Way back when, several weeks before World Book Night (remember that?) I, along with many other booksellers and interested parties such as authors and publishers, raised concerns that, in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s, it might not be in the best interests of the trade to give away a million books. In an attempt to keep this post as concise as possible, I’m not going to re-state my criticisms, but do follow the link to that blog post if you want to refresh your memory.
Many of us felt that however much we agreed with the essence of World Book Night; that it was to be a celebration of reading and the joy of books, it would be damaging to the book trade at a point in the economic cycle where we needed to be promoting the idea of book-buying – after all, we might be cutting back on holidays and socialising and shoe-shopping but a book is comparatively cheap at about the same price as a cinema ticket and yet has the potential to be life-changing. Much as I love a new pair of shoes, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that even a new pair of Manolos could change my life.
When I first wrote about our concerns re World Book Night I was unprepared for the opprobrium that was unleashed – although I was far from a lone voice, those of us who were sceptical about WBN were derided as narrow-minded, reactionary, grumpy or even anti-reading. Suggesting that giving away so much product would actually devalue books and that it gave ammunition to the idea that authors were unreasonable to expect to be paid for their work, was seen as almost heretical. The organisers continually dismissed our concerns as the moaning of a small but vocal minority but the support that us naysayers received was significant – I received dozens and dozens of emails from authors, publishers, retailers and readers agreeing that I was right to be concerned. There was also a lot of criticism from givers hurled at those of us who queried the wisdom of giving away so much stock although that was to be expected – but our argument was with this as a trade initiative and not with those who had really imaginative and worthwhile plans to distribute the books.
In the end, having made my own suggestions as to how World Book Night could be improved for next year and having become quite tired of discussing it, I decided to keep my own counsel and see what happened. Jamie Byng had enthused to me about how this was going to be an annual event but one which would in future involve and take into account the concerns of booksellers. Although I – and many others – feared that the book trade would see a fall in sales following WBN and worried about the implications for many of us who were trying to cope with trading through a recession, I really hoped that we sceptics were wrong. I had my fingers crossed so tight that they squeaked that we wouldn’t see a fall in sales following the distribution of the free books, that the much-hyped evening of book programming on BB2 (two documentaries and a showing of the recent film of Brideshead Revisited) would indeed stimulate the masses to rush out and visit libraries and bookshops. I didn’t want to be right but I did want booksellers to be listened to and not marginalised and had every hope that this would be the case if it was to run in 2012.
Sales figures however were what would define the success or otherwise of World Book Night. Although The Bookseller gushed about a boost in sales for the books featured in WBN this was not experienced across the wider market. Way before book sales figures were released by Nielsen Bookscan which collects data from most retailers – around 90% of all books sold are recorded by Bookscan – I knew that sales were down in our shop. Sales in the week immediately after WBN were almost 30% down on the previous week. Over subsequent weeks, we’ve managed to pull this back, but it’s hard not to assume there’s a link between a drop in sales and a few thousand free books being dumped into our local area. Other booksellers told me of similar drops in sales in their shops. Later, Bookscan released figures showing that UK bookshops saw takings of £103 million in the four weeks to 2nd April; some £8.98 million less than the same period in 2010 and the worst March since 2005. Volume sales were down 12.2% to 14.2 million. At the same time, the Office of National Statistics released figures showing that overall retail sales in March 2011 were 1.3% UP on March 2010, contrasting with the experience of bookshops.
It gives me no pleasure to be right and to have called it correctly, but I can’t see any factor other than WBN that could have triggered these sharp falls, especially given that the figures for the wider retail sector were comparatively positive. But sales figures are what WBN has to be judged on and they aren’t good. So it depresses me to see that another World Book Night is planned for 2012.
I’m pleased that former Foyles marketing manager Julia Kingsford is taking over as chief executive; I have every faith that she will organise things better than the chaos that was this year’s event. However, I was promised that booksellers’ concerns would be listened to and was hopeful that we would see a mechanism introduced to promote sales. But it seems that that was just an attempt to shut the dissenters up rather than a genuine attempt to listen to our concerns and try to work with us. It has to be pointed out though that the press release outlining next year’s scheme wasn’t exactly met with excitement – the Bookseller article received a dozen or so comments, mostly from this year’s givers and a search on Google news for “World Book Night 2012” shows that the story was only picked up by the Seattle Post Intelligencer. Hardly setting the world on fire.
What is planned for next year is little better than this year’s effort – an edition of 25 Shakespeare sonnets will be despatched to 10 million households but bookshops will be able to stock a special £9.99 hardback edition. I do question whether Shakespeare is the right choice to appeal to such a large number of people, and I’m curious as to how these 10 million households will be selected. I’d also be surprised if that edition is very popular in bookshops given that the country’s going to be knee-deep in the free paperback edition. But other than that, it’s nothing new – book groups will be asked to suggest books; top 100 will be announced and the 25 selected titles announced later. As far as we know at the moment, there will be no incentive to encourage customers into bookshops other than with this hardback edition of the sonnets (which is mere tokenism), no commitment to promoting new writers and nothing has been said about how the distribution process will be improved to avoid bookshops having to double as parcel depots.
We came up with a number of suggestions as to how next year’s project could be run, and Nicola Morgan suggested (and did an amazing job of promoting in such a short space of time) an alternative or complement to World Book Night based more on the Spanish tradition of men giving women a rose and women giving a book. Despite that though, and despite all the other suggestions made by other people in the discussions on this blog and Nicola’s, no-one at World Book Night has listened and the fervent promises of consultation and wanting to listen to booksellers and authors have been empty.
So. We’ve come up with a better plan. One which can promote an unlimited range of authors; will give away masses of books without publishers having to pay for additional print costs; doesn’t require any public funding; won’t require authors to forgo royalties and can include absolutely any in-print title; which will draw customers into bookshops; which can give away a virtually unlimited number of books and which is – importantly – local and sustainable and inclusive. It also has the possibility of becoming truly global without losing sight of those three factors although if it’s just our bookshop involved that’s fine.
My next blog post – probably in a day or two, have to sort some coding on a website out first – will tell all, but until then think about the book you would choose to give away…
NB: To clarify, World Book DAY is different and I’m a huge supporter of that – it introduces children to books by introducing them to short novels/long short stories by marvellous writers and really promotes sales of books by those authors. For the children who choose not to read one of the free WBD books, they can use their voucher to get £1 off any other book. Those who criticise booksellers as being mean-spirited when they’re less than ethusiastic about WBN are clearly ignorant of the fact that we pay for the World Book Day books, we organise schools events and that £1 discount is given by us out of our takings, not reimbursed by anyone. And we don’t mind – partly because any initiative to get children reading is worth supporting, but also because, from a business point-of-view, there is an obvious benefit in introducing children and their parents/carers to the fun experience that is visiting a bookshop.