Giving It Away

You may have been aware of World Book Day (Friday) and World Book Night (Saturday, don’t ask me why) happening in the UK. Yesterday was the day that a million free books were going to be distributed by volunteers across the country. I’d applied for my share of 48 books, and had chosen Sarah Waters’ novel, Fingersmith. My intention was to give them out across college, as it struck me as a good vacation novel for the students – literary enough to satisfy an intellectual mind but also perfectly accessible and a cracking good read. I’d sent out emails to all groups in college during the week, the staff, the fellows and the students, saying I’d give out books from the JCR (the common room for students) on Saturday afternoon. And I’d fixed up with the President of the JCR to meet him on Saturday with a couple of strapping young men to collect the boxes from the bookstore.

Well, things did not pan out quite as I had planned.

Yesterday the weather was abysmal – freezing cold with a persistent mizzly rain. The kind of day to be indoors reading a book, certainly, but not out on the streets giving them away. I hung about the porter’s lodge, waiting for the JCR President and got into conversation with the porter there, who accepted my offer of a book once we’d got them and started to tell me about all the operas he’d seen, thus making me wonder once again about the secret life of porters. Anyway, after ten minutes of this, the porter suggested I try to find the President in his rooms, and indeed, skeptical as I was, he turned out to be there and instantly apologetic that he had forgotten all about me. Now, the JCR President is a sweetie, a very charming Asian lad who is one of the few people on the planet thinner than I am. With him was a small, short boy, who he introduced as someone who could help carry boxes. Well, I admit I had my doubts about this, as I felt I could have slung either one of them over my shoulder and carried him to the bookstore myself, which is not a thought that often crosses my mind. In fact, when we arrived there, the woman at the information desk looked us up and down and murmured ‘strapping young men’ in a tone heavily laced with irony. But the boxes weren’t too bad, and being nicely brought up boys they both took one and left me to do the opening of doors. ‘You probably find it hard to believe,’ said the short boy, awakening from the deep silence he’d been in up until then, ‘but the JCR President and I used to do weights together’. To which I replied, ‘Goodness me!’ like the worst kind of maiden aunt, but it seemed far more polite than fervent agreement.

Well, my next miscalculation was to assume that the JCR in college was a bustling, happening place. We arrived in the deathly hush of a completely dead Saturday afternoon. I knew Saturday was a bad day to do anything in college, because the staff and fellows are conspicuously absent and the whole place has a Marie Celeste air about it. The JCR is a typical sort of room – a pool table, on which we put the boxes, drinks machines, scruffy chairs, and a big widescreen television, playing the cricket to an empty house. But it was smelly and had the profoundly unloved air of a communal space that no one uses. Two boys were there, idling time away; what they were doing I have no idea, although they were barefoot, which led us instantly into a discussion of the surprising fact that it is forbidden to go barefoot in the university library. Now why? If you were to kick a stack of books barefoot, I am pretty sure I know who would come off worse. So, I had now collected four boys and two boxes of books and absolutely no interest in World Book Night and Fingersmith whatsoever. I was beginning to realize that a new plan would be necessary.

It was obvious after about five minutes that I could have sat in the JCR all afternoon and not seen another soul. No one was going to come to get a book. But the joy of students is that they think and respond to questions, so when I asked them where else in college I should leave books, they came up with some very good suggestions. We trooped off with handfuls of books to the buttery, or the student cafeteria, and propped them up on the counters. I felt I ought to leave some explanatory notices, so we came away and one of my helpers fetched some paper and I wrote FREE BOOK GIVEAWAY several times over. Of course when I went back to the buttery the staff had just locked up, and although one man returned with a huge bunch of keys, he couldn’t find the key that fit the lock and I ended up sliding the signs under the door and pointing towards the piles of books (none of the kitchen staff speak any of the languages I do). It was just that kind of afternoon, you know? And then I pressed copies on my helpers, who had been delightful and helpful and enlivened an otherwise disappointing afternoon, and took the second box off and distributed them in places about college, hoping that across the weekend, people would come and take them away.

