World Book Night Schism

Tomorrow is World Book Night in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Billed as “the most ambitious and far-reaching celebration of adult books and reading ever attempted in the UK and Ireland”, the event follows up on World Book Day, which was yesterday in the UK and on April 23 almost everywhere else. The brainchild of Jamie Byng of Canongate, the event kicks off tonight with a massive public reading on Trafalgar Square in the presence of Margaret Atwood, John Le Carré and other literary eminences.

The thinking behind World Book Night was as ambitious as it was simple: give away one million books to members of the public to promote books and reading. Alas, like many such plans, it has turned out to be anything but - and the resulting controversy points to how contested a thing the book has become on the very eve of its so-called disappearance.

Many authors expressed reservations about the idea, protesting that giving a million books away for free was misguided. In a blog post, an independent Edinburgh bookseller wrote the giveaway would only serve to flood the market and devalue books. It also represented, in terms of foregone income, a major cost to authors, publishers and independent booksellers.

This week, Nicola Morgan, an award-winning author of young adult novels including Wasted, suggested an alternative World Book Night scheme. Her idea was that readers buy a book and give it away on World Book Night, having written on the inside front cover, ‘Given in the spirit of World Book Night, March 5th 2011 and bought from [insert name of shop] – please enjoy and tell people about it.’

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