Passion for books

Tuesday was World Book Night, across the UK & Ireland 20,000 people (with a further 25,000 in America) acted as volunteers helping us gift half a million books to those who don’t regularly read in their communities, to encourage them to do so.

In the evening, hundreds of events took place from author readings to quizzes and parties, all to celebrate books and reading. We do this because a third of households don’t have books in them, 16% of adults struggle with literacy and 17% of young people say they’d be embarrassed if their friends saw them reading. Yet Unesco reports that reading for pleasure is the single best indicator for social mobility—more so than any other socio-economic factor.

There are two special things about World Book Night. The first is that it truly is a unique cross-industry collaboration. Authors, agents, publishers, printers, our distribution sponsor Yodel, hundreds of bookshops and thousands of libraries all got together to help 20,000 ordinary readers do something that we couldn’t do on our own—reach those who have never “got” books, who don’t care what author has a new book out, who’ve never visited their library, wouldn’t dream of going in a bookshop, people for whom the idea of reading for pleasure is simply non-existent.

The second is how we’ve been able to work with these ordinary readers to create an incredibly empowered network of passionate grass-roots advocates for books and reading. Our volunteers come from all walks of life, right across the country, men and women aged from 16 to 90 united only by their passion for reading, their desire to get books to more people and their willingness to give up a considerable amount of time to participate. Each have their own individual way of reaching those who don’t regularly read, a highly visible minority through serendipitous and random gifting to strangers, but the majority through focused local activities that will serve their community’s needs best. In the main they themselves have incredible enriching experiences—as most volunteers do. With a combination of new and repeat givers we’ve now had almost 50,000 individuals take part across WBN’s three years and have built a database of 80,000 interested in what we do.

The Olympics very publicly demonstrated the power, value and passion of volunteers, but it’s something that sport has always utilised well. Football may be managed by the FA and the major clubs but its grass roots are with the hundreds of thousands of people who coach local teams and volunteer as referees, people who give up their weekends for something they care about. Just because we’ve never done this for books and reading before, doesn’t mean we can’t start now with the most passionate, engaged and enthusiastic readers working with us to spread the word.

There is a huge divide between those who regularly read and those who just don’t see why you would, who’ve never been empowered to read. We talk constantly about discoverability, but almost every conversation I hear extends only as far as the discoverability of this book over that, not of books and reading themselves. Arguably the
greatest disservice that e-readers do (after the threat they pose to the future of local bookshops) is to take away that discoverability. Once upon a time you’d see people with books everywhere you went, they were our handheld form of entertainment, and once you’d seen a certain book being read enough times you’d know you had to read it.

Now you could be surrounded by people reading exactly the same thing without knowing they’re even reading. As our entertainment options become ever wider and we can watch the latest movies, surf the net or play games in the palms of our hands and the pressure on our leisure time increases, as libraries face closures, enormous cuts and the need to provide a dizzying range of services, and bookshops struggle beneath the three-fold pressure of falling sales, flat margins and rising rents and rates we risk entering an era where books really are for the few, private pleasures for those of us prepared to seek
them out, who know we want them.

World Book Night can, and does, cut through that. Yes, some of our books will fall short of their mark and reach regular readers happy to take a free book, but the overwhelming majority won’t. And the opportunity we have to work with readers, to develop our relationship with them from consumers of the books we produce to partners in promoting the value of books and reading is truly exciting.

Julia Kingsford is chief executive of World Book Night