for things sometimes and getting them free at other times. Books are free in libraries and, hey, we approve of libraries. Films are free on TV, or you can pay for a DVD (or video on demand) so that you can choose the film you want at the time you want to watch it. As a member of the public, you can't choose which book you get on WBN, just as you can't ask ITV to broadcast the latest James Bond movie tomorrow because you fancy watching it. Public firework displays are often free, and others cost - people go to both. And they buy fireworks. Condoms are often given away, yet there's huge money in selling condoms. This is not a complicated model for the evolved human to grasp. We can deal with it. Don't be so patronising. (Actually, publishers are very big on giving away all kinds of crud - go to the London Book Fair and see how many unnecessary tote bags you can collect, how many glasses of wine you can drink, how many sweets and pens and stupid little fluffy blobs you can pick up.)
If you go into an expensive food shop, you can get free samples of things you're not sure about trying. Walk into Hotel Chocolat. Ten to one there's a bint with a tray of free chocolates. Why? To encourage you to try it. In fact, it is ONLY things of some value that are worth giving away.
It cheats bookshops and authors of income
'The authors whose books have been chosen are superstars, but most authors have under £7,000 average annual earnings and some major retailers are treating their books like loss leaders.'
Bookseller Andrew Bentley-Steed, The Guardian
I am a writer and depend on my income from writing. I am not a superstar (though I earn a good deal more than £7,000), but I'm not fussed about any possible loss of income. If a person was going to spend £9 on a book, they still have £9 if they get a free book, and so they can buy another book. It's possible to read more than one book in a lifetime. Or even a week. I know, I know... the publicity budget is being wasted on this when it could go on promoting the books of mid-list authors (like me). But it wouldn't, would it? It would go on fluffy blobs and launch parties for high-profile authors, just like it does now.
I have books that are discounted - we all do. But sour grapes about other people who earn more just makes you look mean, it doesn't sell your books. In fact, those who stand to lose most from this are probably the distributors. I haven't heard any complaints from them. If all the books were from a single writer who got a 5% royalty on cover price, they would get £50,000. In fact, it won't be anywhere near that much. It's not much spread amongst all the writers in the country. They can have my £1 or £2 on this experiment. Is the real grumble from writers that someone is introduced to a book by (say) Sarah Waters and may then buy more books by her rather than perhaps buy books by A.N.Other writer? Free publicity for Sarah Waters. Let's all be resentful. Well, no, actually I don't want to be resentful. Good for her. We don't resent writers whose works are set GCSE texts, do we? Or maybe I just haven't caught up with all the things I'm supposed to resent...
It's a publicity binge for Byng
It probably is. But it was his idea. People have an idea, they get publicity. That's how the world works. So what? We're smart enough to see through it, and the public has never heard of Byng and doesn't give a damn who he is.
And now the arguments for:
It gives publicity to books
There has been a lot of publicity. But that is strictly speaking publicity for the event rather than for books and reading - I haven't seen any encouragement to continue reading after finishing your free book. Why are the books not being printed with an extra page of 'If you like this, you may also like...' recommendations? Why are all bookshops not stocking up on other books by the featured authors and making big displays of them? Why are libraries not doing the same? Is it because they are too busy whingeing? This is a publicity opportunity wasted, not an example of great publicity for books. (I suppose they might still do that before Saturday...)
It will boost reading and that must be good for everyone in publishing and for libraries
'Giving away a million free books sounds like a lot, but in the context of the 250m we sell across the trade each year, it's absolutely nothing. I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and it works out at just three or four books for each independent bookshop. I don't think there's any independent that wouldn't give away that number if it encourages book-lovers.'
Bookseller Nic Bottomley, The Guardian
Well, it might if there were appropriate publicity (see above). The big problem is whether the books will go to people who might not otherwise read or whether they will just go to middle-class readers who are already buying books (most likely). How patronising is it to seek out someone you think unlikely to be reading and give them a book? How likely are you to be punched? Of course, giving books to people with the money to buy more books is much more effective as a marketing strategy than giving them to people with no disposable income. So Byng and the booksellers will probably be happier if we give our copies away outside Waitrose than in the homeless shelter.
There are many claims that it's not going to work. Vanessa again:
'A [projected] surge [in book-buying] which is unproven, unresearched and [ungrammatical bit follows, to the effect that it's based on Byng's gut instinct]... I’m not a fan of market research ... but surely before the booktrade gives away £9 million of stock there should have been some sort of research? I’m finding it hard to see how the instincts of Jamie’s intestines should be grounds for this sort of giveaway.'
Hello? It's an experiment - sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't. Other things aren't working to pull publishing out of the doldrums, so why not try something innovative?
It's a nice night out
Depending on how you plan to give/receive your books, it could well be. Some people are using it to promote themselves and their own causes, making a splash and an event of it. It will be interesting to see how many of the books actually do get given away, though. Some people might just find it all too much aggro in the end. How many will even be picked up from their delivery points? Will we ever know?
So - good or bad? Personally, I think it's a flawed plan but worth a try. It's a nice thing, to get a free book. It's a way of saying 'Books are great, look! Read this book I like!' We are mired in recession, it's still winter, we're miserable and it's a cheerful thing to do. It might not do any good, but I don't honestly think it's going to do any great harm. Grudging and grumbling are not nice ways to spend your time. Loosen up and make someone smile. There are some words for all this: generosity, philanthropy, hope, optimism, goodwill, enthusiasm for books. Whatever Byng's motives in setting it up, those are mine in giving away books on Saturday. I won't be able to do what I had originally planned (personal, family reasons) but I will still give the books away, and I hope everyone who gets one will read it, and enjoy it, and read one of the other books I will recommend on my personal sheet of 'if you liked this, you might also like...' recommendations that I will slip in.
Happy giving, happy reading or happy grouching, everyone.