World Book Night 2012

Art & Culture

What do Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Sophie Kensella’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and David Pearce’s The Damned United have in common? The answer, in all likelihood, is absolutely nothing; except for the fact that they have been chosen for World Book Night 2012 and will, along with 22 other titles, be given away for free.

Celebrated on April 23, 2012 – Shakepeare's birthday by the way – WBN "is a celebration designed to spread a love of reading and books".  In total one million books will be given away by event organisers and members of the public "to spread the joy and love of reading". WBN, the brainchild of Canongate's Jamie Byng, was successfully launched on the 5th of March of this year in Trafalgar Square, London and featured, amongst others, appearances from Mark Haddon, Margaret Atwood and David Nicholls.

The idea was greeted, in equal measure, by great fanfare and grave doubters. The supporters claimed that to get people reading, promote books and provide positive publicity for the industry has to be a good thing. The cynics claimed that one million books given away for free are one million books that would otherwise have been sold. Plus, titles such as Cloud Atlas, The Life of Pi and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time are the bread and butter of bookshops – especially small, independent ones – and giving them away for free instead of selling them would eat into their profits. They also said that giving away free books devalues a book, as once you give people something for free they expect to always receive it for free.

It is easy to sympathise with the cynics but according to The Bookseller, of the 25 titles given away in 2011, 23 had sales boosts in March 2011 compared to February 2011. In that same period, 9 of the 25 books had triple-digit increases and 16 of the 25 increased by more than 50%. As a matter of fact, the average WBD book saw sales increase by 89% between February and March 2011. Not bad, ey?

Personally, I think WBD is a positive venture for the book industry. The old truism of any publicity is good publicity might ring hollow to booksellers being threatened by Amazon, Supermarkets and global recession, but the buzz of getting people excoted about books will surely, in the long term, lead to positive results for everyone. I narrowly missed out on being a 'book giver' last year (since you're asking, I applied for the brilliantly underrated, funny and sad Stuart: A Life Backwards) but will be applying again this year. I don't think the list is quite as strong as last time around but there is still something on there for everyone. As the event grows in stature it can only be hoped that everyone will get behind it and that everyone will reap the benefits.

Matthias Mueller
The gentleman that is Mr Mueller, runs the excellent Cultural Constellations blog – we suggest if you concur with his thoughts above… or even if you don't to check it forthwith! x