Independent booksellers and authors say the million-book giveaway will damage trade and writers' incomes
Three weeks ahead of the inaugural World Book Night book-giving event on 5 March, a row has broken out over whether the event will damage independent booksellers and harm authors.
World Book Night, dubbed "the largest book giveaway ever", will see 20,000 members of the public giving away 48 copies of their favourite book – chosen from a list of titles that includes work by Margaret Atwood, John le Carré, Sarah Waters, David Mitchell and poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. In total, one million books will be gifted on the night.
Masterminded by Jamie Byng, managing director of publisher Canongate, the event has a roster of starry supporters and will receive extensive coverage on BBC2. Many of the authors – who will all waive the royalties on their books – have given World Book Night enthusiastic public support, with Atwood saying she was "amazed by its magnitude".
But Vanessa Robertson, who owns the Edinburgh Bookshop in Bruntsfield, Edinburgh, has claimed that, far from spreading the joy of reading, World Book Night will simply flood the market with free books and devalue the work of authors in the eyes of the public.
In a highly critical blog posted on the website State of Independents Robertson says many booksellers are "horrified" by the "misguided and misjudged" venture.
"One million books flooding a struggling book trade; one million copies of books which make up a good part of many bookshops' sales (David Nicholl's One Day; Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; Case Histories by Kate Atkinson; Fingersmith by Sarah Waters to name a few); one million books being given away, further reinforcing the notion that we're all there to provide a public service and that authors, publishers and booksellers don't deserve or need to make a living," she wrote.
Others echoed her view. One independent bookseller, who would only speak anonymously for fear of being labelled "curmudgeonly", said: "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." He queried whether World Book Night would bring in new readers, saying: "I suspect it will be nice bookish people giving the books to other nice bookish people."
Andrew Bentley-Steed, who manages Robertson's Edinburgh bookshop, said local authors had complained to him about the venture. "The authors whose books have been chosen are superstars, but most authors have under £7,000 average annual earnings and some major retailers are treating their books like loss leaders. The authors who are customers in my shop are saying World Book Night reinforces the notion that books are something you can just give away. They are not happy, but they don't feel they can say 'this is wrong', because they don't want to get on the wrong side of publishers," he said.
Author Nicola Morgan was among those happy to air objections to the scheme, commenting: "When things are free, people tend to forget that someone always pays. If it's the giver, that's fine, but here it's not only the giver, but, indirectly, a whole lot of people who haven't asked to be givers."
Bentley-Steed suggested that a better event would be a "Fair Trade Book Fortnight" at which all retailers agreed to charge the full cover price for their books to support authors.
But Nic Bottomley, owner of Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, called World Book Night "a great idea" likely to inspire people who received a free book to buy others to give away in turn. "I don't buy the argument that the market will be flooded," he said. "Giving away a million free books sounds like a lot, but in the context of the 250m we sell across the trade each year, it's absolutely nothing. I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and it works out at just three or four books for each independent bookshop. I don't think there's any independent that wouldn't give away that number if it encourages book-lovers."
WBN chair Jamie Byng called Robertson's post "extremely misleading", saying only "a small and vocal minority" were objecting to World Book Night, which has the support of 1,200 libraries and 800 shops, and is heavily backed by Waterstone's. The event – first conceived last summer – had come together at great speed because everyone in the trade had worked together to make it happen, contributing large amounts of time and effort, he said.
"It is widely accepted that word of mouth and personal recommendation are both hugely important drivers for book sales and World Book Night is above all a celebration of the personal recommendation. Having 20,000 passionate readers giving out between them a million books they love on one night is going to create word of mouth for books on an unprecedented scale," he said. "A lot of authors think it's a great thing for books. Sure, we're in a difficult time right now, but this could genuinely boost reading."
He urged booksellers to take a positive approach to the event, arguing: "The key thing surely is to embrace the possibilities that it offers, which are enormous and forward-looking, rather than cynically dismissing the idea before it becomes a reality."
There's an interesting-looking fist-fight going on in the comments with someone who I think is claiming to be Andrew Bentley-Steed and who is claiming to have been heavily misquoted.
More generally, I'm not certain what I think about this one, though as an event it sounds like fun. And haven't we heard these 'it will kill the market' arguments before about online presses, ebooks etc?