As you know (or may not – it’s amazing the number of people who haven’t heard of this most trumpeted event), 5th March has been declared World Book Night, emanating from an idea put forward by Jamie Byng of Canongate. Even the title is hubristic – there is nothing global about the project. 20,000 ‘givers’ have been selected to each give away 48 copies of one of the 25 “carefully selected” titles. That’s one million books (about £9 million of stock at retail) being given away in one night – assuming it works as intended. One million books flooding a struggling book trade; one million copies of books which make up a good part of many bookshops’ sales (David Nicholl’s One Day; Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; Case Histories by Kate Atkinson; Fingersmith by Sarah Waters to name a few); one million books being given away, further reinforcing the notion that we’re all there to provide a public service and that authors, publishers and booksellers don’t deserve or need to make a living.
The public (those who are aware of it) think it’s a great idea and quite understandably so – it’s getting something for free and we all love a freebie, especially some of the book bloggers who’ve been so breathlessly excited about WBN. Less excited are some authors – the writers of the 25 selected books will not receive royalties and given that most authors earn a very small income from their writing it sets a worrying precedent for those further down the ladder from these best-sellers.
Much less excited too are booksellers: while some are cautiously positive, most of the people I’ve spoken to are horrified; when we’re already being undercut by supermarkets who can wrestle bigger discounts from publishers and Amazon and Tesco etc are even selling books as loss-leaders, to further erode our market and the perceived value of books is foolish in the extreme. And that’s the problem: not that this will necessarily undermine sales but that it’s another way of eroding the public’s perception of the value – and cost – of books. As one hugely well-respected bookseller said to me “people will think that if the trade can afford to give away so much, our margins must be enormous and our profits vast…”. It’s hard to think of another industry which has given so much product away. Or indeed one which would want to.
When I contacted the Booksellers Association – our trade body – and raised my concerns I was very patronisingly put in my place. That I don’t see the wonder of Jamie Byng’s grand idea is down to the fact that I’m a Luddite and a flat-earther who refuses to appreciate the amazing surge in reading that will result from World Book Night. A surge which is unproven, unresearched and even the Hon Jamie – a man of many ideas, some genius and others utterly ridiculous – can only claim that “everything in my experience and instincts say its [sic] going to do something really amazing for books”. I’m not a fan of market research – much of it has a flawed methodology and makes unjustified claims (although that’s probably because I come from an academic background where every assertion has to be have substance), but surely before the booktrade gives away £9 million of stock there should have been some sort of research? I’m finding hard to see how the instincts of Jamie’s intestines should be grounds for this sort of giveaway.
Tim Godfray, Chief Executive of the BA, tells me that the BA Council see World Book Night as an opportunity for bookshops to “Reboot their Reading Communities”. WTF? That’s one of the problems with projects like this – slogans that at best mean nothing and at worst are merely spin intended to distract from the poor thinking behind them. He also pointed out to me that booksellers are not being asked to make any financial contribution, implying that that means we’re not entitled to any opinion. Which is wrong – the activities of the BA are funded by subs paid by members and so the time he and the rest of the staff are spending on this is in fact funded by booksellers and we should be able to question whether this is the best use of their time and our money.
Tim informed me that most of the funding, whether in kind or in cold hard cash, is coming from publishers and others in the trade. That publishers are happy to forgo such a chunk of profit on some of their best-selling books is indeed surprising, but given the discounting they indulge in, endlessly eroding profit in the quest to sell just a few more books in the supermarkets, even if it’s at a loss, logic does seem to be in short supply in the boardrooms. And I suspect that in order to get these books printed for free, the printers have tied those publishers into contracts regarding the amount of business they’ll put their way in the next few years, thereby covering their costs. I’d be amazed if that’s not the case. And of course, the authors concerned are losing out. Those whose books have been chosen might be selling enough to not miss the royalties – authors such as Lee Child, Marian Keyes and Margaret Atwood are probably not too fussed and have no doubt been spun a line about how this giveaway will do (completely unquantified and unknown) wonders for their backlist sales. But for many authors WBN merely reinforces the public’s suspicion that all authors are minted and can afford to work for free and that they certainly shouldn’t expect to get paid.
World Book Night means that booksellers, already working hard to make customers realise why indies don’t discount in the same way and why Amazon can afford to knock our cookbooks at less than half price (because they don’t have to have shops, or trained staff etc) will have to work even harder now to reinforce the idea that there is a cost involved in producing and selling books. After all, if you’re a punter and there is a charity shop full of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie that were given away aren’t you going to wonder why Muriel Spark’s other books are being sold at £8.99 in the bookshop up the road?
Next blog post – Not just me – reactions from others in the trade
Blog post after that – how this could have been done in a way that promoted reading AND book sales