In principle, the plan to give away one million books for World Book Night on 5 March next year is magnificent. But the wheeze — Victorian in its benevolence — has its bonkers side. The 25 works the Book Night evangelists plan to distribute are available gratis online to anyone who cares to google their titles followed by the word ‘eBook’ or ‘torrent’. Yet the initiative — fronted by the rock-star-lookalike Jamie Byng of Canongate and ‘fully embraced’ by the culture minister Ed Vaizey — is branded Good because it promotes literacy and love of reading and thus makes the world a better place. Downloading pirated eBooks, on the other hand, is Bad. If the book trade ever gets its act sufficiently together to tackle the problem, it will be interesting to see if Google is required to stop fencing what are technically stolen goods.
This came up last week at the FutureBook conference, a day-long talkfest of publishing geeks and techies held in Bloomsbury by the Bookseller magazine. Among the best speakers was Richard Mollet, the new head of the Publishers Association, who asserted that there is not — yet — a culture of freeloading among book lovers. Instead there is a ‘habituation to legal’ in publishing. Translated, this means he believes readers still expect to pay for books. They are unlike music lovers, whose moral degeneracy can be summed up by the tale of Radiohead’s attempt to give away ‘In Rainbows’ via its website. The band’s fans were invited to pay whatever they reckoned the track was worth. It was, naturally, possible to cough up £0.00. But 250,000 preferred to download it free from the LimeWire site, where they always got their music.
I fear Mr Mollet, until recently the head of public affairs at the British Phonographic Institute, is sentimental about book lovers’ ethics. Several years as literary editor of a national newspaper — aka keeper of the keys to the books cupboard — taught me that enthusiastic readers are no keener to pay for stuff that can be snaffled for free than music lovers.
Of course, maybe it was the ostentatiously locked door that made the books in my cupboard catnip to my fellow journalists. It indicated: Here Be Treasure. Just like the word ‘secret’. Or the alluring phrase ‘off the record’. At least that was the case before Julian Assange and WikiLeaks exploded journalism’s quickest, surest way of sifting the important from the trivial. 251,287 secret cables? It’s like tripping over 251,287 holy grails. How do you decide what’s worth knowing when so much is suddenly out there? The fashionable internet thinker Clay Shirky once said: ‘There’s no such thing as information overload, there is only filter failure.’ If he’s right, we need new filters, fast.
More pressingly, I need a filter which will let me work out what not to give for Christmas. Most people over the age of 12 are too polite to let on when you’ve put the wrong thing under the tree but, in the spirit of sharing, I offer up my personal worst-ever present: the Sotheby’s wine-tasting course I gave my husband some years ago. The experts were authoritative, the wines expensive-sounding, the vocabulary irresistable. He clearly enjoyed breaking his commute at Bond Street for a classy booze-up once a week. And when he was unable to make it to session number four, a helpful American at the adjacent desk kindly photocopied her tasting notes on the lesser-known vineyards of the lower Rhône for him. ‘We should have her over to dinner,’ he said. And so we did. She was largish, friendly, exuberant and confiding. Her first words to me, as he vanished to uncork the first of several bottles, were: ‘He’s so good-looking, but don’t you worry. He told me all about you and the children…’ Faint alarm bell number one. I asked about the course. It was more fun, apparently, than Calligraphy for Oligarchs, less homework than Bookbinding for Elderly Bibliophiles, though not as exciting as Breeding Carnivorous Plants. Or whatever. Courses were, she said, a great way of meeting interesting men. Faint alarm bell number two.
At the usual hour, our other guests left. I was sleepy and headed upstairs. Time passed before my husband shook me awake, gibbering. She had removed her towering stilettos and chased him round the kitchen. He’d fled and dialled a taxi. This arrived when she was making low growling noises from the playroom beanbag, its cover irrevocably marked by what the dry-cleaner would later call an amusing blend of impertinent vintages.