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  1. I have to say that nothing I’ve read or heard has explained to me precisely what the purpose of World Book Night (WBN) is intended to be.  There is plenty of fine talk about celebrating literature and introducing people to the pleasures of reading, but these are not the sort of concrete goals that a marketing initiative needs.  I’m well aware that selling books is about as far from a science as one can get, but surely you still need a definable goal.  Media coverage of books is a good thing, but if that alone were enough to persuade people to get reading then the astronomical success of J K Rowling would have unleashed hordes of book-thirsty readers into the nation’s bookshops to fight over the 3 for 2s.  It didn’t.

    We hear today that twelve of the twenty-five books chosen to be given away have enjoyed higher sales in February 2011 than in the same month last year.  That’s fewer than half of them.  And at least one of them has just had a TV adaptation broadcast on the BBC, while most of them are already long-established bestsellers.  In that context it’s a pretty poor performance.

    Last year retailer discounts on books totalled £600,000,000.   The cost of printing and distributing the free books is said to be £9,000,000. Combined sales of all twenty-five books in the past three weeks have generated £322,000.  You don’t have to be an accountant to see that this is economic madness.

    If somebody could explain to me what in even vaguely measurable terms WBN is designed to achieve I would feel a lot more comfortable about the whole thing.  As it stands, I can’t see beyond the flashes of publicity for its organisers and the lucky twenty-five authors, or the warmish glow felt by BBC producers in their eagerness to perform good works.

    The author Nicola Morgan should be applauded for her call for an Alternative World Book Night.  Her idea is that we should all go into a bookshop and buy a book that we personally love and admire  – no printing of special editions of prescribed titles – write inside it ‘given in the spirit of World Book Night’ and simply give it away.  To a friend, to a neighbour, to a shop assistant, to a library, to a school.  Or leave it in a doctor’s waiting room or anywhere else where people might stumble across it.  That would be a genuine act of sharing and inclusiveness.

    Ms Morgan should also be praised for having the courage to break the near totalitarian consensus that WBN is prima facie a good thing.  Other authors, as well as independent bookshop owners and some agents, have welcomed her analysis, and I hope this will be the start of a real debate about the merits of what appears to be an entirely misjudged initiative.  If WBN is to become an annual event the organisers need to have a complete rethink.  As a promotion of books and the pleasure of reading they must express its aims in more than just well-meaning vagueries, and WBN must be a true gesture of recommendation, appreciation and generosity.

  2. Every year in publishing tends to be somewhat squally, but 2011 is shaping up into something of a hurricane.

    In the UK we are witnessing what appears to be the irreversible death of the high street bookshop, with Waterstone’s closing stores and British Bookshops ready to collapse.  I won’t miss the latter chain, incidentally, with its paltry range and ruinous discounts, but Waterstone’s would be a terrible loss.  Already they’re planning to cut initial orders by 20%.  It’s not inconceivable that one day we’ll be left with WH Smith as the only chain of any size; that’s if they can survive being squeezed by Amazon and the supermarkets.

    I’m a strong supporter of independent bookshops but their locations are a matter of chance and choice.  If there was an independent bookshop in Tunbridge Wells, where I live, I would buy all my books there, but there isn’t so I can’t.   In any case, I believe we also need chains, because they provide a nationwide network of outlets enabling publishers to mount effective marketing and distribution campaigns across the whole country.  Without them the book-buying public will have much less access to the widest possible range.  Yes I know you can theoretically buy any book that’s in print on Amazon, but you can’t replicate online the browsing experience which exposes you to diversity and reveals to you books you’d otherwise never come across.

    What we could do without, however, is the insane discounting which saw £600 million knocked off the retail value of UK book sales in 2010, £14.5 million down to Jamie Oliver alone.  Everyone likes a bargain, of course, but not as the norm and not where a book priced at £26 is sold in supermarkets at £8.99.  It’s impossible not to agree with the consultant who called this an ‘unsustainable model’ or with the other analyst who says ‘the worth of books has been devalued’.  In other words, the damage has been done.

    Meanwhile, the US experience demonstrates that the digital revolution really might be underway, as Amazon’s sales of e-books last year surpassed those of paperbacks.  If the UK is going to follow down this dramatic new path then publishers really have to get their pricing right.  I won’t repeat what I said about that here last year, but merely point out the interesting development that the Office of Fair Trading is to investigate whether the agency pricing model breaches competition law.  Surely it would be better if publishers could pre-empt this and take a more realistic approach now rather than risk having their whole e-book model torn down at the very time when e-books might be taking off.

    Such an outcome could be particularly damaging for UK publishing if, as the debates at Digital Book World last week suggest, US publishers are squaring up for a fight over territories.  For years there has been friction – I even remember one New York publisher angrily denouncing the rights retained by a UK publisher as being unfair and unjustifiable, even to the point of insisting that the Commonwealth didn’t exist.  What we can’t afford is to let the UK digital sales model collapse at the very time the US industry is seeking to make inroads into our traditional markets.

    So, with chains in decline, discounts out of control, e-books on the rise, potential anti-competition practices and a predatory US industry breathing down our necks, 2011 could be interesting to say the least.  How ironic that this year of multiple crises should be the year when the BBC decides to crank up its on air coverage of books to unprecedented levels.  We should applaud their plans, but it will take more than the BBC to save our industry.