I took my last copy and gave it to the opera-loving porter, who had had sufficient time to feel uncertain about the transaction. ‘It’s not hard is it?’ he said. ‘I won’t have to know anything about Greek philosophy or something to understand it?’ Of course not!’ I replied, rather more testily than is my wont. ‘It’s just a Victorian thriller.’ He couldn’t quite grasp the concept of a giveaway, though, and wanted to press a college calendar on me as fair exchange. When I got back home to Mister Litlove I sighed and said ‘I gave copies of a novel about lesbians to four young men and one old man, none of whom had any idea of what they were getting. I do not feel that I have served the cause of literature this afternoon.’ And Mister Litlove gave me a speaking look and said, ‘You really think the young men would mind?’ And well, he did have a point there.

But what the afternoon had impressed upon me most forcibly was my own mistaken frame of expectations. I had thought that people would want free stuff. And in this I was quite wrong. They don’t want it. I mean, they’ll take it away for the most part without complaint if you give it to them. But that’s not the same as wanting it. If someone other than myself had been offering free books in college, I would have fetched one. But then I really love books and the thought of all those orphans needing homes would have touched my heart. What it boils down to in the end is that we have an absolute surfeit of entertainment in the modern world. No one has to put themselves out much to find distraction. Giving books to people may encourage some to read, for sure, but it may equally result in books lying around without arousing any particular interest until they are put in the recycling. Free often means without value – not a lovely gift. Not unless you are giving things to people who really need them, because otherwise they will have to do without. And there, perhaps, I made another error of judgement. I should have thought of a community of people who really needed books because they have none, rather than assuming that students like books and might be pleased with more.

I was thinking about what sells non-essential goods nowadays and it seems to me that three factors make for prime motivation: curiosity, celebrity and compulsion. If you are really curious about a book everyone’s discussing, well, that might make you buy it. If the literary world took on a glaze of glamour and celebrity, well, that would draw effective marketing attention to it. And if books were considered to be something habit-forming that you couldn’t do without, like booze or cigarettes, then that would increase consumption of them. For a while now I have thought that the problem with books is that, unlike any other form of entertainment, they invite us, sometimes casually, often subtly, to be wise. And that makes for a profound ambivalence in their audience. Virtue rarely sells. If we believed that books were dangerous, that they led readers into thinking in risky ways, or that they were tremendously self-indulgent and would stop readers from going down the gym, or that they were fattening or immoral or subversive, then we might sell more of them to people who wouldn’t otherwise read. If I had clutched my copies of Fingersmith to my chest and said to my young, male helpers, oh no! This book contains scenes of girl-on-girl action and I cannot possibly be so remiss as to let you read it. But I’m leaving a pile of copies here with a sign saying strictly for women only, and now I’m walking away….. Would they have fallen on the books then as the starving fall on loaves of bread? Who knows. I very much admire the principle behind World Book Night and I’m sure most people did much better with their giveaways than I did. But my experience left me unconvinced that giving books away is the answer to encouraging people to read.


25 thoughts on “Giving It Away

  1. Wonderful post as always, Litlove! It is hard to give things away — I think people tend to be suspicious of free things, like, if it’s so great, why are you just giving it away for free? It’s that whole thing that when you put something out in the yard with a sign that says “Please take away this refrigerator, it totally works”, it sits there for a week, but slap a “$25” sign on it and it’s gone immediately.

    However, if I came upon a free copy of Fingersmith, I would think it was my world’s luckiest ever day. 🙂

  2. What a shame you didn’t have a queue of people dying to get their hands on it. But I think it does depend on where you hand them out. I very bravely stood at my local tube station and gave my copies to people going in or coming out of the station. I got some mixed reactions. Some people stopped to take it, but then realised they’d read it and suggested I give it to someone else who hadn’t. I had a few people just ignore me completely, while others came up for a quick chat and were eager to take a copy. Funnily enough, those that were most eager were teenage girls and older couples. At one stage I had a queue forming! It took me just under 10 minutes to distribute 35 copies. I even gave some to the usually miserable-looking London Underground staff – though I’m not sure ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ will cheer them up any!

  3. Sorry it didn’t turn out as you’d hoped! I know that feeling of wanting to evangelize for your favorite book(s) and how disappointing it can be if people remain indifferent.

    As an author, I am forever surprised, grateful and delighted when someone reads and enjoys my books. But I never expect it to happen, no matter how many months of slogging hard work I have put into producing and marketing it.

  4. Maybe there is something to the fact that when you give something away it doesn’t have a value for the person receiving it and they aren’t anxious for it? I would have DIED for free books in college. I would still pull my car over on the road if I saw a sign that said “Free Books”. I just hope that all of this doesn’t mean that the students in college aren’t interested in reading physical books. That is the part that has me worried.

