I am optimistic that World Book Night will be a great success.
If you don't know what it's all about, let me give you a quick rundown. Booksellers, publishing types and librarians (I think), were invited to send a list of their favourite books, of which a certain percentage had to be by British or Irish authors, and a certain percentage by living authors. These lists were collated and a committee again of booksellers and publishers used them to create a list of 25 books. They are now recruiting 20 000 volunteers to each champion a book and to give away 48 copies on World Book Night itself, 5th February.
I think the list of books is excellent - both popular and well-written - books that sell very well by themselves and that could probably still benefit from a word of mouth boost. And they are all books that I often recommend to customers, according to taste. (Which reminds me that I have a post about One Day sitting in my drafts folder).
I did enjoy the comments on this Guardian article, which swing almost within minutes from "Is this another example of book snobbery, implying only 'important' books should be enjoyed?" to "That list above is institutionalised dumbing-down. Marian Keyes, for fuck's sake."
But I won't be volunteering to be a giver, for a few reasons.
The most obvious reason, and the one that's got a lot of booksellers hot under the collar, is not one that particularly bothers me. I'm not of the belief that giving away 1m backlist books is going to have an enormous negative impact on bookshops. The Little Bookshop is a consumate indie, with brilliantly well-read and interesting customers, and of the books on the list, only One Day sells at a particularly brisk rate. The others tend to sell if we put them into the customer's hand (after listening carefully to what they're looking for), or if he or she has had a recommendation from a friend, which is something that WBN might well encourage. Indeed at the Big Bookshop, we're already being encouraged to use it to sell books, by engaging customers in conversation about what's on the list.
No, my main reason is that I think 48 books is too many. I have bookish friends, and I enjoy lending or giving them books, but I do not have 48 friends who I would like to give the same book. One of the best things about being a bookseller is being able to pick out books for individuals that you think they'll love, based on what you know about them. Giving out books in bulk is just difficult - and I can't help but feel that it would be a shame to waste a book on someone who won't enjoy it.
The second reason is about giving books to strangers. Of the five books on the list that I might have chosen to give out (Case Histories, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Beloved, Northern Lights and Fingersmith), two are children's/crossover books (which adults don't always like to be recommended, it really depends on the adult), two involve the violent death of a child (which a lot of parents say that they particularly don't want to read), and one is a really fantastic book about Victorian lesbians, not everyone's cup of tea. I would hesitate to give any of these to someone I didn't know fairly well, or whose taste in books I was confident in. And again, finding 48 strangers I think would enjoy any of these books, in one night, seems like an impossible task.
This post on the Guardian book blog makes much the same point, and several commenters suggest that they will be following the bookcrossing model, and leaving the books to be found in cafes or on buses. But that seems to be contrary to the point of the event, which is that you're passionate about a book, and you want to tell people about it.
Eight books would have been a much more manageable number, to my mind, but it would have meant having eight times more volunteers, each of whom would need to be vetted to make sure they weren't going to hoard the books or sell them. Stil, eight would be just the right number for a trip to the pub, where you'd make some new friends and give them a book each.
I doubt I'm the only booklover who's had some concerns - the fact that the volunteering deadline has been put back twice suggests to me that there hasn't been the grand rush they were expecting - but as this is the inaugural WBN, I'm hoping that they'll iron out the kinks and get things absolutely right next year.