Lessons from World Book Night

“Excuse me, ma’am, can I offer you a free copy of ‘Friday Night Lights’?”

 

The woman recoiled as if I were holding a baby rattler. “No!” she shouted, backing away. And then, by way of mumbled explanation, “I don’t read.”

 

She’s not alone. According to an Associated Press poll, one-quarter of all Americans read no books last year. Apparently they’re as scared of reading as the woman above. And that’s the point of World Book Night, an annual nonprofit event, now in its second year, designed to spread the joy of reading by giving away free books. On the evening of April 23, tens of thousands of folks just like me staked out positions in high-traffic areas all over the world with the goal of distributing millions of books, no strings attached. The event is sponsored by organizations like Barnes & Noble, UPS, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Ingram Book Distributors, the American Library Association, and dozens of others.

 

I had signed up online weeks before and made my selection from an eclectic list of thirty that included “The Hunger Games,” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “Because of Winn Dixie,” “The Book Thief,” “Kite Runner,” “The Stand,” “The Things They Carried,” and “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” I chose “Friday Night Lights” thinking the movie and TV tie-ins might help me convince non- readers to give it a shot.

 

And so I set up shop with my box of twenty books at the Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas for two reasons: It’s a high-traffic area. And, with all the Madonna and Elvis impersonators, showgirls, street performers, and assorted other hucksters, I wouldn’t be the weirdest guy on the block.

 

I may as well have been. I spent my first fruitless minutes giving away nary a copy. Some people thought I was passing out political or religious tracts. Others just couldn’t bring themselves to believe that the books were absolutely free. While I fine-tuned my pitch, I resigned myself to a long night.

 

I made my first “sale” to a hotel security guard who had been eyeing me suspiciously and wandered over to see what the heck I was up to. Instead of tossing me out, he left with his free gift and a tacit understanding that I wasn’t some sort of trouble-maker. At least not   on this night.

 

That was just the crack in the dam I needed. Within seconds, I had distributed books to a man in a wheelchair, a husband and wife from Romania, a few young adults with multiple tattoos and piercings, and a man who rounded up his entire family and asked if they could each have a copy. Once passers-by decided the promotion was legit, I was down to an empty carton in fewer than ten minutes. I probably could have given away a thousand.

 

For me, the whole exercise amounted to a fascinating sociological and marketing experiment confirming that:

 

  • The public has learned not to trust free offers
  • People are followers
  • Transactions can be tricky even when no money exchanges hands
  • You need a strong opening line (I finally settled on, “Did you know tonight is World Book Night? Thousands of people all over the world are giving away books like this one.”)
  • You want to quickly co-opt the authorities and get them on your side (or at least get them to leave you alone)
  • I want to do it again next year Maybe I’ll see you there.
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