In the last few weeks, I’ve been told quite often that I’m wrong to be worried about World Book Night and the giving away of £9 million of stock. I’ve been told that it doesn’t further devalue the book as a purchase; that it doesn’t reinforce the notion that authors should work for free; that it doesn’t give the impression that booksellers are shored up by private incomes and don’t need to actually see cash in the till at the end of the day; and that it is EXACTLY the sort of project that will help to ensure prosperous futures for booksellers, publishers and authors alike.
But – with a few exceptions – I haven’t been told this by people at the frontline of the booktrade. I’ve been told this mainly by the Booksellers Association. And told this in an incredibly patronising manner when I queried whether this was something they should be upporting and raising my own worries about the future implications of WBN.
So, aware that it might just be me and that I was missing something, I emailed half a dozen booksellers who I know and respect and asked what they thought. In the main they shared my uneasiness. One agreed with me but took comfort in the fact that the list of books were the sort “chosen by people who read for people who read and by the middle class for the middle class. I’m going to hope that it doesn’t impact on sales as these are exactly the sort of Guardian readers who see shopping local and in ‘real’ shops as a political movement”. Which is very true and one which probably (I hope) applies to our shop in leafy south Edinburgh as well.
Another – more forthright – bookseller said: “my main issue is that it is such a tremendous missed opportunity. Byng et al are great at getting the publicity, but the idea itself is only marginally better than the … ‘bookaholic’ wank.” Yes, ‘bookaholism‘ – remember that? It was kicked into the long grass after the trade made it clear what a lousy idea that was…That same bookseller was fairly blunt in his views of the BA too and I have to agree.
Someone else, after making the point that WBN seems to promote the idea that it doesn’t really cost anything to write, publish or retail a book and that they’re not really worth paying for, said: “At best, it seems like some kind of industry-wide loss leader / giant marketing campaign which might be perfectly normal business practice for the chains and large publishers, but unfortunately it’s not really something I can afford my customers to become accustomed to just yet … but at worst, it seems to be cutting me and my shop out of the book scene in the town completely – why bother with the bookshop when WBN / publishers are giving the books away free?”
Others had similar thoughts although a couple did say that they would have a think about how they could get involved if they thought it might get some new people through the shop doors but they didn’t seem to think that was likely, given that it seems to be mostly about readers giving books to other readers rather than trying to recruit more people to the joy of reading. These are not head-in-the-sand, Luddites who are negative about every new initiative that is mooted. These are knowledgeable, experienced booksellers who are regularly lauded as some of the best in the country. People with years of experience as booksellers but also – crucially – as people who run their own businesses.
So, having established that I am far from alone in the trade in my worries, I started asking our reps what responses to WBN they were hearing as they travelled highways and byways bringing news of forthcoming titles. Without exception they told me that my feelings seemed to be universal among independent booksellers and that even in the chains the response was generally negative and at best disinterested.
And that’s before we even get to the comments on my last blog post where the pro-WBN lobby were so spectacularly outnumbered by the anti-WBN brigade. And the emails I’ve received from publishers, booksellers, readers and authors in the last couple of days almost all of which agreed that WBN is pure folly. That Amazon will have even more books priced at 1 penny by 6th March and that many books will end up languishing in boxes, undonated, as suggested by Tim and The Bigooner, is highly likely.
We are not stupid and nor are we mean-spirited – we give a lot of books to charities, we run book groups for adults and children, take authors to schools and The Edinburgh Bookshop will soon be launching our big new charity project. and like us, most booksellers I know also run a shedload of charity and not-for-profit activities.
But we still don’t see why giving away so much stock is the best way to spread the love of good books and to promote reading. And we don’t like being condescended to by our own trade body, or publishing lackeys who have no idea of the stress and responsibility of running your own business and can’t even begin to comprehend the fury some of us feel at being screwed over in this way. Publishers, booksellers, authors and readers have a symbiotic relationship and to alienate booksellers by effectively cutting them out of the supply chain is foolish. We all need each other.
Next blog post – how World Book Night could have been run in way which would promote reading, promote book sales and to reach even more people…