The adult literacy campaign Quick Reads is wrapping up after 12 years due to lack of funding, The Bookseller can reveal. Authors have reacted with shock and disappointment to the news, branding it "devastating" and "a tragedy". The scheme, founded in 2005 by Baroness Gail Rebuck, is co-ordinated by The Reading Agency, which is calling time on the initiative after a fruitless 18-month search for a new sponsor.
For six years (2010–16) Galaxy funded the campaign, which sees six short and accessible stories commissioned each year from famous authors. It provided only limited support in 2017, as its corporate social responsibility emphasis shifted onto cocoa producers in Africa and India. Publishers and private donors, including Baroness Rebuck, stepped in to provide support for this year’s titles. A spokesperson for Galaxy Mars said: "We value each and every one of our partnerships and the funding we offer is the result of careful thought and planning. We recognise the important work that Quick Reads continues to do to improve adult literacy and help those who struggle with reading to enjoy great literature."
However, after Arts Council funding for Quick Reads also finished in 2017, the 18-month search for a new sponsor to cover the £120,000 annual costs proved unsuccessful, "frustratingly" leading The Reading Agency’s chief executive Sue Wilkinson to take the decision not to "commission a 2019 model".
"We have done a lot of work but we have not been successful in finding a commercial sponsor, so we can’t commission a 2019 model," she said. "We had to make a decision far in advance for the 2019 list. We had a lot of support from authors [but] if you talk to any c.e.o. of a charity they would say the pressure on funding has increased. We are sad because it is a fantastic programme."
To continue long-term, the scheme needed "substantial financial commitments from a sponsor not simply from publishers," Wilkinson added. The charity intends to continue to support the Quick Reads backlist.
Author Ann Cleeves with readers, promoting the Quick Reads titles
Authors lamented the news of Quick Reads’ closure, with crime writer Mark Billingham blasting it as "disgraceful" and suggesting publishers should make up the £120,000 shortfall to keep the initiative going. "I am absolutely gobsmacked," he said. "It is disgraceful. It is ridiculous that a scheme like this, which is so fundamental, will be closing. Somebody needs to step in and I can’t believe someone won’t because it is such a popular initiative. Perhaps it could be shared between the big publishing houses. I don’t see that it would be an enormous hardship. It would be incredibly worthwhile, and a drop in the ocean for some of the bigger publishers."
Dorothy Koomson described the scheme as being part of a "jigsaw of the bigger picture for literacy". She said: "Things like Quick Reads help empower people and give them a voice in the world. [The closure] will impact on children growing up now; children don’t always get education that helps them learn to read. It’s a case of not knowing what you have got until it is gone."
The longer view
Vaseem Khan, whose love of reading was kindled at school, said: "Quick Reads is about inclusivity, about trying to get people to read who don’t always get included because reading doesn’t come naturally [to them]. I believe passionately that we would be short-sighted as a society
if we don’t support such initiatives. I’ve recently spoken in a number of prisons about my own Quick Reads book, Inspector Chopra and the Million Dollar Motor Car. A number of the inmates approached me to say they hadn’t read for years, but my visit and the easy-to-read nature of the Quick Reads format encouraged them to get back into it. Isn’t that what we want for our society?"
Kit de Waal, who wrote Six Foot Six (Viking) for this year’s campaign, said that while the publishing industry caters to confident readers, "there are thousands of people that don’t have those advantages, and Quick Reads is for them. The very existence of a short affordable easy to read novel like Quick Reads says: ‘You matter, we have thought of you, you’re included’. What is the message if Quick Reads disappears? Let’s hope the publishing industry remains generous, inclusive and open-armed," she said.
Meanwhile, author Tammy Cohen said the end of Quick Reads was "a real tragedy". "It is devastating," she said. "I think it will leave a really big gap. It is such an amazing programme and it feels like something we need."
Baroness Rebuck has added her voice to calls for the industry to step in and help save the initiative she founded 12 years ago. "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," she wrote in her accompanying article for The Bookseller. "I call on the industry to continue offering that life-changing experience to all potential readers." The Labour peer said that, considering the various initiatives funded by publishing companies, "I cannot understand why this unique list of books to help eradicate illiteracy remains unfunded".
Publishers have responded with sadness over the closure of Quick Reads but said that they continue to promote literacy through various other means.
The authors of the 2018, and final, batch of Quick Reads with The Reading Agency’s chief executive Sue Wilkinson
Hachette’s group communications director Clare Harington said the company was "very sorry" to hear the news. "It has been a force for good which we have supported enthusiastically every year and many of our authors are very proud to have been published in the series," she said. "We believe passionately in the positive power of reading and the life-changing importance of reading for pleasure and we will continue to promote and support initiatives that encourage and facilitate adult and children’s literacy."
A spokesperson for Penguin Random House added: "We are committed to working with The Reading Agency to ensure our list of 44 Quick Reads titles continue to reach emergent readers across the UK." They cited the organisation’s ongoing Creative Responsibility strategy, which "strives to make books and the magic of reading accessible to everyone in society".
The closure of Quick Reads correlates with increased pressures on funding for a number of arts initiatives. Author Cathy Rentzenbrink, who was the project director of Quick Reads for four years until she stepped down in 2016, said she was "not surprised" by the development, underlining the difficulty of raising funding for such projects. "I’m, sadly, not surprised, as adult literacy isn’t fashionable and it is very hard to raise money for in a climate where funders, understandably, want a simple and consumer friendly proposition," she said. "I would probably still be working for Quick Reads now if my job had been mainly about commissioning the books and making sure they were used in effective ways.
"I loved working with writers and publishers on the books and found everyone so supportive and generous and I adored going out to meet new readers. But most of my job was about funding and I found that very difficult and stressful, especially the continual focus on needing to do something new, when I felt what was most needed was just to carry on doing it as it was. Arts funding rewards novelty, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means that a solid, reliable, tried and tested but unglamorous project like Quick Reads will miss out."
What backers want
Literary agent Toby Mundy, who works on the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award and the Wimbledon Bookfest, said that successful funding "depends on finding a sympathetic individual in the sponsor’s organisation that believes in your cause, and a passionate and energetic person who believes in the cause, leading it. But getting funding and sponsorship is tough, it’s a garden that constantly needs tending and weeding—it needs constant attention," he said.
Other literary initiatives currently searching for sponsorship include the Irish Book Awards, after sponsor Bord Gáis Energy ended its eight-year sponsorship. Meanwhile Dublin City Council has taken over funding the €100,000 International Dublin Literary Award, after the IMPAC trust fund established to support the prize ran dry after 20 years. In 2015 the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction found a new sponsor in asset management trust Baillie Gifford, after an anonymous donor ceased to support it. The Women’s Prize for Fiction set about establishing a new, collective sponsorship model after previous backer Baileys changed strategy after four years of funding the prize.