This past Saturday saw the inaugural World Book Night in the U.K., an event that featured 20,000 readers each giving away 48 copies of their favourite book. In total, one million books by authors such as Muriel Spark, Kate Atkinson, and Sarah Waters were to be gifted during the event, which was the brainchild of Canongate managing director Jamie Byng.
World Book Night was endorsed by a number of high-profile literary luminaries, including Margaret Atwood, John le Carré, and J.K. Rowling, but not everyone shared their enthusiasm. In a highly critical blog post, Edinburgh bookseller Vanessa Robertson wrote:
[While] some [booksellers] are cautiously positive, most of the people I’ve spoken to are horrified; when we’re already being undercut by supermarkets who can wrestle bigger discounts from publishers and Amazon and Tesco etc. are even selling books as loss-leaders, to further erode our market and the perceived value of books is foolish in the extreme. And that’s the problem: not that this will necessarily undermine sales but that it’s another way of eroding the public’s perception of the value “ and cost “ of books. As one hugely well-respected bookseller said to me people will think that if the trade can afford to give away so much, our margins must be enormous and our profits vast ¦ It’s hard to think of another industry which has given so much product away. Or indeed one which would want to.
Others echoed Robertson’s concern. One anonymous indie bookseller was quoted in the Guardian as saying, “We’re champions of the book and independent reading and people enriching their lives and bringing people to appreciate the value of books. I don’t see how giving stuff away will help.”
Well, if the Los Angeles Times is to be believed, giving stuff away actually did help boost sales. According to Jacket Copy, the L.A. Times book blog, sales of the titles slated to be given away on World Book Night spiked in the run-up to the event:
Sales of one giveaway book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, went up 63% between January and February. Other books that were given away for free that saw sales rise include Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamed, Alan Bennett’s A Life Like Other People’s, and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.
While this may sound like good news, it is somewhat mitigated by the lost royalties on the one million books that were given away. Still, Byng’s assertion that World Book Night was “driven by passion, and that is very infectious” seems to be, at least in part, correct.