How to Sell Books, Part One: ‘Readers Sell Books’

I’m privileged to be one of the 20,000 World Book Night givers.

I’ve already found welcoming homes for all 48 copies of the specially printed edition of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.

Here’s where they’re going:

  • a class set to the education department of the local council [for use in English classes at Higher and Advanced Higher level in the local schools]
  • copies to eight local school libraries
  • copies to the local college library
  • copies distributed at the World Book Night event at Larbert Library [I only took eight but could probably have given out all 48]
  • a group set to the education centre within the local women’s prison
  • copies to Scottish PEN
  • copies to friends who are readers

The event last night at my local library in Larbert, which was put on after hours by the library staff on a Saturday night, was well-organised, well attended and above all, great fun.

More importantly, the author, Doug Johnstone, who gave a reading and entertained us with songs and an excellent and informative Q&A session, SOLD copies of his latest book.



Doug sold the trade paperback edition of Smokeheads to a queue of eager readers willing to pay the full price of £12.99.

Really? How could he possibly sell his books at an event where books were also being given out free – by the bagful?

There is a cynical opposition to WBN doing the rounds claiming that, if you offer a product too cheaply or freely, you will depress sales –: if you give something too cheaply or freely, so the argument goes, people will expect all books to be cheap or free. If books are free, people will not buy other books.

Firstly, this argument is wholly condescending to book buyers and readers.

Secondly, books have two values: an aesthetic value and a commercial value – neither of which devalues the written word.

Jamie Byng knows this, which is why Margaret Atwood’s description of him in yesterday’s Telegraph as a ’tilter of windmills’ is spot on.

Just look at  Canongate’s website – ‘Meet at the Gate’

Canongate’s catalogue is there, as are Canongate’s published books.

But it’s not like any other publisher’s website. You’ll also find there wide-ranging debates about all kinds of books and ‘interesting stuff’ that they didn’t publish.

It’s about the creation of a cultural hub, one that is totally independent in its spirit and content, a place with a particular focus on books, film, music and websites that will help guide you to the most interesting stuff around.

World Book Night is an ingenious idea that builds on the simple but true fact that word of mouth sells books: as Byng noted this week, ‘its readers [not reviewers/publishers/booksellers/newspapers/advertising] who sell books’.