  5. I like the idea of World Book Day, though unless I am totally out of it (and maybe I am?) I don’t think the US celebrates it (more the pity). Somehow free is never really free and you do wonder when someone offers you something just what exactly the catch is. Interestingly I just today listened to a BBC radio book program (that aired last weekend?) where World Book Day was discussed. Apparently there was some controversy as some bookstore owners weren’t entirely pleased with the book giveaway–that it perhaps does little for them to get people into bookstores to buy books. From your experience with the giveaway–maybe they needn’t worry (then again maybe we all need to worry??). In any case I hope all the books found happy homes and they are snapped up eventually–I’d have been right there in line for one! 🙂

  6. I had not heard of World Book Day, but I have to tell you that I can very much relate to your experience. I am the Editor of my school’s literary arts magazine, and every semester, we get about 1,000 copies of these lovely little books filled with poems, stories, photographs, and art by students, faculty, and alumni.

    It is amazing how many people turn down free magazines. We hand them out in the Student Center and distribute them on campus, but I suspect that unfortunately many of them are recycled. It is a shame, because those that do read them, generally the English professors, art students, and my parents, are generally pleased and impressed. An older man once approached us and asked how much they cost, though!

    I think it is true that people assign more intrinsic value to something that costs money, I sometimes wonder if selling them would distribute more copies. On your other tactic, perhaps an effective ad campaign would be to urge people NOT to read them!

  7. One of our university librarians was in the library refectory on Saturday with her table of free books. The place was humming (it’s the one place in the library where you can never get a seat!) but no one was looking at her books. So, it isn’t just Cambridge, the Red Bricks have the same problem. Mine aren’t going out until today as a friend and I are using them as a way of trying to kickstart a reading group with the parents of the children in the school where she is headteacher. I hope we don’t meet the same resistance, but I’m not so sure.

  8. I shouldn’t be chuckling at what was probably a rather dispiriting day, but you tell these stories so well, Litlove, with so much humor. Like most book lovers, I can’t think of anything better than a free book giveaway, so I’m sorry the turnout was abysmal. But maybe that porter will take it home, read it and love it and then pass it along, thus infecting a small chain of unsuspecting people with the delights of a non-traditional Victorian thriller. Stranger things have happened.

  9. I can’t help comparing World Book Night to aid projects and seeing some big holes in strategy that could have been plugged by just looking at the way aid agencies deal with donation strategies. At the same time I don’t want to knock anyones hard work and you can’t avoid sounding miserable when you knock an idea like ‘Free Books for Everyone’ so lips zipped. Sorry your giveaway didn’t go so well (although it sounds very funny) and I think you’re on to something with the idea that is we could make books seem less ‘healthy’ everyone would be all over them. Bookish people regularly refer to themselves and addicts, or use the language of excessive food love (bookaholic), so it seems like it should be easy to do, but how to do about it without getting accussed of encouraging addiction in all forms?

  10. A disappointing day turned into a wonderfully thoughtful post. I also had a sad World Book Day – I didn’t even get to my books! There was such a mix-up with where they were going to be sent (because the bookshop I originally picked closed down last week. Bad omen), that they only arrived on Friday and by then I’d been struck down with killer flu. I’m only just picking myself back up and getting upright again, so my books are still at the library awaiting collection (I hope).

    Despite (trying) to take part, I have to admit that I too am sceptical about the idea of the WBN giveaway. As though giving people free books were a new idea. I work in a library (though as an archivist) and my colleagues give books away for free all day, every day; amongst our users are some of the most vulnerable people in society, and many people who couldn’t afford to buy their own books. Our inclusion librarian and reader development librarian spend all their time reaching out to communities of people who don’t read books or don’t have ready access to them, and help them to find pathways towards literacy. The only difference with World Book Night is that you can keep the book, if you like. I wish that instead of giving their books to individuals, the WBN organisers had given each library service in the UK 50 copies of each for circulation and had invited bookgivers to launch them into the community in any way they liked, in the knowledge that some would come back to the library to be borrowed and enjoyed again and again. Libraries need that kind of support right now.

  11. I was reading this with great interest and thinking about what could have gone wrong and I wonder now if it hadn’t been different if it had been 48 different books. People, especially very young ones want everything to be personalized. They want their special ring tone, their special this and that. Being one out of 48 to get the same book might have taken away the lustre.

