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The great book give-away

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Will Gompertz | 12:42 UK time, Friday, 11 March 2011

One of the by-products of our information age is all the awards, "best-of" polls and honours dished out on a daily basis. They are designed to raise their subject above the day-to-day noise and clutter generated by all the stuff out there. They are part promotional tool, part editorial sieve. Book prizes, for instance, raise awareness of books in general by suggesting a shortlist of publications to try. And given that over 100,000 books are published each year in this country alone, that's a useful service.

Last Sunday's World Book Night (WBN) ran along similar lines. Except the promotional part of the equation was rather more specific. In marketing terms it was a "sampling" exercise, not dissimilar to those we encounter at shopping centres where a tasty morsel is offered in the hope that our activated salivary glands will lead us into the shop to go and buy a packet of whatever it might be.

Volunteer hands out free books for World Book Night

And it seems to have worked. The Bookseller reports sales of the 25 titles on the list have increased and quite possibly other novels by the selected authors will have benefitted too. And there's nothing wrong with that, it's a smart idea.

But the way the concept is sold appears to conflict with the hard commercial thinking behind it. We are told that the great give-away of a million books was a celebration of the written word, designed to encourage more reading by more people, not to stimulate the market for publishers.

Now, it is very early days in the evolution of an idea that the organisers hope will become an annual event and eventually live up to its name (ie global in reach as opposed to UK only), meaning not all the thinking through will have been done. So, I have a suggestion.

There is already an established campaign across the UK to save libraries from closure due to local council cuts. Maybe these campaigners could talk to the organisers of World Book Night to see how their aims could be aligned. The authors and publishers who took part in, and financially benefitted from, World Book Night, due to the additional retail sales - could give that money to support the libraries. And perhaps the recipients of the million books given could make a donation as well?

Judging by the mass of bookish people wearing North Face coats and swinging Cath Kidston bags (into which the free books were duly stuffed) that I saw queuing in Glasgow at one of the WBN events, this promotion was neither reaching a new audience nor people for whom the cost of buying one of the selected paperbacks would have been prohibitive. There's more. Once the original recipient has read the book the intention of WBN is that it should be handed on to someone else. Well, they could contribute too.

And now the ideas are flowing, I have another one. The man behind the WBN initiative is the ebullient publisher Jamie Byng. He is a smart, charismatic, modernising individual who is passionate about books and has the energy and contacts to make things happen. Isn't he just the sort of person who should have a prominent role in helping the country's libraries in their time of need?

In short, wouldn't it make sense for World Book Night to become an annual fundraiser for libraries? Everybody would be a winner and it remove the slight whiff of commercial opportunism cloaked as a charitable undertaking that the project current emits.


  • Comment number 1.

    Any efforts made to save libraries should be in scale with their relevance and usage. Obviously, I'm suggesting that they are under used and less relevant than 'bookish' people or people with young children might believe.

    My city's central library has become a slightly grubby depository for yellowing and crumbling large print westerns, romances, 1980s texts on computer programming and the elderly clientele who visit it's coffee shop.

    I can't help feeling that a campaign to save Britain’s libraries has shades of the Arts Council's 'important' work to save and fund the opera houses of the UK. Save them for a small and shrinking elitist minority.

    I am not suggesting that they should not be funded, more that they should be re-tooled to perform some functions other than keeping pensioners dry and photocopying.

    When a book is cheaper to buy on Amazon than the petrol or bus fare to get to your local library and when the book from Amazon arrives (most of the time) clean, unused and without graffiti, you have to ask, what is the point?

    What about free Kindles for WBN? Some, OK a lot, will end up on EBay but the end result will surely be more books read, if not in print form.

    I'd just like to point out that I myself, am descended from a long line of pensioners and do indeed like them very much.

  • Comment number 2.

    I appreciate the previous commenter's view, and acknowledge that councils must find ways to trim their budgets. In tough economic times, however, these institutions need more funding not less.

    Anyone who views libraries as the domain of oldsters and the elite has clearly never experienced being poor and disadvantaged. Having grown up in a poor working family, I cherished my local library. I had to walk across town, but it was my literary wonderland! Try to feel some sense of compassion for your fellow humans who have no car, no 'spare' money, no computer. These are real people. Please remember also to not take the Dead Kennedys song "Kill the Poor" literally!

  • Comment number 3.

    On dear, Will, really! WBN was last Saturday, not Sunday. You misunderstood the basic premises of WBN (I was a distributor); it was meant, inter alia, to take books to people who wouldn't usually read or have access to th titles.

    I distributed mine after a student performance at my educational alma mater; neraly half went to Drama and Emglish students at that University, and indeed over 70% of the 48 went to youngsters aged 25 and under.

    There was little evidence of the commercial book sector's involvement in Lancaster, which pleased me, since the give-away was philanthropic and personal, rather than commercial and involving the multination book conglomerates.

    And I spoke at some length about library closures, which are a major concern in academe too. And particularly Alan Bennett's local public library (I have away copies of his volume) only some dozen miles from here. I'm sure you've seen his comments on the BBC ...

    The other distributors I have spoken to feel the same way as I do.

    You're not speaking for the majority of the participants in WBN that I've had the pleasure and privilege to talk to.

  • Comment number 4.

    @Sporting Chappie

    'I appreciate the previous commenter's view...'

    Clearly you do not. You misunderstand and misrepresent my views completely.

    I did not say that libraries should not be funded. Read my post again, without jumping to a conclusion, five words in. As for your views about my childhood, again you are wrong. I have no car, I have no 'spare money' and I work as a humanitarian, dealing with some of the most extreme human brutality on the planet. What do you do? Other than make slightly sanctimonious blog responses.

    I think maybe you should stick to what you know. Your Dead Kennedy CDs and your comfortable life in the UK.

    As you saw fit to respond to my response and not to Will's original post, I will take up some more of the BBC's server space and try and explain my somewhat obvious point.

    Libraries were intended to be a public service. The public are no longer using that service. Councils cannot justify funding an unused service. Funding for library services has been steadily declining. The quality of library services has declined in pace with the decreasing funding.

    Your nostalgia about a wonderful, wonderland of literature is very sweet but a little rose tinted. Continuing to fund an unwanted service, because some people feel nostalgic about it is doing a dis-service to the people who need public services, the poor. The service must be made relevant to communities before any more funds are spent on giving people what they clearly do not need or want... do you understand yet?


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