A World of difference between Night and Day

And there it goes – World Book Night.  For the first time in the UK, a successful celebration of adult books that reaches out to the general reader, that goes beyond prizes, promotion and celebrity to focus on good reads.  Every one of the featured books deserves its place – some that merit wider appreciation, some established big hits, and some older stalwarts.  If you or I were putting together an “interesting backlist” table in our local Waterstone’s, we couldn’t have done much better.

WBN was the brainchild of Jamie Byng, one of the most charismatic and imaginative people in publishing, and someone with that rare ability to drive inspiration into reality, powered by the force of belief.  He’s demonstrated this again and again at Canongate, and for WBD he brought together authors, agents, publishers, retailers and the BBC for a weekend festival of adult reading.

For an event conceived on such a short timescale, the sequence of activities was strong.  Though it was damnably cold in Trafalgar Square on Friday evening, it was good to see le Carre, Attwood, Bennett etc, live and passionate.  WBN has locked on to BBC Four’s books season, and provided an evening of decent book-telly on BBC Two.  Of course, I hope the commissioning editors at TV Centre aren’t ticking the box marked “books” before moving on to new seasons about favourite bus routes or kitchen makeovers (“note to self – contact J Byng re Spring 2012 schedules”).  Radio 4 does a worthy job preaching to the converted covering books and reading, and BBC TV should do much more, with WBN as a climax, rather than a loud blip.

Which leaves us with – ah yes.  The free books.  This is where the concept becomes trickier.  World Book Night is about generosity – giving time, giving resources, giving thought and care; creating excitement, sharing passion.

But is it about generosity with other people’s livelihoods?

Will one million unit sales be lost to the trade this year?  No, but is any loss sustainable in times of austerity and format change?

Will those free books lead to greater sales in the future?  This will be hard to quantify.  Will readers of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie seek out other Muriel Sparks – that’s a stretch?  Will readers of All Quiet on the Western Front be on AbeBooks, digging out other Remarques?  No, though whether they will look for Sassoon, Graves or Owen will again be tougher to judge.  Perhaps the biggest winner will be Lee Child, with another dozen+ Jack Reacher novels for the newly converted.

Conversely, will the wide and free availability of these titles – which we’re encouraged to pass on, to share, to bookcross – cause regular sales to slump?  Which titles will join Peter Kay and Jeremy Clarkson as Oxfam staples?

Fundamentally, I think gifts are marvellous things, but free gifts sit on quicksand.  As I’ve already written (and others have, more passionately and eloquently than me), hasn’t the book been devalued enough before we start treating Marquez or Mitchell as freebies?

So I absolutely support both the passion and the practicality of Nicola Morgan’s “complementary World Book Night”, whereby the public was encouraged to buy books as carefully considered gifts, which encourages both giver and receiver to think about the books they’re sharing.  I did this, and it felt good in every way – not least that I had chosen and paid for the book I gave.  The spirit of this idea is much closer to the original Barcelona World Book Day, but of course it wouldn’t have achieved the take-off velocity that the Big 25 delivered.

So, I’m torn.  WBN could have been planned for an extra 12 months, and been a far safer, worthier event.  All parties might have been satisfied that their concerns had been aired and addressed, but I suspect we’d still be sitting on the runway.

For World Book Night, 2012, could we:

  • Start planning now
  • Be as honest and as surgical as possible in our assessment of the immediate and broader impact of the free books on paid-for sales
  • Be as honest as possible in separating the essential wider impact of WBN, from the book trade and the media having a terrific PR event (there is probably a more diplomatic way to word this…).
  • Move the event later in the year.  The weather in March is still frosty, and it would be great to have more outdoor events, and more sunshine.  2012 will be a challenging, with the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, but I think a warm spring weekend could drive much more local activity.  Keep politics at arm’s length, but my definition of the Big Society certainly plays to a community-based WBN.

Finally, World Book Day is at risk of getting completely lost in the WBN excitement.  This would be a tragedy.  I wrote of the importance of World Book Day last week.  Its impact is always muted in Comic Relief years, but this time around it felt swept away by the adult event.  So my desire to see WBN later in the year also supports the importance of a separate, child-focused World Book Day (a difference that I think Jamie Byng acknowledged on Newsnight last week).

I think the nation should be able to cope with two broad-based celebrations of reading each year, with clearly defined constituencies.  But if we are honing WBN for 2012, could we also challenge all the existing assumptions around WBD?  The integration of activities across schools, libraries, bookshops and writers/illustrators, and the contributions made by publishers, printers and retailers, all on the tightest of budgets, are exceptional.  Paradoxically, I believe that while the cuts that are being in direct government support for literacy should be challenged, I also think that they are an excellent springboard for the literary and educational establishment to reconsider the aims and reach of World Book Day.

A population that knows how to read – how to digest big chunks of prose, how to learn, to imagine, to inspire – is fundamental to our future.  World Book Day, however we reimagine it, taking place annually throughout a child’s education, reinforces this message through enjoyment and through personal reward.

To conclude, thank you to Jamie Byng – for reigniting the debate about the content of books, about enjoyment, about sharing and about giving.  Ultimately, these mean more to the future of books than delivery mechanisms or agency pricing.  Thousands of people are reconsidering books and reading as a result of World Book Night.  An established national festival of adult reading, and a separate focus on children’s books, can be a terrific legacy that all of us should want to be a part of.