February 25, 2011

World Book Night: Sweet dream or dangerous fantasy?


As we reported last month on MobyLives, World Book Night is set to take place in London on 5th March. The stage is being set for what looks like a spectacular evening in Trafalgar Square, with recent announcements including author readings from the likes of Margaret Atwood and Philip Pullman. On the surface, WBN seems like a fantastic idea that aims to showcase some wonderful books and get more people reading. However, what is striking is some of the controversy that’s been emerging from within the blogging community regarding potential problems.

Vanessa Robertson, a blogger over at State of Independents and owner of The Edinburgh Bookshop, has caused a stir with her recent articles outlining her reservations about WBN. She writes that many of the booksellers she has had conversations with about WBN are ‘horrified‘ at the idea of giving away so many books, and many of her readers seem to agree with her.

She suggests that there’s a danger that the sheer amount of books being given away could lead to an inherent devaluation of books themselves. Another problem is that although the authors involved have forfeited their royalties in a noble gesture to get behind the sprit of the project, there are many authors who cannot afford to do this. It’s possible that lesser known authors and small publishers could find it difficult to participate in future WBNs, as they simply cannot afford to forego the revenue. Vanessa puts it best, stating, “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.”

In addition, WBN could also put pressure on booksellers and indie bookstores:

“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.”

This point of view is certainly difficult to argue with, and Vanessa further points out that a big problem for Indies also lies in that many of the titles included in the giveaway are big sellers in the UK, and so make up a significant proportion of a store’s sales. To give away a million copies of those books is a million copies that people won’t buy. There’s obviously no way to quantify how many of those copies would have been bought from Indies, versus online and chain bookstores, but they may get burned by this in one way or another.

We all know that the book trade is going through some tough times. The spirit of WBN is to get people excited about books again, and the hope is that this will in turn lead to people falling in love/falling back in love with reading and (maybe) lead to the sale of more books. With WBN just over a week away, time will soon tell whether the project can achieve what it sets out to do, and it’ll be interesting to see what lessons can be learned for future WBN events. If nothing else, it’s sure to be a fantastic evening, and I for one can’t wait to attend.