(This article appeared in THE BOOKSELLER, Feb 2005)
The BML’s 'Expanding the Book-Market' research reveals the urgent need for the trade to look way beyond its comfort zone, and reach out to the 45% of the population on whose radar books just do not register. Too many potential customers lack literacy skills, are turned off by bookshops, don’t trust the blurb on the back of books and don’t want books as gifts.
"I read all the time now - and I'm not a reader." That quote came not from a new marketing campaign but a participant in Breathtaker, a Booktrust project run three years ago with what we’d now call light readers. With funding from the Hamlyn Foundation we worked with isolated mothers, victims of crime and young offenders, offering them the services of readers in residence Maggie O’Farrell and Alex Wheatle to recommend three breathtaking books to give them a boost and some breathing space to take a fresh view of their lives. Those involved told us about the thrill they felt when a parcel of free books arrived through the post chosen specially for them. Even more thrilling was the personal letter which accompanied them.
One young mother in Suffolk showed me a paperback she’d been sent and said, “I loved this book - and it’s not my kind of thing at all.”
Booktrust staff Hannah Rutland, Karen Dickenson and Helen Hayes celebrate with author Alex Wheatle at the launch of our Development Board, 2004.
The use of personal recommendation, expert input and new settings in which to share books, chimes with many of the recommendations of ‘Expanding the Market’. This approach has been integral to reader development work ever since the 1980s when we clocked how many borrowers headed straight for the Returns trolley. Faced with the mass of choices on offer, people went for titles that someone nearby had read recently. The booktrade took some convincing of the significance of all this to the hard-nosed business of shifting units.
A lot has changed since then. There are strong collaborations now between publishers and reader development organisations like Booktrust, Opening The Book and The Reading Agency. Bookstart, our amazing books for babies scheme now funded in England by SureStart, has tremendous support from publishers who no longer see it as a charitable cause but a vital route to the readers of tomorrow.
Give a board book to an eight month old child and they will grab it, suck it, open it and savour it. Nobody can tell those babies that books are boring or ‘not for them’. Bookstart gets under the wire of assumptions and fears to put books directly into the eager hands of the next generation; like a Jamie Oliver school dinner, it gives kids a taste for the best. Now the booksellers too are looking at how the Bookstart ‘brand’ could tempt new customers over their thresholds. The potential has never been better for collaborations, but these must be based on mutual trust and awareness of our different strengths and aims.
Nick Hornby and Zadie Smith at the launch of GET LONDON READING, February 2003
Literacy and literature organisations have pioneered work with word of mouth book promotion, encouragement of readers’ groups, broad based promotions like the Reading Campaign, National Poetry Day and Children's Book Week, innovative residencies for writers in businesses, schools and the community, not just broadening access to words but deepening appreciation, inspiring new experiments between reader and writer. As a sector we’ve raised significant funding from Government and trusts as well as commercial sponsors for projects targeted at exactly those parts of society the trade have not been reaching.
Booktrust’s logo is a red book. I think of it not as a novel but a notebook, the book where readers feel free to doodle, jot down odd thoughts about the stories they've been reading, what they’ve been thinking and doing recently, with maybe a scrap of their own poetry and a list of 'Things To Do' . It represents the breathing space which is the essence of creative reading, where we find the time to reflect on what we make of the world we live in.
Everyone has the right to that space, but many lack the literacy skills, the knowledge and, most vital of all, the confidence in their ability and creativity to claim it. Our work at Booktrust is tending that time, space and notebook.
We don’t sell books – we make booktime.
It's up to the trade to look at the commercial implications, but if Bookstart isn't absolutely key to expanding the book market of the future, then my name's Harry Da Vinci.