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When I heard about World Book Night I was very excited and signed up, crossing fingers, toes, eyes and anything else I could that I would be chosen. When I got the email telling me I was to be allotted 48 copies of Dissolution by C J Sansom, one of my favourite authors, I was so excited. I tweeted, emailed and called all my friends to let them know that I was a chosen one.

I organised my event – a Book Exchange – printing and putting up posters all around the village. I went into shops and pubs, asking them to push the event to their customers and organised a large trolley at the town hall for everyone to leave their donated books prior to the event. Family and friends agreed to come along early to help me sort out all the books before the event officially started at 10:00 this morning. In short, I was hyped and ready.

So why do I now feel so low and let down by the whole affair?

When I got to the town hall this morning I found that the only books that had been donated ahead of time were the ones I had left there a week earlier. I was disappointed, but I knew a friend was bringing a big bag of books in a few minutes so started organising the copies of Dissolution into a nice display. My friend arrives, we got some coffees and waited. And waited. And…. You get the idea.

We did have a few customers who came with a few books but most popped in and took books without leaving any. They either didn’t know about the event or they didn’t understand the concept of ‘exchange’. But no matter: books were willingly given in the spirit of World Book Night – you know, the whole encouraging people to pick up a book idea?

By 2:30 we had had maybe 10 or 12 customers, a pitiful amount, so we decided to cut our losses and head for the streets to give the books to passers-by and customers in other shops. You would have thought we were trying to give away leprosy.

Some people thought we were from some religious organisation, hell-bent on recruiting them to our cult. Some people did take the books but were a little bemused by the experience. Many, many others just said no: they didn’t read books.

When I signed up for WBN I wanted to encourage more people to read in general and in particular to read an author whom I greatly admire and enjoy. Wasn’t this the whole point of the day? But looking back on my experience, the only people who came along to the event were already readers, people for whom books were at least a small part of their lives. The ‘man on the street’, if I may borrow this cliché, knew nothing about World Book Night and wouldn’t take a book they were getting for nada.

I have come away from the day thinking that we bookish people are the only ones to whom WBN means anything. If the organisers wanted to reach out and encourage more people to read, I don’t think it worked.

Mind you, I may have experienced this because the event I organised was a book exchange and by definition, that meant that someone already had to have a book to swap for another. But I also went onto the streets to try to give them away and found very, very little enthusiasm out there.

Would I do it all again? I don’t know. If I did I’d have to think of some other event to distribute the books. And I’m not convinced that handing out a million free books is the way to encourage more reading. At best I think it will broaden the selection of books already established readers will choose from. And does that make it worthwhile?

I’d be really interested to hear about your WBN experiences.
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