World Book Night 2011

World Book Night

The event which got the literary world talking…

On Saturday 5th March I hopped on a train to London in the hope of getting some free books.

This wasn’t the only reason of course. No one in the publishing world, or indeed anyone who reads a book occasionally, can have missed the developments, particularly the alarming demise of booksellers, most recently the giant Borders. In this climate, a huge event celebrating books and encouraging people to share them could not be a bad thing.  (Although apparently this wasn’t the view of some who predicted that the sales of the books would be adversely affected. Luckily the opposite seems to have been true. Margaret Atwood gave a great response to this before the event: “Other booksellers are enthusiastically participating, as it spreads the word on books and makes them available to people who would otherwise not have them or be able to afford them. Also: I gave a book by Kate Atkinson away recently and the person I gave it to liked it so much that she bought all the others.”). Go Margaret.

The startlingly ambitious plan for World Book Night involved 1 million copies of 25 selected titles being given away by 20 000 bookworms across the world. Inspired by the success of World Book Day, through which thousands of book tokens have been distributed to children to encourage them to read,  it was dreamt up by Jamie Byng, the head of Canongate Publishing. You can read an interview with him here which explains how the idea originated with him giving away a few hundred copies of a book in 2007.

Twitter was key in spreading the word about the event, with people using a variety of hashtags (for example search for #wbn – it’s pretty amazing). People used it to share the places in which they would be handing out books, with some very clever and thoughtful pairings of subject matter and location.

The free World Book Night event took place at the Clore Ballroom, and when I arrived, unfortunately at about 8:15, all of the free books were gone. There was however a lovely Foyles stand which was attracting lots of book lovers, along with several other stands.


A crowd around the Foyles stand.

poetry prescription

There were poetry prescriptions being handed out to cure common maladies such as being in love or being homesick…

The focus of the night was on the authors who were reading extracts of their books. The special guest star was Margaret Atwood, who read from her brilliant novel The Blind Assassin. Visit her website here to see all the things she is involved with. Mark Haddon also spoke, along with new talents such as Stuart Evers, Evie Wyld, Joe Dunthorne and Rebecca Hunt.

author reading

A special speech was made by one of the Southbank Centre members of staff, who thanked Jamie Byng, who was present. She also made an impassioned plea for everyone to buy books and to write to their local MPs if necessary to stop the closure of local libraries. And she also praised the author Philip Pullman, declaring him a “National Treasure”, the “People’s Laureate” and decreeing that he should definitely be Prime Minister. Read his fantastic speech in defence of libraries here.

The message of the night was clear: keep buying books! If we love them and share them perhaps we can save the bookshops that we love.

There was also a huge event in Trafalgar Square which was televised on the BBC, with readings from figures such as Boris Johnson (reading from Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis).

Oh and I did actually get a free book – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell was handed to me at Waterloo station!

cloud atlas

View the results of a World Book Day survey into the reading habits of the nation here.