Giving away one million books in the teeth of the recession was either an inspired event capable of showing what pan-industry initiatives can do to help get us through these troubled times, or a hare-brained scheme sure to deliver a hammer blow to the high street. At least, those were the conflicting views that were flying around the trade during the inaugural World Book Night on 5th March this year.
With the 2012 list announced last week and the dust largely settled from the 2011 event, now is a propitious time to take a look at the BookScan sales data for the WBN titles, and make a considered judgement about whether the scheme is, in fact, good for business.
First of all, it seems unassailable that WBN worked in booksellers' favour as a short-term promotion. Overall, the 25 WBN titles' sales through bookshops increased 24% from March 2010 to March 2011; the February to March 2011 increase was 19%. Given that the average selling prices of the selected books were £6.20, that equates to between £125,000 and £150,000 in value terms.
Canny retailers exploited the publicity around the books during the run-up to and after the event, and despite there being 40,000 copies each of the 25 books given away for free, 23 of those titles had sales boosts in March 2011 over February 2011. Philip Pullman's Northern Lights (Scholastic) was one of those two books to have a decline, but by the barest of margins: it sold one less copy in March than in February. Only Nigel Slater's Toast (Harper) had any serious decline; it was 76% down from its February sales (13,765 copies) to March (3,345). Yet this is no doubt due to the slowdown of the sales boost Toast received from its BBC adaptation, which was broadcast over the Christmas and New Year period.
Nine of the 25 books had triple-digit percentage increases from February to March—led by Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance (Faber), up 387%—and 16 of the 25 had sales increases of more than 50%. Although, as with all the WBN titles, we need to contextualise each and every one—Mistry's leap in sales may have less to do with WBN itself and more to do with Hardeep Singh Kohli waxing lyrical about the book on Anne Robinson's “My Life in Books” show on BBC2. Although that series was commissioned because it was part of the BBC's books season—of which WBN was the centrepiece. However, the fact remains that the “average” WBD book saw an 89% sales increase between February and March 2011.
Up versus last year
The sales are still very strong comparing March 2011 sales with March 2010, with 20 of the 25 titles having sales lifts. Thirteen of those have had triple-digit percentage rises, including Alan Bennett's A Life Like Other People's (Faber, 485%), John le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Penguin, 450%) and Seamus Heaney's New Selected Poems 1966–87 (Faber, 413%).
Of the titles that declined year-on-year in March, three had negligible drops: Lee Child's Killing Floor (down 79 copies), Pullman's Northern Lights (down 92 copies) and David Nicholls' One Day (Hodder), which was down 1,274 copies—but that only represents a 2% drop. Although even with those drops, Killing Floor, Northern Lights and One Day were ahead of the overall market, which was down 12.2% in volume in March 2011 versus 2010.
Marian Keyes' Rachel's Holiday is the biggest March 2010 versus March 2011 faller in percentage terms (–37%). However, Penguin re-jacketed and re-launched the whole Keyes backlist in February 2010, which led to a spike in sales last year. March 2011 was up 93% on Rachel's Holiday's pre-rejacketed March 2009. Moshin Hamid's 2007 Man Booker-shortlisted The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Penguin) was the other title to experience a significant slide, down 15% (3,952 copies sold in March 2010; 3,342 in March 2011).
Some in the anti-WBN camp have pointed out that there was that an overall drop in sales through BookScan for the month of March, and blamed this on the million free books dropped into consumers' hands during the month. This argument makes a rather tenuous causal link. March was indeed down through the TCM compared to the previous year—9% by value (£103.3m from £114m) and 12.2% by volume (14.2 million copies from 16.2m). Affixing this decline on WBN, however, assumes rather bizarre consumer behaviour, given customers actually bought 24% more copies of the books that were given away for free, comparing sales in this March to sales in March 2010. If it was WBN that kept readers out of shops, surely it would be the 25 titles on the list that would have seen a drop?
March 2010 also had an earlier Easter than 2011. Sales jumped by £2.5m week on week in the final week of March 2010 in the run up to the Easter weekend, which didn't happen in 2011 as Easter was much later (24th April). And it is worth noting that March was not the worst month of 2011 year on year—September was 10.9% down by value. It would be tough to pin that decline on World Book Night.
But does the WBN effect last? Given the number of débuts, first in a series or earlier books of authors with a number of titles to their credit, part of publishers' motives for getting involved in WBN (aside, of course, from creating excitement around books and reading) was surely building backlist sales.
Well, here things get a trifle murky. Compare year-to-date sales in 2011 versus 2010, and the entire WBN list is up 454,166 copies, a whopping 64%. Ah, but this is mostly to do with One Day; strip out the 828,000 copies sold (in all editions) by 2011's bestselling book, and WBN titles are down just over 51,000 copies, or 13%. Yet given that only One Day could still be called frontlist, and half of the books on the list were published before 2000, a 13% drop is not completely disastrous. It is also worth pointing out that without exception the 25 titles on the WBN are mass-market paperbacks, which have been hit hardest by the migration to digital in 2011 (sales of mass-market paperback fiction is down 13% year on year).
