Sharply contrasting news for book initiatives on either side of the Atlantic. At the time of writing the UK’s Quick Reads scheme, in which well-known authors write short, accessible books to improve adult literacy and to help those who struggle with reading, announced that it was to end. An 18-month search for a new sponsor has not – once again, at the time of writing – proved successful, though comments from authors such as Mark Billingham as well as a campaign by the Society of Authors to keep the scheme alive, may yet make a difference.
Meanwhile, as the UK industry despairs at the demise of Quick Reads, in the US publishers and booksellers are gearing up for the arrival of ‘The Great American Read’. As this column has noted before, this is the US version of BBC2’s The Big Read, broadcast in 2003 and the series responsible for the biggest uplift in backlist sales the UK industry has ever seen. In 2003, Penguin had 45 titles out of the original 100-strong list and the then MD of Penguin General, Helen Fraser, said it created a million pounds of business for the publisher.
The Big Read was the brainchild of Jane Root, the former Controller of BBC2, who later moved to the US where she became President of the Discovery Channel and went on to set up the production company Nutopia. She sold the ‘Big Read’ idea to PBS last year and now the channel will broadcast The Great American Read this summer, beginning on 22 May. There are nine programmes in the series with the ‘winning’ book – ‘America’s Most Loved Novel’ – set to be announced in the final programme in October.
To refresh your memory, the winning title in the UK, voted for by the public, was The Lord of the Rings, with Pride and Prejudice and His Dark Materials in second and third place respectively. The first two of these titles also appear on PBS’ Great American Read 100 list. It will be fascinating to see if Tolkien can take the top spot in the US as well, although it’s worth noting that, back in 2003, the three Rings film adaptations were fresh in people’s minds and must surely have had some effect on the voting.
But US booksellers should prepare themselves for an uplift in sales. This initiative will lead to much debate in the media and on social networks and if the UK is anything to go by, US bookshops could be in for a golden summer.
Another US initiative has already achieved impressive figures. To mark World Book Day, AmazonCrossing, the translation imprint of Amazon Publishing, gave away Kindle copies of nine translated novels to US customers. Countries represented included Japan, Russia, Indonesia, Turkey and North Korea, with a live ‘counter’ updating ‘pages read’ every few seconds. By the time the promotion ended at midnight on Tuesday, it had notched up more than 10m pages.
UNESCO dignitaries were in Athens this week for the handover of the World Book Day ‘baton’ from Conakry, Guinea to Athens. Prokopis Pavlopoulos, President of the Hellenic Republic of Greece, noted how it was in Athens that the idea of ‘the citizen’ was born and how “the common heritage of the world” is carried forward by educated members of a culture, readers of books.
Congratulations to Sharmaine Lovegrove, publisher at Little, Brown imprint Dialogue Books, who has launched an online magazine called Pree (Jamaican slang for ‘think about/consider carefully’), dedicated to contemporary writing from and about the Caribbean. Now, as the shameful Windrush saga rolls on and on, there is surely an opportunity for a publisher to tell the fascinating story of the ship itself. There seems to be only one book only that focuses on the vessel: Clive Gifford’s The Empire Windrush, a children’s easy reader published by Collins Educational in 2014. But there is a bigger story to tell: this ship is like a floating history of the twentieth century. Before its famous role in bringing Caribbean immigrants to the UK, it was German-owned and carried Nazi Party members on luxury cruises. After the war, it helped carry survivors of the Korean war.
But of course, it is its famous journey to Tillbury in 1948 that everyone is talking about. Sad now to think of a vessel that carried so many hopes and dreams lying at the bottom of the Mediterranean, off the coast of Algeria, North Africa, where it sank in 1954 after a fire and an abortive attempt to tow the hulk to Gibraltar. Someone should tell its complete story.
Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.