ON 5 MARCH a million books are to be given away for free under the banner of a celebr i ty-endor sed char ity calling itself World Book Night. The participating publishers will each deliver several paletteloads of books to drop-off points across the country, whence 20,000 volunteer ‘givers’ are expected to collect forty-eight copies each and distribute them to their friends. Or they’ll not bother to do that and try to sell them on eBay instead. Or they’ll mean to give them away but get bored and irritated and just throw them in the bin. A further 40,000 copies are to be distributed by members of World Book Night staff in prisons, hospitals and places ‘that might otherwise be difficult to reach’.

N i g h t mar e o n G r u b S t r e e t for nothing from any number of pirate sites on the Internet. I don’t see how these extra free copies will do anything to monumentalise le Carré’s reputation.

If the organisers of World Book Night really believe that giving out free copies of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold improves literacy, then all they have to do is ask people to email the text to forty fr iends requesting that they forward it to forty more. In a matter of days they will have achieved a distr ibution far in excess of the paltry million that this scheme proposes and all without using a drop of petrol or chopping a single twig off a tree.

The book list, chosen by a panel of celebrities, comprises twenty-five well-known titles that range from the autobiography of a TV chef to the story of a tramp. The selection includes, among other things, novels by Philip Pullman, Muriel Spark and Margaret Atwood, poetry by Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney, a memoir by Alan Bennett, and a recent non-fiction book f rom Ben Macintyre. The books have been donated by the publishers and all the authors have had to agree to forgo royalties.

The founders of the event must be aware of this. They are all successful movers and shakers in the book trade. Jamie Byng is head of Canongate, Martin Neild used to run Hodder and Stoughton, Ursula Mackenzie is chair of the Trade Publishers Council and chief executive of Little, Brown, and Fiona McMorrough is a leading book publicist. World Book Night has received vociferous support from many businesses involved in publishing, selling, printing, and distributing books.

So what is the point? The stated aim is to ‘advance the education of the public by assisting in the promotion of literacy and the celebration, sharing and enjoyment of reading amongst teenagers and adults’. A noble goal perhaps, but goodness, what a cumbersome, expensive and eco-hostile way of attempting it! Even if one accepts (which I don’t) that literacy in this country is held back by the price of books, there must be a million better schemes for ‘advancing’ it than this one. One would have thought that everyone but the showoffs directly involved in promoting World Book Night would be up in arms against it, but the founders have recruited an army of celebrity authors and media pundits to steamroller it through and, so far, only a small handful of dejected authors and independent booksellers has had the pluck to raise any objection. Their voice is hardly audible above the pop and clamour of self-congratulation. ‘No writer can ask for more than this,’ John le Carré booms on the charity’s website: ‘That his book should … pass from one generation to another as a story to challenge and excite each reader in his time – that is beyond his most ambitious dreams.’

Le Carré, who is represented on the list with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, may see World Book Night as a route to personal recognition by posterity, but does he not realise that there is no need to give his book away for free? Already it can be easily and freely borrowed from local libraries, and there are plenty of second-hand copies of it for sale at 62p each on the website AbeBooks. Failing that, one can easily download the complete text

If asked for an underlying motive for its largesse the industry will argue that getting people to read books is good for the trade and that by using the time-honoured tr ick of handing out free samples they hope to boost future demand. But that does not get around the fact that they could easily circulate the texts online or put them free on their websites for a limited period. So why haven’t they done this? Might I be justified in suspecting that the endeavour has little to do with national literacy and more to do with the great ongoing struggle to support printed books in the face of electronic publishing? The ‘givers’ are literate people who will hand copies to their literate friends. What better way to convince the reading public to think charitably towards printed books? Some people may incline to support any scheme that advocates the primacy of printed books over e-books, but be warned of this one. It is the worst possible way to fight this battle. The buoyancy of the book market is dependent on the perceived value of books and by giving things away for free all you achieve is their devaluation. Le Carré and the other subscribing authors are foolish to think that their reputations will be enhanced by it – quite the reverse, they are diluting the value of their work by allowing its mass circulation above the demands of the market.

In my opinion the only sensible strategy to secure a future for printed books against the new electronic markets is to improve the quality of binding, paper and design, and to print them not in their millions but in attractive editions that will boost the pleasure of ownership, intensify the joy of reading and enhance the magnificence of good writing. ❑