Despite that drop, 14 of the 25 titles did improve on 2010. Leaving aside adaptation-boosted One Day and Toast, the biggest gainers were Ben Macintyre's Agent Zigzag (Bloomsbury), which was up 85% on 2010, and A Fine Balance, up 81%. Both had their strongest two weeks of sales in 2011 in the week before and during WBN. Meanwhile, Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (both Penguin) were up 50%.
What has not worked for the entire year to date? Bennett's A Life Like Other People's had the biggest decline comparing 2011 to 2010, down 57%. That is not entirely surprising given that it is the newest title on the list; the hardback was published in September 2009, the paperback in 2010.
Other than Bennett, the titles that did not have lasting WBN boosts were either the beginning of a crime series—C J Sansom's Dissolution (Pan Mac, down 36% by volume) and Child's Killing Floor (-44%)—or what can loosely be termed the “mega-selling mid-Noughties titles in the lit lite/Richard & Judy/Booker camp”, including Yann Martel's Life of Pi (Canongate, -52%), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (-45%) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Half of a Yellow Sun (Harper, -39%).
There is evidence of some WBN-related backlist surge. In March 2011, Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale was up 70% year on year by volume, Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude up 45% and Martel's Helsinki Romanticos up 50%.
Taking account of what has happened in 2011, a few predictions are in order for the WBN 2012 list. Bear in mind that the titles that will probably experience a WBN boost will be those that are coming from a relatively low base.
Good bets, therefore, for booksellers seem to be David Peace's The Damned United (Faber)—which has a well-respected (if not all that well-known) author; a subject matter that can appeal to non-bookish types; and sales of only about 1,800 in 2011. Roald Dahl's adult collection Someone Like You (Penguin) is certainly set for a rise—it hasn't even charted in the TCM Top 5,000 in 2011. Despite that it had both a Swedish and a Hollywood film adaptation in recent years. John Ajvde Lindqvist's Let the Right One In (Quercus) still has not achieved the audience it deserves.
Yet if there is one book on the list that seems perfectly judged, it is Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens (Corgi). It has two immensely popular authors, it is a 20-year-old title which has sold a low (for them) 6,338 copies in 2011. It is ripe for rediscovery.
Perhaps it is worth noting that outside of the pure sales generated for shops, there are some intangibles and some not immediately measurable factors to consider. In a time when the routes to market are narrowing, WBN is largely about increasing discoverability and readership, something that WBN 2012 will tackle more aggressively—unlike 2011, half of the books will be given out by WBN organisers themselves to the likes of hospitals, prisons and charities in order to more precisely target reluctant readers.
Like World Book Day, which took a while to bed in with the public, WBN's true value may not be able to be accurately judged for some time.
For those in the trade not fully on board with WBN including booksellers on the high street, they would not be out of line in saying that intangibles don't pay the bills. Yes, one million books given out for free seems a lot, but public libraries “give away” 350 million free books a year—with a.s.p. currently at £7.21, that is a potential £2.523bn in sales that libraries are taking away from bookshops. Yet, it would be perverse to measure libraries' worth to the book trade in those terms. And given the real and measureable short-term benefits shown thus far for WBN, it seems worthwhile to see how it plays out in the long run.
Looking ahead to 2012
The 2012 incarnation of World Book Night will be slightly different from the inaugural event this year. First of all it is later; the 2011 edition was on 5th March, in order to run in the same week as World Book Day, which was on 3rd March. WBN 2012 now will run a month and a half after World Book Day, on 23rd April, Shakespeare's birthday.
The 2011 project was put together relatively quickly, driven in good measure by the energy of WBN catalyst, Canongate m.d. Jamie Byng. There is a more considered, structured approach in 2012, led by the organisation's c.e.o. Julia Kingsford. The books were chosen from a group of 100 titles suggested by the public, and then by a selection committee which included author and chair of the committee Tracey Chevalier, W H Smith's trading controller Alastair Aldous, The Book People c.e.o. Seni Glaister, the Reading Agency project manager Sandeep Mahal, Brixton Library reader development officer Tim O'Dell, One Tree Books director Tim O'Kelly, Cactus TV m.d. Amanda Ross and Waterstone's publisher liaison manager Jon Woolcott.
In 2011, all but 40,000 titles were given away by members of the public. This year, WBN itself will take a more active roll in making sure the titles get to reluctant readers in prisons, hospitals and through charities.
This year, the “world” in WBN was like the use of the word in US baseball's World Series. But in 2012 WBN goes beyond the British Isles to America, with the US night planned to coincide with the British event on 23rd April. HarperCollins vice-president of retail marketing Carl Lennertz has been hired as WBN USA c.e.o., and details are currently being finalised about which books will be chosen.