The notion of a “reading nation” is an unquestionably wonderful one, and making that fantasy a reality is what World Book Night is all about: celebrating “the enrichment that reading and books can bring to people’s lives” at the same time as “encouraging those who don’t already read for pleasure—an estimated 36% of adults—to get involved.”
How? Well, how else—by giving away hundreds of thousands of the things! Little wonder, then, that though it still struggles to reach some, the six-year old initiative has met with tremendous success. As Free Thought Research recently revealed, “80% of those who received a book on World Book Night had never read or read infrequently before the event, while 85% talked to others about books more, of which 47% reported an increase in the number of books they bought and 32% borrowed more from their local library.”
Thus, the announcement of the fifteen books to be distributed on the next World Book Night, on April 23rd, 2016, should have been a happy moment; a date to save. Instead, the lately-launched list—described by the organisers as “diverse” and “curated to appeal to a breadth of audiences”—has quite rightly come under fire for failing to feature a single Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) author.
In a blog post for The Bookseller, Nikesh Shukla, author and editor of Rife, dubbed World Book Night “a wonderfully charitable way of spreading your love of reading with friends and strangers alike,” but there’s a but, and it's a biggie:
Lists can do what prizes necessarily can’t—be inclusive. Prizes are effectively competitions. There’s an arbitrary standard of literary merit to be upheld. Publishers will submit subjectively to suit judges’ tastes. Lists, on the other hand, are a set of items, in this case books. World Book Night’s panels are looking for books that are “good, enjoyable, highly readable books with strong compelling narratives.” It seems problematic, thus, to not include any authors from BAME communities.
If World Book Night is about getting that 36% of the country reading, what about the brown pound? It’s potentially a huge market, but one that will feel disenfranchised by not being visible in a high profile list such as this. For one, having BAME writers will encourage more BAME readers to become givers or to take a book, but also it’ll show that, on lists, we belong just as much as everyone else.
Saying that “some questions are too important to go unanswered,” and that this is one “we at World Book Night have been struggling with for some time,” Project Manager Rose Goddard responded to Shukla’s condemnation the next day:
World Book Night is an extraordinary industry initiative achieved through a wide coalition of authors, publishers, printers, distributors and other partners—not least the volunteer givers. However, like all charitable initiatives the funding model and submissions process which underpins it also shapes its delivery. The curation of the final books is not simply a question of choosing freely from publishers’ lists; publishers submit titles for the list and financially support the printing of the titles selected and the programme overall. Participation in the programme represents a significant monetary commitment for all of them, particularly for the smaller presses we’ve been delighted to welcome on board over the last few years. They all think very carefully about which books to suggest in the context of our drive to reach people who do not normally read for pleasure and WBN would not exist at all without the generous backing they provide. Each year we strive to strike a balance across the list. This year, despite our best efforts we have not been successful in respect of BAME writers.
In other words, World Book Night’s hands were tied.
But who by? Why, by the same, “increasingly out of touch” industry that was the subject of Spread the Word’s deeply dismaying survey of “writers from a variety of backgrounds, as well as literary agents, and mainstream and independent publishers” operating out of the UK.
In other words, as Writing the Future concluded, “despite all the hard work, good intentions and a ‘signing up’ to the principles of diversity, it seems that an old mono-culture still prevails” in publishing.
And none of this—none of this—is good enough.