Today I am sitting down with Carl Lennertz, Executive Director of World Book Night U.S. World Book Night is a wonderfully ambitious program designed to encourage reading, particularly in traditionally non-reading environments.
Please tell us what World Book Night is all about.
World Book Night is an annual celebration dedicated to spreading the love of reading, person to person. Each year on April 23, tens of thousands of people in the U.S. go out into their communities and give a total of half a million free World Book Night paperbacks to light and non-readers.
World Book Night was the product of a round table discussion at London’s Book Industry Conference in May 2010, the purpose of which was to imagine a way to encourage more adults to read. What better way to spread a love for reading than to inspire passionate readers to go out into their communities and share copies of their favorite books with those who don’t regularly read? Giving is an incredibly powerful part of our culture—and culture, art, and a writers’ talent are all themselves ‘gifts.’
Were you the one with the initial idea at that round table discussion? If so, did you have a good sense of what WBN would/should be, or was that hammered out by the group?
Jamie Byng of Canongate Publishers had the inspiration for WBN, and they launched in the UK in 2011, and then he approached key parties in the US, who have funded it and hired little ol’ me to launch in 2012. While the UK and US use some different terminology, the guiding principles of seeking out those in need by enlisting volunteer givers by application – vs., say a random giveaway on street corners – has been the same since day one. The various boards and committees have worked on operational issues, and philosophical ones as we evolved, but the original intent is the same. I have also been guided by my incredible counterpart in the UK, Julia Kingsford; a brilliant person who came out of Foyle’s Bookstore in London.
The biggest difference has been the size of the US; our shipping bill is the size of the original entire projected budget, but we are blessed with a bookseller and library community who are VERY active on social media and have been our main support, and an incredibly diverse country with, sadly, a lot of people in desperate need of anything to brighten their day.
Why April 23?
April 23 is the UNESCO International Day of the Book, as well as Shakespeare’s birthday! It was also chosen in honor of Miguel de Cervantes, who died on April 23, 1616 (the same day as Shakespeare). In the Catalan region of Spain, the day is celebrated by giving a book and a flower to a loved one. World Book Night was first celebrated in the UK and Ireland in 2011; in 2012, it was also celebrated in the USA and Germany.
What criteria are used to choose the books you give away?
An independent panel of booksellers and librarians selects the books, using lists curated by experts in the bookselling and library world. All of the information comes from external, independent sources. Additionally, each year, givers from the previous year’s World Book Night nominate books for the panel to consider.
The World Book Night U.S. books must meet the following criteria:
- Accessible books of quality.
- Recently-published books as well as established classics.
- Books available in paperback.
- Any genre of book – fiction, mysteries, romance, SF/fantasy, classics, poetry, humor, autobiography, and young adult books.
- The list overall must have a gender, ethnic, and geographical balance.
You say 30 books are chosen each year; are there any plans to enlarge on that selection in coming years?
No; 30 is the perfect number to allow a wonderful diversity, without losing focus. We’ve debated fewer titles, but 30 is good.
Is there any way anyone can suggest a book for the next year’s event?
Alas no. We must remain independent, and we don’t have the staff to read and review what would be a flood of books should it be wide open.
Your FAQs say that “publishers agree to pay the costs of producing the specially-printed WBN U.S. editions;” what about independently-published authors? Do you ever choose books by them? By self-published authors?
The economics of asking someone to pay to print 15,000 copies of their book isn’t possible, but I wanted to do something to recognize self-published authors in 2014, so I asked Chris Cander, author of her self-published 11 Stories, to write a story for a special WBN-only e-book that will be available to everyone next year. Why Chris? Because she’s been a giver for both years, and in year one, wrote the most amazing blog post about going into a boys’ detention center to personally hand out her books…and how the experience touched her so deeply. We were in tears, and the blog went viral, and I wanted to reciprocate her generosity in some way. I’d like to do more of this in the future.
What places do the givers go to hand out the books?
Nursing homes, underfunded schools, hospitals, commuter buses, Little League games, courthouses, yoga classes . . . wherever the givers feel they can reach light or non-readers.
I am guessing some of these giveaways have been life-changing events for some people. Do you ever hear directly from people who have received books and how that changed things for them?
Yes, we’ve received thousands of letters, and the recipients have mostly never even owned a book before, from a retiree who cried when she was assured that she could keep the book, to a 4th grader who’d never seen a book not held together by scotch tape. And we’ve had some givers write in their application that we were going back to the homeless shelter that they lived in earlier; they were now working and wanted to go back and share books. Can one book turn around a life? Probably not, but it’s either a comfort or a step in the right direction. We’ve also heard from thousands of givers that the act of sharing a book changed their lives! That’s what Chris Cander wrote about in her blog.
You estimated that a half a million books were given out in 2013 in the U.S., while in 2012, more than 2.5 million books were given away in the U.S., U.K., Ireland and Germany. What’s your expectation for 2014?
My job is the U.S., and it’ll be 500,000 books again in 2014. We haven’t the budget or staff for more.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about WBN?
Your readers should apply to be givers!
Thanks very much for your time. We salute your effort!
And we salute yours!