Last night I celebrated World Book Night (WBN) by handing out 20 copies of one of my favorite books, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, adjacent to the subway entrance at New York City’s Union Square. (For those who aren’t familiar with World Book Night, volunteers give out one of a select list of free titles, hoping to reach those who don’t regularly read. In 2012, World Book Night saw over 80,000 people, 25,000 of them in the U.S., give out more than 2.5 million books.)
Objectively speaking it didn’t take me long at all to give out my copies—my box was emptied in time for me to attend the World Book Night kickoff party across the park at Barnes & Noble, if I hadn’t needed to get home to dinner. But subjectively speaking, it seemed to take much longer, and presented a capsule case study in reasons for, and methods of, rejection. Here are a few of the things I learned.
• The word “free” actually hurts, especially if said first. As soon as people heard it I could see their body language shutting down and their shoulders squaring to push past. “Would you like a book for World Book Night?” was much more effective, even though people then had to ask “Is it free?”
• Author name recognition was powerful: people who recognized Neil Gaiman’s name and said so almost invariably took the book. (The exception being one guy whose was going to take it until his partner told him they already had a copy.)
• Everyone who said they recognized the title, however, did not take the book because they’d already read it.
• The single most powerful influencer that convinced people to take the book was seeing someone else take the book. If I convinced one person, four or five others who saw it would follow in rapid succession. Otherwise, 10 or 20 in a row might go by without taking an interest. I have a hunch that this is in part because they observe that taking a book is not followed by a sales pitch or request for contact information, but it could just be following the bellwether.
• Standing the book up so that people could look at it without having to interact with me was effective.
• I have an impression that African American women were the most likely to say yes, but I didn’t keep a count and 20 is a small sample.
• I might as well not have bothered offering them to people wearing earbuds; not one person who wore them took the book. Larger, more self-evident signage might have changed that, but I doubt it.
• By far the biggest obstacle was people’s impression that there must be a catch or a problem with anything given away for free. One person stated this explicitly and it was evident in many other people’s responses.
Such people usually found the information that multiple publishers had donated books reassuring; I think because it moved the giveaway into the familiar realm of “commercial sample”, which is a comprehensible motivation and therefore trustworthy. (I didn’t mention the publishers by name, so this isn’t a brand thing, but they may also have felt that large commercial entities are easier to hold accountable and/or less likely to be suffering from extremism or mental imbalance.)
• Only one person asked what the book was about. I think this reflects my choice of location—most of the passersby were entering the subway, and while there was plenty of room for them to step aside and chat without blocking traffic, they were in goal-oriented mode and did not want to do so. On the bus to that location, where there was time for a more leisurely back and forth, someone did ask (and considered and ultimately rejected the book, which was claimed by another rider on the basis of the conversation).
• Not one person indicated that they’d heard of World Book Night. Though interestingly, several people in the bus conversation knew that it was Shakespeare’s birthday and conjectured that that was the reason for the choice of date.
My takeaway for what might increase the number of potential recipients who are willing to take a book in future basically amounts to: build up World Book Night’s visibility as a brand. While some people did reject the book on the grounds that they don’t like books, or didn’t think they would like this book in particular, or were just busy or in a hurry and didn’t want any distraction, their numbers were dwarfed by the number who believed that being offered something came with strings attached—whether that be an attempt to win their vote, their religious conversion, their donation, or something else.
The more World Book Night is established in their minds, it seems to me, the more likely they are to drop that mistrust and simply consider whether they want the book. And, keeping in mind Ned Potter’s recent column about not expecting marketing to yield instant results, it seems to me that since World Book Night givers are the major touch point where members of the public are exposed to the concept, that the givers’ materials—from the editions themselves to the boxes they come in and the signs and promotional materials they come with—should be designed for maximum WBN visibility, not necessarily intended to pay off in a successful hand-off on first viewing, but to stick in the mind so that next year, and the year after, WBN givers are more likely to be recognized.