Interview: Jamie Byng, publisher

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Jamie Byng has managed to find time to lead the biggest giveaway of books ever attempted in between preparing to handle Julian Assange's memoir. Chitra Ramaswamy meets the very busy head of Canongate Publishing

A FEW years ago the Edinburgh publisher Canongate decided to give away a few hundred copies of a book. The Gift, a paean to creativity by an American scholar called Lewis Hyde, first came out 25 years ago but had fallen, like so many books, into obscurity. Until, that is, the Booker prize-winning author Margaret Atwood pressed a copy into Jamie Byng's hands. Byng, the managing director of Canongate was so blown away he ended up publishing it. And so on a freezing night in December, 2007, Byng and his army of elves wandered Edinburgh's Lothian Road and London's South Bank handing out 1500 free copies.

"We had so much fun we ended up giving out another 500 two months later," says Byng when I meet him in Canongate's London offices in Notting Hill. Outside, a quote from the novelist David Mitchell is glued to the wall in felt letters: "To this printed garden I was given the keys." Inside the printed garden, one of the world's most successful publishing houses is having a seriously busy week. "We've now sold 40,000 copies of this very obscure book," he goes on. "And isn't that what's so incredible about books?" Byng thumps a brand new World Book Night (WBN) copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun lying on the desk between us, its spine not yet broken. "Each one lies dormant until someone cracks it open. Until then, it's sleeping."

Not that many books get a chance to sleep around Byng. The exuberant 42-year-old with the biggest hair in the business hands me more than a dozen books during the course of our meeting so that by the end they form a precarious tower rising between us. He wears an unbuttoned stripey shirt through which his chest hair springs enthusiastically. He literally can't stop talking about books, often pounding them for effect. Byng started out at Canongate, off Edinburgh's Royal Mile, doing work experience. It didn't take long for him to buy the beleaguered literary house out and he has gone on to publish one of the biggest-selling Booker winners in history (Yann Martel's Life Of Pi), Barack Obama's memoirs and next, Julian Assange's globally anticipated book about Wikileaks.

Still he's found time to head up the biggest giveaway of books ever attempted. Tonight on the first ever WBN one million copies of 25 specially selected titles will be given away by 20,000 bookworms. This army of volunteers, three quarters of them female, will each gift 48 books to people on streets and in prisons, on trains and doorsteps, in pubs and football grounds up and down Britain. Each will give a book they have personally chosen from a list that includes Margaret Atwood, Alan Bennett, Carol Ann Duffy, Toni Morrison, Muriel Spark, John Le Carr, Philip Pullman, Nigel Slater and many more.

"At its core it's a celebration of reading," says Byng, who came up with the concept last May at a conference session about World Book Day, which has been running since 1998 but has tended to focus on children's books. "This is about bringing books into peoples' lives in a very direct way. Sometimes you get frustrated by the long-winded route by which a book gets from writer to reader. We're short-circuiting the entire process. Going from one reader of a book who loves it to another who might never have come to it is really powerful. And it's worth stressing that it's a celebration of the physical book. We're in a digital age but we're giving away actual books, not apps, not e-books. Not this year, anyway."

For the moment WBN is taking up all of Byng's energy but there is the small matter of Julian Assange's memoir on his radar too. Not that he will discuss it.

"I can't say much about Julian's book now," he says. "It's going to be extremely significant for us. Whatever you think of Julian he is someone who has made a massive impact. I think it's going to be a very important book."

Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, in many ways seems like a natural fit for the rebel publishing house that Yann Martel once described as an "anarchistic commune".

"It's a complicated book to publish," Byng admits. "It's massive. We've licensed it to more than 30 territories around the world. We knew it would be a significant book for us before we bought it and I feel it even more so knowing the way things are developing with it. I have nothing else to say. Enough."

World Book Night is, in its own way, an equally ambitious enterprise. Celebrations kicked off in London's Trafalgar Square last night with what was billed as the largest literary gathering in history, hosted by Graham Norton and featuring heavyweights such as Pullman, Atwood and Le Carr reading from their favourite books. The BBC is broadcasting the action live tonight from London, Manchester and Glasgow. Patrons include everyone from Damon Albarn to JK Rowling. That Byng has managed to organise all this in a few months is testament to his bulging contacts book as much as the nation's love of the written word.

The statistics really are mind-boggling. "There are 1400 libraries involved, 850 booksellers, more than 100 prisons, 400 events that we know about happening today," says Byng, reeling off the figures with the zest of an evangelist notching up converters. "I wrote a letter to all the librarians, booksellers, publishers and agents, asking them to come up with the 25 books they would like to see on the list. We got 500 lists back and sent them to the awards committee."

Already, the rest of the world is taking notice. "In 2012 it will happen in between 15 and 25 countries but it's too early to say," he says. "Imagine if it happened in 20 countries. That's 20 million books given away for free. The lists would be fascinating. That's when it gets really exciting and you start connecting readers all over the world."

In an industry threatened by digital publishing and the takeover by chains and supermarkets, WBN has galvanized people. "Penguin provided all the boxes for free that are being sent out to the 20,000 givers. Random House and Hachette did all the physical distribution for nothing. Pentagram designed the books for nothing. Clays, the biggest printer in Britain, printed the books at cost. And none of the authors are taking a royalty. One of the really lovely things has been seeing the industry come together in an unprecedented way. It shows what's possible. There hasn't been any government funding."

Of course there have also been detractors who point out that giving away 8 million worth of books in the midst of recession, library closures, and struggling independent shops is bad business. Others have derided World Book Night as being more about marketing than "the gift economy" Byng is so keen to promote. Ian Jack, writing in a national newspaper, compared the exercise to "that flickering vision, the Big Society". The Scottish writer Nicola Morgan has launched an alternative World Book Night inviting people to buy a book from a favourite bookshop and gift it to someone so sellers don't lose out.

"It's hard for anyone to say what the impact is going to be," Byng replies. "None of us know. I can understand why there is a concern that giving away a million books is going to eat into sales. But it will also increase sales. I would say in 95 percent of instances the people who are given the books would never normally have read them. These are books that will travel through word of mouth, and that increases sales. And the number of independents who are into it way eclipses the few who are against it. Nicola's idea is absolutely great. I love anything that promotes reading and her idea doesn't run counter to WBN. The thing that frustrates me about some of the negative feedback is that we wouldn't be having any of these conversations if we hadn't done this."

Byng himself is a volunteer and will be handing out 48 copies of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist in Notting Hill. "I applied to be a giver," he says. "I love giving books away. I've been doing it for years." And as if to demonstrate he jumps up and starts thrusting books into my hands. "I'll give my books out on the street," he muses. "It's how I used to promote my club, Chocolate City, back in the day in Edinburgh. We would go up to people and give them a chocolate wrapped in our flyer." He looks at me, laden with books, and then starts scouring his shelves again. "Now," he says, handing me a novel I've never heard of by a writer, Glen Duncan, I've never come across. "Take this one. It's amazing. One of the edgiest books we've ever published. You'll love it."

• World Book Night is tonight Follow it live on BBC2 from 7.30pm. For information on coverage on BBC2, Radio 4 and 7, visit www.