One million books will be given away tomorrow night, in a follow-up to the more famous World Book Day. Founded last year, WBN is the brainchild of publisher Jamie Byng, of Canongate. The idea is for books to be given to people who wouldn't normally read. Some 20,000 volunteers have been recruited to do the doling out which will take place in hospitals, prisons, homeless shelters and care homes.
The free books are paid for by a combination of publishers, printers and sponsors, in what is being called the most generous and ambitious public reading project of its kind. This year, the emphasis is on targeting the hardest to reach potential readers. Of the 1,000,000 books, 520,000 will be distributed in prisons, hospitals and schools while the other 480,000 will be given away in cafés, shops, pubs and on street corners.
Twenty five titles have been chosen, after a lengthy polling exercise. They range from classics such as Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, to contemporary works such as The Damned United, by David Peace. Julia Kingsford, CEO of the project, says that what they have in common is that “they're all brilliant reads”. She says “it's an exciting, diverse and compelling list that genuinely features something for everyone and, we feel sure, will inspire tens of thousands of members of the public to become givers and many hundreds of thousands of people to read and share these great books.”
If it all sounds terribly worthy, that's because it is. But who can knock an initiative that encourages reading? Andrea Levy's Small Island is one of the chosen books. She's backing the project, saying: “I was never a big reader when I was young. It took a friend giving me a novel and telling me to read it before I really understood what a wonderful and enriching experience reading can be.”
Some publishers were initially a little sceptical: giving away books when the industry is struggling may seem like lunacy. But last year's inaugural event was such a hit that most now agree it's worth putting up with the £8m cost, if it spreads a bit of love. Of course, it's brilliant PR and, who knows, some new readers may become bookaholics and big spenders. Last year, David Nicholls's One Day rose from 16 to 11 in the best-seller chart the week after World Book Night, despite having been given away in bulk.
Last year's event was in March, but it's been put back to 23 April this year, which as any fule no is Shakespeare's birthday, and St George's Day too. As well as the big giveaway, there will be hundreds of free public reading events across the country, in libraries, bookshops and open public spaces. Go to worldbooknight.org to find your nearest event.
Jamie Byng is fund-raising for the event by running in today's London Marathon. It's his marathon debut. “I've had a lot of support from those who've run marathons before me,” he says, “including Tracy Chevalier, who chaired our editorial committee and who has been giving me lots of tips. But I also know that running surrounded by supporters – and with World Book Night volunteers at each mile point giving out copies of one of the WBN books – will be a completely different and absolutely amazing experience.” As there are 26 miles in a marathon, and only 25 titles, let's hope Jamie doesn't start dwelling in the final mile on one of his own favourite books, Chinua Achebe's Things fall Apart.