The World Book Night project is getting some hefty plugging from the BBC and the broadsheets, after an initial push on the Culture Show at the end of last year. It was conceived in 2009 by James Byng of Canongate at a talking shop to find new ideas for publishers. It is supported by the BBC along with a range of leading lights in publishing and run (intriguingly) as a ‘charitable company’.
The project asks people to apply to become ‘book givers’, picking a book that they wish to give out to lots of people. Recruits will each get 48 free copies of their chosen book and on one night – Sat 5th March 2011 – amid a co-ordinated wave of excitement and media interest, distribute them to the masses. On the same night, the organisation itself will give away books to places where they’re hard to get (they mention prisons and hospitals). Sounds ace.
I went to apply. I knew immediately what book I’d like to give out: Geoff Dyer‘s Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It. Not because it’s brilliant (though it is) but because of its lost potential as a popular classic. I know Dyer does OK but this book should’ve been huge, should’ve lined the supermarkets. I cannot imagine anyone not loving its heady brew of travel, drug-taking and intellectual detachment. In a post-Seinfeld Bruce Chatwin kind of way, it does precisely what World Book Night says on the tin.
But here’s the rub: there is (of course, how could I not have guessed?) a shortlist of 25 books from which you make your pick. Each of the 20,000 ‘book givers’ is actually giving out copies of one of these books. Now this is all thoroughly above board – the list of 25 was chosen by an esteemed panel, led by Radio 4’s Jim Naughtie. However they are all – without exception – already successful books from the major publishing houses (and written by authors who are already a high priority for those publishing houses). They are a mix of modern classics, recent bestsellers and prizewinners. Not trash by any means; it is a list of real quality, yet they are the big names.
On a personal level, I simply can’t find one I yearn to share. No, not even the Carol Ann Duffy. I’d pick Pullman’s beautiful Northern Lights but it’s the first of a trilogy, which is an appalling thing to give out free, like a first hit of smack. Suddenly World Book Night bothers me. Yet again, someone has a idea about sharing, then proceeds to lock out anyone not within a specific clique or mindset. It looks reductive instead of open-armed. Sharing a book isn’t simply a one-way patronising thing about encouraging people to read more, it’s an inspiration spreading process. Why, damn it, can’t I get 48 free copies of Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It and throw them around instead of the Heaney poetry collection I studied at Sixth Form? All the prizes and marketing games work this way: the ‘threefer’ discount arrangements work this way. The post-Richard and Judy Book Club things work this way.
Nevertheless I propose not an alternative but a complement:
Let’s have a World Book Night Fringe. Let’s not start from a top-down ‘selection’ but start from a bottom-up process where ‘book giver’ applicants pick a book they’d truly love to share. Then the author/publisher is approached with the request; decides how many ‘book givers’ they can afford to supply. Doesn’t need to be 48 copies each time, why not just 10 copies for each ‘book giver’ of the World Book Night Fringe books? Your core 25 authors and their publishers still get the lion’s share of PR, still get lauded on telly for giving some free books out and “promoting literacy” but at least some of those around the edges get to join in and taste a piece of the action. More importantly, the whole shebang becomes a two-way game, genuinely edifying for authors, publishers, ‘book givers’ and recipients alike – instead of just the illusion of a blanket (‘charitable’) initiative disguising simple commercial intention.
Perhaps I’m naive about how many books can be spared for free distribution but I suspect not. And as usual, I propose something I don’t have the wherewithal to put into action. But it would be simple to arrange if someone did – and it would make my own experience of World Book Night vastly better.
Screw the admin, next week I’m writing to Geoff Dyer to ask if he’s got any free copies lying around of that wonderful old book he wrote.