  12. What an interesting social experiment. From your account here, sounds like giving out free books received more icy reception than handing out religious tracts. I’ve been following World Book Day through Margaret Atwood’s tweets… and they are detailed and informative. It’s just too bad that we North Americans, esp. me in Canada, always miss out world-wide cultural events. Maybe Atwood can initiate something here in her homeland.

    As for the concerns and criticisms some booksellers have about giving away books would negatively affect book sales, they need not worry. Here’s an article from the LA Times: “World Book Night Freebies Spark Sales Boost”. Some encouraging results from the book give-away effort… welcome effects that prove to be a bit different from your experience. 😉

    Here’s the link to the article:

  13. Pingback: Crossings. « Pagesofjulia's Blog

  14. I really enjoyed this story, Litlove. The rain, books, and absurdity makes it sound like something Evelyn Waugh would have come up with. Do you think you could do me a favor and write a novel along these lines?

    (Mr. Litlove’s “speaking look” made me laugh out loud.)

  15. “Giving books to people may encourage some to read, for sure, but it may equally result in books lying around without arousing any particular interest until they are put in the recycling.”

    Sigh. I witnessed some of this in Dublin. My friend Valentina took me to a bookshop where she used to work, because she knew that the staff would be giving books away outside. We got there and they had Fingersmith, The Blind Assassin and Cloud Atlas. They didn’t have the same problem as you when it comes to finding people, as Grafton Street on a Saturday afternoon was completely packed. But many of the people walking past clearly did NOT want the books. They’d sometimes quite abruptly turn away or detour to avoid them, as if the givers were trying to sell them something (maybe they assumed they were) or convert them to a strange cult. I felt guilty taking a copy of Cloud Atlas at first, as I felt all WBN books should go to reluctant readers, but the guilt stopped once I realised they were having trouble getting rid of them – and this in a packed street.

    I guess the whole thing was a good reminder that, like you said, spreading a love of books has to involve a lot more than simply making them freely available. As a librarian-to-be who would love to work in reader development, the bright side for me is that it shows how much work there is to be done. But seeing all those people go out of their way to avoid free books still made me a little sad.

  16. Giving anything away for free is hard because people don’t trust that there are no strings attached, there must be some secret motive that will somehow entrap them into doing something they don’t want to do. My university has an Acts of Kindness Committee and we give stuff away all the time. Just before Christmas we gave away packets of hot chocolate. The snow outside was piled high, it was frigid, it was a busy time with lots of people walking by and I was amazed at how many people said no or made big detours to avoid us asking them if they wanted any hot chocolate. Eventually we gave it all away, but it was an interesting social experiment.

  17. Jenny – I wish you had been there! And I completely agree – there is a profound suspicion of what’s free. Is there something wrong with it? What’s the catch in the deal? Why am I being given this? The object itself becomes completely opaque behind that curtain of questions.

    Kim – I thought of you and wondered how you were getting on! A tube station is a good idea as you do get a steady stream of potential customers. But still, giving things away isn’t easy is it? There’s always a little resistance in pockets here and there.

    Broadsideblog – that’s a delightfully modest attitude and yet I feel myself thinking, why SHOULDN’T you expect some praise and thanks and recognition? After all, if you ran a marathon, people would be falling over themselves to congratulate you. Why not do the same if you write a book, which is a marathon in so many ways!

    Kathleen – I am not a betting woman but I would put good money on none of those students having a ereader. No, it wasn’t the format that was the problem. My sense is that the main problem was that students don’t read emails unless they are sent to them personally from someone they know about something they absolutely have to inform themselves on. General emails from college are roundly ignored! The rot set in there….

    Bluestocking – you would be a formidable book giver. I’d like to see you in action!

    Danielle – how I wish I could have had the money to send them all around the world to blogging friends! No as far as I can tell, the US did not participate in this scheme, and I sort of think it was confined to the United Kingdom, although I could be wrong. I’m not surprised if the bookstores didn’t like the idea of it, but they could have been cheered by the outcome. As it is, I feel it really reinforces the need for libraries, where there is freedom, space and choice, all necessary to truly promote reading.

    Miriam – lol! Don’t talk to me about such things because I will always advise a subversive route. Get a whisper campaign going that suggests the magazine contains shocking material, make it hard to come by with passwords and complicated distribution systems,and see what happens then! But shame, though, that all that work goes by without sufficient appreciation. I’m sure it is of great value to those who produced it and the community to which they belong.

