Ask Londoners what they associate Wandsworth with and there is a safe bet they won't come back with the word "books". The London borough has its, er, charms: a leafy common, dubious council estates, creeping gentrification, notorious traffic and the second largest prison in the UK.
Though far away from the heart of British publishing, Wandsworth is the home of Booktrust, one of most active, if somewhat under the radar, enterprises in the UK book trade. Even those in the industry might not grasp the extent of the reading development charity's scope. It co-ordinates three massive national book-gifting programmes— Bookstart, Booktime, and Booked Up— which give out free books to children and families at the preschool level, aged five and aged 11, respectively. In addition there is the Letterbox Club, a gifting programme for children aged seven to 11 in foster care. All told, the schemes give out about 3.5 million books annually.
Then there are the many campaigns, which this year featured Story, the short-story promotion run with the BBC; October's school, library and bookshop promotion Children's Book Week; and the Children's Laureate, which Booktrust has been running for the past four years. And that's not all, there is the prize administration that include partnerships with the Orange Prize, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the Blue Peter Book Awards and the Roald Dahl Funny Books Prize, plus education programmes, and DIPNET, the publishing diversity programme which it took over last year.
When I meet chief exec Viv Bird at Booktrust's Wandsworth HQ (the appropriately named Book House) she acknowledges that many people are unaware of all the charity does. "I think there is something of a brand challenge," she says. "But we will be shouting what we do more. We believe there is a wider role we can play because of our work. When you are developing and delivering you often don't have time to stand back and reflect. And some of the messages are not necessarily going to make headline news for a media that is looking for problems. Our programmes work, it is great to enjoy books, so what's the story?"
To help get the message out, two of Bird's priorities in the two years since she came over to Booktrust from the National Literacy Trust, have been to increase the charity's marketing team, and up the game on its research into its activities. The research in particular, she believes, can be beneficial to the trade. Last year, for example, Booktrust surveyed 1,000 children on their attitudes towards age banding, with only 3% saying it affected them negatively, and 40% viewing it positively. Bird says: "There was all that debate in the media 'oh isn't it terrible', but here was independent evidence from Booktrust that could shed some light on the issue. And that is what we are going to do going forward."
Having a higher profile may help get more funding, an even more crucial issue as government money tightens. Booktrust's annual budget is about £15m, of which £13m is donated "books in and books out" in its gifting programmes, leaving about £2m to be raised from the government and other sources. "When you are running an organisation, you have to ensure your funding is in place in order to ensure your mission and aims can be achieved and we have done that," she says.
Bird adds: "For every pound the government puts in it gets back four, if you calculate the retail costs of the books, products and resources we include in the packs and sponsorship we get from publishers and retailers— and that excludes the voluntary support from local authorities and health. As a public private partnership, we are extremely good value for money."
The core of Booktrust is its gifting programmes. For the schemes, publishers donate books, or charge a very small amount; authors are still paid royalties, but many waive them. Bird praises publisher support saying, "there is a lot of goodwill because I think it is a mutually benefiting partnership."
Whether this book gifting is truly mutually beneficial is a question worth asking. Can publishers afford to give away so many free books, given the economic climate? "The proof of the pudding is in the eating," she says. "Publishers are keen to take part— no one is forcing them to —because they are reaching 3.3 million children. For millions of kids, those authors and illustrators are becoming household names. When those families go into bookshops, libraries and supermarkets, they will recognise those authors, so there is a knock-on effect."
Born in Jersey, Bird's career primarily has been with education and researching and evaluating government policy. She realises that in the next round of funding she might have to be making her case to a different set of policy makers. "The Conservatives have made very clear commitments to supporting and nurturing families and our work does that, and not just in the early years. And the public private partnership, would be attractive to the Conservative Party. But we can't be complacent. The Labour government has been committed to developing reading and has put its money where its mouth is, enabling us to develop our programmes. In the future, clearly we might have to cut our costs, but if we keep within our vision of a life long love of books, who can possibly be against that?"