Tuesday, 1 March 2011

World Book Night - The Debate

With the inaugural World Book Night happening in just a few days time on March 5, debate is raging in the media as to the relative merits of the scheme (or lack thereof). To date, I am still undecided as to whether World Book Night will prove to be a massive boon to publishing or the death knell for the industry.

For those of you who may be unaware of the scheme, here’s a brief outline: In a bid to introduce more people to the joys of reading,World Book Night with the support of various publishing, booksellers and library associations is planning to give away one million books to lucky recipients all over the UK and Ireland – free, gratis and for nothing. The organisers have chosen 25 titles to be part of the world’s first en-masse book giveaway, including works from authors as diverse as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alan Bennett, John le Carré, Margaret Atwood and Carol Ann Duffy, to name but a few.

The logistics of such an operation are not to be inconsiderable. Probably the biggest task confronting the organisers has been the recruitment of an army of 20,000 volunteer givers, who will each give away 48 books to people and organisations as they see fit on March 5. (Another 40,000 copies will be offloaded by the event planners.) Add to this the need to co-ordinate the printing, boxing and distribution of one million books to pick-up locations the length and breath of the UK, and you begin to understand the size of the task confronting the organisers.

Despite the audacious nature of this undertaking, the scheme was greeted with almost universal enthusiasm when it was first proposed.
Commentators were quick to heap praise on the project, declaring it a bold move in the battle to revive the ailing fortunes of the humble book in our new multi-media world. Big-name publishers soon clambered onto the growing bandwagon. The project soon attracted some high profile and deep-pocketed sponsors – the list of patrons includes such illustrious names as Nigella Lawson, JK Rowling, Tilda Swinton, Dominic West, Damien Hirst and Richard Branson. The BBC and RTĖ (Ireland’s national broadcaster) responded in kind, announcing a raft of bookish programmes to coincide with the giveaway on March 5.

However, the barrage of positive publicity was not to last. As the World Book Night project gathered steam, faint rumblings of discord were heard on the horizon from various splinter groups in the publishing and bookselling industries. Small publishing houses, independent booksellers and struggling writers, who individually lacked the clout necessary to challenge the big hitters, joined forces to voice their concerns. And, as it turned out, they raised some valid points.

The crux of their argument centred around the belief that flooding an already struggling market with one million free books will have a hugely detrimental effect on the smaller players in the industry. How can booksellers hope to sell any of the 25 titles involved with the project when readers are getting them for free elsewhere? Why buy a book when it is given away for free from another source?

Another argument put forward by World Book Night detractors centres on the fact that money spent by publishers in support of the scheme (estimated to be as much as £40,000 each) is money that could be spent publishing a new author.

Adding to the quagmire of negative publicity is the fact that WBN organisers are struggling to cope with the aforementioned organisational nightmare of bringing this project to fruition. High volunteer drop-out rates are resulted in a frenzied, last-minute flurry of activity in a bid to recruit a large group of ‘reserves’, and a plague of computer glitches has seen a number of emails sent to participants with confusing or incorrect information.

So, will World Book Night be an unqualified success, or will its critics' worst fears be realised? Search me! I’m still oscillating, with my loyalties divided between the two opposing sides. Let’s just wait and see how it all comes out in the wash …

No comments:

Post a Comment