Although we have been highly critical of World Book Night, we do agree with the essence of it – that it’s about sharing great books and celebrating the joy of reading. However, bookshops were marginalised and booksales declined across the trade in the wake of this giveaway in March and whatever happens next year I’m fairly certain I don’t want to be involved as it would have to change on an instrinsic level for me to have confidence that it was going to be good for the trade as a whole.
Given all this, we started thinking about the alternatives and realised that it was possible to do something different; to hold an event which combines the admirable aim of sharing books and extending the reading community with promoting bookshops and the work done by authors and publishers. An event which isn’t about top-down decision-making but about the grassroots; where any book can be included without authors and publishers losing out and where bookshops can be responsive to the needs and tastes of their customers and communities. And which – especially important in a recession – is actually about the business of selling books. Because if we don’t sell books then authors won’t write them and publishers will be even more reliant on celeb biographies and a handful of big-name best-sellers.
So. Here’s the plan…
We held a book swap a couple of weeks ago and it was a great success* – around 50 or so people and some fantastic guest speakers. For The Great Big Book Swap we’re going to hold a bigger one at a venue in Edinburgh with around 200-250 ticket-holders. We’ll be asking them to bring a book and we’ll have two or three guest authors, just like we did the other week. We’re going to need a venue that has a good PA, a bar and space for people to mingle and swap books in between the discussions with our special guests, and seating so that all those people can listen to our guests. We want the bookswap to be just as much fun as our other ones – just bigger. I’m hoping that we can get sponsorship to cover the cost of the venue or – ideally – that we can secure somewhere free of charge on the basis that the bar takings should be healthy. If you think you can help with a venue in Edinburgh, do get in touch.
However, instead of the ticket price covering the cost of the venue, wine and nibbles, we’re going to put all of that into a fund. We’re going to use that money to buy books to give away to people who maybe don’t read or don’t read much. Maybe they’ve never got into the habit, maybe they don’t have a bookshop or library nearby. To clarify – we will make no profit on the books we give away – if we raise £1000 that’s £1000 of books at trade price we’ll be giving away. The bit that makes this worth doing from a commercial point of view is that we’ll hopefully get some positive publicity and widen our customer base. And it’s a really worthwhile thing to be doing – I fo have my altruistic moments you know!
We’re going to find these groups by asking our customers and others in our community to suggest them and we’re going to find out what they want to read. For example, if we have books going to a nursing home we’ll find out what sort of things the residents like reading or watching on tv and, in conjunction with the staff, we’ll put together a selection that we think will appeal. We’re also going to provide a range of books so that they can swap between themselves, rather than carpet-bomb the place with dozens of copies of the same book. When people buy their tickets for the bookswap, there will be the option for them to add a donation which will buy more books for us to give away. Tickets will probably be around £7.50: add another £2.50 (this morning’s latte was less than that) and that’s almost another book paid for.
As we’ll be purchasing the books from publishers and our wholesalers, authors will receive their normal royalties and because we’re not asking publishers to contribute we can choose books from the tiniest indie publisher without them losing out. And we’re including readers in a meaningful way – we want readers to suggest recipients for the books and to help us give them out if they can. It’s a project which really can include everyone involved in books whether reader, author or any of the people between.
So far, so good. We’re putting on a great evening’s entertainment for booklovers and potentially giving away thousands of pounds worth of books in an attempt to spread the joy of reading. We’re making sure that authors and publishers don’t lose out so it’s sustainable. So what’s in it for us as a bookshop? Hopefully, we’ll generate a fair bit of positive publicity for the shop and it will enable us to point out that there is a viable, and in our opinions, better alternative to World Book Night.
But obviously we’ll be hoping to see some increase in our customer base so we’ll be including in the back of each book we give away two stickers. One will list ten titles that we really love and we’ll try to make sure that there’s something there to appeal to everyone. The other sticker will mean that – up to a certain date a few weeks hence – the recipient of that book can bring it to the shop and buy any of those ten books at a 50% discount. We can do that because we’ll be buying large quantities of those titles and the publishers will almost certainly be willing to support us in terms of the discounts they offer us. I’ve already had undertakings that they’ll help with that from some of the publishers’ reps that we see.
We might not see many of the books we give away back in the shop – if we donate some to a prison, it’s less probable that the inmates will be popping by – but if and when the recipients do visit, it’s a great opportunity for us to show how good our service is and hopefully to make an impression that will ensure that that new customer becomes a regular customer.
Simple isn’t it? According to the Booksellers Association website, there are around 1000 independent bookshops in the UK. If half take part and gives away an average of 500 books (I’m working that out as 250 people at the book swap event paying £7.50 per ticket) then that’s a quarter of a million books. And every additional £20 that is donated equals another 5 books that can be given away.
It may just be that The Edinburgh Bookshop is the only participant in this project and that’s fine. But because each event is being run by an individual bookshop, it’s scalable and could be adopted as a model nationally or even internationally – nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see bookswaps and giveaways of this type happening far and wide. And let’s do it on the same day for maximum exposure – how does Saturday 3rd March 2012 sound? It’s a good time for retailers as we’ll have had time to recover after the Christmas rush and comes at a time when trade can feel a bit slow.
We’re not making any claims of being a global movement; we’re talking about local bookshops and their communities of readers reaching out to the wider community. It’s local, sustainable and inclusive and can fulfil those criteria whether it’s just our bookshop that does this or many. And it can make a real difference – imagine if even half the independent bookshops in the country took part…
Why not visit The Great Big Book Swap site and sign up to the mailing list so that we can keep you informed? Likewise if you’re a bookshop or an author who’d like to be involved.
* We’re holding our next Edinburgh Bookshop Book Swap on 31st May