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World Book Night freebies sparked sales boost

March 7, 2011 |  6:40 am

Booknight_giveaway

Books being given away for free as part of the March 5 World Book Night celebration in Britain also saw a sales bump, the Bookseller reports.

This came as a a surprise to some. World Book Night enlisted volunteers to pass out 1 million free copies of books printed especially for the occasion, and some booksellers feared the free books would eat away at sales. Vanessa Robertson, owner of the Edinburgh Bookshop in Edinburgh, Scotland, was one such critic, saying she was "horrified" by the plan, which she called "misguided."

An appearance on the television show "Newsnight" with publisher and organizer Jamie Byng, independent bookstore owner Stephen Poulter and Tim Waterstone, founder of the chain bookstore Waterstone's revealed competing ideas about the massive book giveaway. On the show, Poulter reflected Robertson's concern, saying the giveaway was "devaluing" books, as the Bookseller reports:

[Poulter] said: "We spend our entire day sharing our passion for books with our customers, but we have to be a business, we have to survive." But Byng said it was "readers" who sold books, and that WBN would be "driven by passion, and that is very infectious." Waterstone said he did not agree with Poulter, adding  he would like to see the promotion return next year, only better: "Jamie is doing a fantastic job getting books out there. The book market is not a finite market, introduce people to reading, and they'll then buy other books."

Preliminary Nielsen numbers for the giveaway show that Byng and Waterstone were right. Sales of one giveaway book, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" by Muriel Spark, went up 63% between January and February. Other books that were given away for free that saw sales rise include Margaret Atwood's "The Blind Assassin," "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" by Mohsin Hamed, Alan Bennett's "A Life Like Other People's" and "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell.

What's more, the giveaway seems to have a sales tail. Three books that were given away last year have seen sales rise in the triple digits since February 2010: Nigel Slater's "Toast" climbed by 367%, John le Carré's "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold" rose by 106% and Seamus Heaney's "New Selected Poems" went up 102%.

The BBC covered the World Book Night festivities, which included an event in Trafalgar Square with Atwood, Le Carré, Philip Pullman and crowd favorite Bennett.

Booksellers and publishers alike are trying to find ways to address a contracting industry; the sales of books by British publishers fell 5.9% between 2007 and 2009. Perhaps the sales figures for the giveaway books will convince skeptical booksellers that World Book Night can be a benefit after all.

RELATED:

Massive book giveaways for the U.K.'s World Book Day and Night

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Volunteer Annette Fenner hands out free books for World Book Night in London. Credit: Luke MacGregor / Reuters

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