Imagine a project to promote reading which provided entertainment for readers; tempted non-readers to dip their toes into literary waters; emphasised the importance and joy of libraries; encouraged more people to venture into bookshops; boosted the income of publishers, authors and booksellers and made sure that books and the wonders that they hold were something everyone was talking about without alienating a single element of the book trade. Imagine if that project could get millions of people sampling books they might never have known about or heard of and borrowing them from the library or buying them in a bookshop – buying them at a discount too, so that they could dip their toes still further into the magic of language and the power of story-telling for less than the price of a packet of fags. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Since I voiced some criticisms of World Book Night, I’ve been accused of being overly cynical, angst-ridden, negative and all sorts of other things – though mainly by people whose livelihoods aren’t threatened by giving away £9 million of stock it has to be said. However, I’ve also had dozens of emails from authors and booksellers who are worried about disappearing royalties and profits. After all, the Society of Authors has found that the average earnings of authors is about £7k per annum so to see a precedent being set for giving away content is disconcerting at the very least for them. It seems to be unique to the book and music industry – I don’t remember anyone expecting surgeons or bus drivers to provide their services for free.
Actually, I’m not a negative person – mostly I’m fairly cheerful and I do have a strong streak of optimism (we run our own business and wouldn’t get by without that). I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself fluffy but I’m generally pretty enthusiastic about new ideas, which is why I’ve been working up an idea of my own. After all, it’s easy to criticise but it’s important to make suggestions as to how things could be better. Although we were vehemently opposed to the ‘bookaholism’ notion, we did make some suggestions that were later adopted by the Booksellers Association in conjunction with the American Booksellers Association.
Firstly though, before I explain the cunning plan, we need to look at what a free sample is. When I was in the supermarket a couple of days ago, at the deli counter they had a plate of little biscuits with dollops of pate on them. Nearby were whole packets of that pate. Obviously, the idea was that shoppers would try a little and buy a packet. Giving customers a whole packet of it as they walked through the door wouldn’t have increased sales, except possibly of the little biscuits to spread the pate on, but I don’t suppose that was what they were trying to promote.
A sample is a lure, a taster to tempt the consumer to purchase (or in the case of library books, borrow) the whole thing. That’s one of the reasons why World Book Day works for children – they can exchange the voucher that they all receive for one of the books and discover a new author or a new story by one of their existing favourite writers. For authors to be selected, it can be a massive boost to their sales as children, having enjoyed one book often want to buy more. And the contribution from authors is comparatively small – it isn’t a full length novel that they’re forgoing the royalties on and although they might not get royalties for this WBD title they will usually see a subsequent uplift in sales of their other books.
So, here’s The Edinburgh Bookshop’s proposal for World Book Night 2012. Instead of producing special editions of 25 different books, the first chapter or so of the same number could be included in an anthology. This would be cheaper to print – economies of scale being a wonderful thing – and less complicated to distribute.
Although the printers of this year’s book are producing it for just the cost of the materials, that can still be a hefty amount for small publishers to find. With our suggestion the cost of taking part would be lower – assuming the printers have enough spare capacity to produce the book again for just the cost of the materials, publishers would only have to pay part of the costs. I can’t guess at what that might be as so far no-one’s given me any examples of what this year’s costs are but obviously it would be much lower. That would mean that the project would be open to a wider number of publishers – poetry from Salt for example as well as Faber. It might be possible to include some non-fiction too as there are plenty of people who don’t read novels but do read history or biography.
One could include a wider range of authors because you haven’t got to choose books that you think will generate enough interest to warrant printing 40,000 copies. So that makes it possible to include debut and lesser-known authors. For example, our best-selling fiction author is Per Petterson who, despite winning the IMPAC prize, isn’t that well-known – it would be great to include the beginning of Out Stealing Horses, a book which has won over so many people who’ve bought it from us. And what about a classic or two – everyone knows the first line of A Tale of Two Cities and the inclusion of the whole first chapter might prompt a few people to rediscover – or discover for the first time – Dickens. Each excerpt could be introduced by a page with a bit of blurb and maybe few suggestions along the “if you like this, you might also like…” line. Or maybe a megastar author or celebrity introducing the books that they love. It’s doubtful that even the most poorly-paid author would object to a sample of their work being included – it’s clearly a marketing opportunity with massive potential.
However, it is being organised by the book trade and all of us, whether authors, publishers or booksellers need to turn a profit. Simply giving away samples of great books isn’t going to boost sales and get more people reading; it’s important to get the recipients of these anthologies into libraries and bookshops. So, in the back of each book we could include a voucher entitling the reader to buy any of the books included at half-price, with publishers and wholesalers ensuring that the discounts provided to bookshops enabled them to sell the books that cheaply without making a loss – obviously everyone has to chip in something and I’m sure that booksellers would have no problem covering the associated costs such as staffing, storage, display, card payment fees etc. And there should be some information about libraries – maybe publishers could donate some copies to libraries so that the books are available for borrowers or to be reserved. Authors also benefit from that through PLR payments.
Now, that we have our lovely book, with a fantastic cover design using the names of these authors so there’s something to attract as wide a range of people as possible and a good strapline, we have to distribute it.
Well, because we haven’t alienated anyone, bookshops will be happy to give it away, with in-store events and other promotions. Authors too, would be delighted to join in, even the ones who are currently expressing disquiet because of concerns re devaluing their work, because we’d be raising the profile of books generally and – crucially – encouraging people to buy them or visit libraries. I’m sure many of this year’s ‘givers’ (such a hideous noun, nearly as vile as the phrase ‘it’s a big ask’!) would be keen to take part again and because it’s not as specific as each of them finding 48 people to give the same book to, it would make it easier to give out. Libraries would doubtless want to give it away, people could give it away outside tube stations, on buses, outside football grounds and at rugby matches, in pubs, at hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, petrol stations, shopping centres, nightclubs, supermarkets… there really are no limits.
World Book Night 2011 is a great idea with a number of significant flaws; with some work it could become a scheme which didn’t limit itself to book-loving people giving books to other book-lovers. Because for all the people who plan to try to pass the books on to people who wouldn’t normally read there will be at least as many who – like the customer in our shop on Saturday – simply plan to give the books to their family and friends.
With some revisions to the scheme, it would be possible to get this book into the hands of so many more people than the one million planned recipients of this year’s books. We could show readers and non-readers alike the amazing breadth of work out there whilst at the same time supporting a library service currently threatened by huge cuts, authors who are constantly seeing their income eroded, and publishers and booksellers who are trying to keep going through the worst recession for two generations. It would be sustainable enough to grow into a genuinely World Book Night and to become an annual celebration of literature in all its forms.
Do let me know what you think…
I’m sorry this was so long – if you got this far, thank you for sticking with me!