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.