Getting the reading fix

The 2018 Quick Reads list for adult emergent readers was launched at Foyles, with huge enthusiasm and moving insights from this year’s authors—Kit de Waal, Dorothy Koomson, Tammy Cohen, Mark Billingham, Vaseem Khan and Fern Britton—all explaining how reading had influenced their lives, created a love of learning and enabled them to become the successful authors they are today. All shared a passion for achieving 100% literacy in the UK and supported this key initiative, which seeks to inspire the one in six adults who do not read, in the hope of reversing the appalling situation which has England at the bottom of the OECD charts for literacy levels among 16–19 year olds.

Quick Reads was launched in 2005 at the BA Conference in Glasgow, as part of the already established World Book Day, targeting the UK’s forgotten 12 million non-readers. The first list appeared in 2006 with Val McDermid, Maeve Binchy, Richard Branson and John (now Lord) Bird. The books from all publishers were financed by the industry with support from The Arts Council, National Book Tokens, all the literacy agencies, UnionLearn and libraries. More than 100 titles have now been published by a range of bestselling authors, filling a massive gap in the market for well-written, engaging, easy-to-read short books for adults whose reading skills and confidence is well below the norm. Quick Reads’ mission was to turn emergent readers into addicted readers, to inspire a desire to improve skills so that reading was no longer a fearful chore but a life-fulfilling pleasure.

Quick Reads was a natural extension of World Book Day. Much research has shown the benefits of adults reading to and with their children, which can only happen if the adults are confident readers themselves. But the problems remain today. A recent Children’s Book Consumer survey showed that only half of children were read to daily, down by one fifth over the past five years. Renaissance Learning revealed that reading comprehension in secondary pupils began to fall below that of primary schools.

The UK literacy crisis costs the economy £2.5bn a year. Our young people have the worst literacy skills in the developed world, and are entering the workforce with poorer skills than the older generation they are replacing. Around a quarter of businesses are forced to provide remedial skills. Surely this is not a sustainable position, especially post-Brexit, when our new industrial policy will require a well-trained workforce?

When Quick Reads was launched, NIACE (the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education) was its partner, providing the books to literacy groups and assessing their impact. In one survey of 50,000 emergent readers, 98% reported an increase in confidence after having read their  first Quick Reads title; nearly 60% had sought further training in the workplace which had resulted in them getting a promotion.

For eight years, Quick Reads was sustained by sponsorship from Galaxy, the Arts Council and a small donation from World Book Day. The initiative was steered by a succession of dedicated and high-profile industry figures and supported by publishers and authors.

In 2016 Quick Reads became a natural part of the The Reading Agency, an excellent national charity which advocates reading for pleasure and empowerment, and which works tirelessly with deep expertise in libraries: it had also taken over World Book Night. Quick Reads books were successfully integrated into all of The Reading Agency’s programmes, in particular Reading Ahead and World Book Night. But once Galaxy withdrew its funding, it was unable to find an alternative sponsor for the £120,000 a year needed to commission and distribute the six much-needed new books.

Government austerity in this period has had a disastrous impact on public libraries and public investment in literacy. NIACE also faced government cuts and became the Learning & Work Institute in 2016, following a merger with the Centre for Economic & Social Inclusion. It’s still doing sterling work, but on a fraction of its former budgets.

Although Quick Reads has ceased to commission, The Reading Agency will continue to work with publishers to ensure that the extensive Quick Reads backlist is available for those who need it most in Skills For Life centres, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses, community centres, care homes, libraries, prisons, hospitals, dyslexia centres, family learning groups, schools, workplace libraries, food kitchens, homeless organisations and army barracks.

Perhaps, with authors’ agreement, electronic versions of the backlist could be supplied free of charge to appropriate organisations to ensure existing books continue to reach emergent readers?

Quick Reads grew out of a World Book Day lecture I gave in 2004. I had quoted the UK’s poor adult literacy numbers and the audience of publishers was shocked and wanted action. I was aware, through Roddy Doyle, of a small initiative in Ireland publishing for emergent readers, so it was a small step to scale this up nationally with the help of the industry.

It was a model of public/private partnership but despite the publishing enthusiasm and support we received over the years, one c.e.o. summed up an underlying problem for Quick Reads: "It’s a good initiative and I support children’s literacy, but overall our aim as a publisher is to sell more books to avid readers, not worry about those who can’t read."

To me this missed the point, and turned working in our industry away from being a vocation. It turned books into a commodity. My position has always been that our purpose as publishers, from curating and bringing books to readers, is also to keep evangelising and help introduce the transformative power of reading to everyone.

My first visit to an emergent readers group, in south London, was a revelation. There was a self-employed plumber, an office worker, a mother and daughter, a pensioner, all intelligent adults with a variety of reading tastes, held back by their lack of confidence in their reading skills.

I was buoyed by the commitment of Quick Reads authors: from Joanna Trollope who went on to contribute to literacy charities; Andy McNab, who tirelessly lectures on literacy, especially to army groups; Kit de Waal and Ann Cleeves, who take particular interest in prison-reading; to the late Ruth Rendell who said her Quick Reads title was the hardest book she ever had to write, constrained by words of two syllables and no flashbacks—but she left a wonderful legacy of an annual literacy prize.

Today Quick Reads are used by every literacy organisation and library. Cornwall College is one example of an organisation which has used the books to encourage young mothers to read for pleasure and to read to their babies, as part of The Reading Agency’s Reading Ahead programme. One local council in London has used Quick Reads to form a housing estate reading group of mothers whose children were making slow progress at school. Within a few weeks, these women had devoured four Quick Reads and went on to other books, having found a new passion for the written word and the confidence to oversee their children’s school performance. Truancy decreased and grades went up as a result of this intervention.

In this last year of Quick Reads, as we had no sponsorship, we asked the publisher of each book to contribute towards the cost of point of sale and distribution—and they did so willingly. Other personal donations contributed to cover The Reading Agency’s costs.

I helped finance 2018 Quick Reads, together with another donor, with commitment and joy but as I reflect on our industry and the many and important initiatives which publishers do fund, I cannot understand why this unique list of books to help eradicate illiteracy remains unfunded.
To support children is important and effective and, having launched World Book Day in 1998, I am a great enthusiast. But to ignore their parents ensures our poor national literacy levels remain unchanged.

The most moving moment this year was meeting Andrew Jennison, the post and porterage officer at De Montfort University, at the 2018 launch. He has made it his mission to work with The Reading Agency and introduce Reading Ahead and Quick Reads to his staff. He spoke of a cleaner at the university, who moved from not being able to read or write at all, to being able to read her first Quick Reads title. "It was really good," she said. "I was like a sponge because I just wanted to read another and another. With every book I read, something really influenced me and changed my opinion about things. It’s given me so much confidence in my daily life. I have gone on to read bigger books...
I love reading. I could read for hours and hours, anything and everything!’

To me that sums up our purpose as publishers and I call on the industry to continue offering that life-changing experience to all potential readers.

Baroness Rebuck DBE is the founder of both World Book Day and Quick Reads.