    Annie – well you make me feel better as I was kicking myself and thinking I should have taken them to the buttery at a mealtime, and then I also feel chagrin that your university librarian was having a hard time too. It’s most irritating really. I do hope your giveaway went well – it has the hallmarks of a well chosen situation.

    Michelle – oh I do hope so! Or that one of the students passes it on to his girlfriend who passes it on to someone else. You’ve got to hope, haven’t you?

    Jodie – do you think that the concept of virtuous addiction would ever take hold? You know, something you can finally obsess about that won’t be bad for you? Your suggestion of looking at the way aid is distributed is a brilliant one and we could all have profited from that. I get the impression, from emails the organisers have sent, that this first attempt was fraught with problems from the start, but that they plan to do it all again next year having learned from their mistakes. So cross your fingers.

  18. Victoria – I cannot but agree with you that if this initiative had pinpointed libraries, it would have done more good. I do fear that we have just created more wood pulp, when libraries are crying out for more books to come their way. And I’m so sorry to hear that you came down with the ‘flu and DO hope you are feeling much better now. I get the impression that there were many teething problems with WBN, particularly with distributing the books, so I don’t expect you were alone in being unable to pick up your books on the day. I do hope your experience of the giveaway turns out good in the end.

    Caroline – I certainly think a choice of three or four different books would have been nice to offer. If they were all different you might get the odd scene or two, when people fight over the same book. Although that might well be a way to whip up enthusiasm – nothing like a bit of competition!

    Arti – well it’s very good to know that some positive effects are coming out of it, although you can see why the booksellers might have been unsure in advance. The problem with giving away books was more to do with indifference. No student was about to make a trip out to collect one. If I’d asked people to email me and then left them in their pigeon holes, that might have gone down better. It’s a funny thing about wanting – often people don’t like their wants to be put on view.

    Ella – oh bless you! I have fun writing up the day to day, it’s true. And Mister Litlove is always doing funny things that I yearn to tell the blog world about. If I write it, will you illustrate it? 😉

    Lilian – it is certainly my saving grace for them! I can forgive an awful lot of dreadful events if they turn into amusing anecdotes.

    Nymeth – interesting. I wondered whether other people would have similar difficulties. I don’t think it’s about books as much as it is the psychology of wanting things. Wanting is quite a delicate business, and often having things thrust upon us by other people sets up an immediate resistance (the old lol cat mantra DO NOT WANT!! that always makes me laugh). You need a bit of space and time to know whether you want something or not, unless you are used to sticking your hand out to take things as a reflex reaction of politeness, or what’s being given away happens to be something you already know you really want. It will be interesting to see what the organisers do next year, and how they will negotiate the problems that arose this time around.

  19. Stefanie – your comment came in just as I was replying to the others! Yes, I quite agree that giving things away is problematic in itself, and was the issue here as much as the question of whether people want to read or not. I mean, who could refuse hot chocolate? And yet, I can imagine being in a hurry, or having my hands full, or the fact that I can’t drink it (sugary) getting in the way of my accepting something nice and useful. It’s a very interesting social experiment, as you say!

  20. So sad to think that even university students won’t take a free book. I would have then and I certainly would now (even books I’m pretty sure I don’t want to read get picked up by me if they’re being offered free). Being someone who’s attended a fair number of book conventions over the years, I’ve had a more heartening experience than yours: people grab all the free books they can get and have even been known to steal books from publishers’ displays. Of course, these are mostly people who make their livings off books somehow, anyway, so we are a self-selecting crowd, and the majority are probably avid readers.

  21. It’s hard for me to imagine not wanting a free book, at least a free book I think will be good, but then I’m like you, and not like most people, those who aren’t book obsessed. We used to have a book and magazine give-away table at school, and people used that — I would put books I didn’t want anymore there, and the most obscure books would disappear. I’m not sure if faculty or students took them, actually. It could be that the students at my school are often poor and so free things are appealing to them. You really do have to find the right audience.

  22. Pity we weren’t on the same campus, we could have done a swap 😉
    I was also disappointed that none of my students turned up. I’ve often mentioned Atwood at the tutorials, I thought they would be curious. However, I managed to give one to a lady walking her dog and she nodded in appreciation. Another was found by a student who said he was delighted to have found the book as it would take his mind off his studies.
    We learn from t and I’m sure that if we do it again, we’ll do it differently.

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