Q&A: How to Give Away One Million Books in One Night

World Book Night, an event started in the U.K., aims to give away one million books to one million people. TIME spoke to Jamie Byng, the event's founder and chair, about how books can make the world a saner place.

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REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

Volunteer Annette Fenner hands out free books for World Book Night, in Balham, London March 5, 2011. On World Book Night one million books will be given away to members of the public.

The second annual World Book Night is set to take place on April 23, with events planned in the U.S., the U.K., Ireland and Germany. The event — which launched last year in the U.K. and is supported by Margaret Atwood, Dave Eggers and J.K. Rowling, among others — aims to give away one million books to one million people, all in a single day. By recruiting 20,000 volunteers to give away copies of 25 selected titles to whomever they choose, the event aims to spread not only books, but also a love of reading. TIME spoke with Jamie Byng, the creator and chair of World Book Night. He talked about the event, the power of word of mouth, and how books can change the world.

Tell me about World Book Night.

[The other organizers and I] had the wildly ambitious idea, which was to celebrate reading and books and distribute books on a scale that hadn’t been done before. That was to give a million books to a million different people all in one day. That was kind of the ideal in a nutshell.

But absolutely key to the idea was the way we’d distribute the books. We sort of harnessed and galvanized the passion that individuals have towards certain books by enabling them to go out and share their love of a particular book with people who haven’t read that book before. We all know that word of mouth is one the most elusive, yet powerful things we have. And when you have someone talking with a real passion and fervor about something they love, it’s a very infectious thing. Without those 20,000 book givers, we’d have no book night.

An important thing to recognize is — if you believe, as I do, that books can have an incredibly beneficial impact on people’s understanding of the world and the building up of empathy — the more people you have reading, the saner and safer a society is.

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Is that the argument you might use for any critics, such as independent booksellers who told the Guardian last year that they feared the event would hurt sales?

Absolutely! It’s also worth saying that the majority of the independent booksellers are extremely supportive and engaged with World Book Night, because they realize that it’s celebrating reading. It’s actually getting people into bookshops. I would say the evidence suggests from last year that it did completely the opposite and it actually spurred book sales. It reminded people of the joy of books. There are so many lapsed readers in this county and I think one of the great challenges is, how do you remind people how important books are?

One of the things we’re focusing on this year is getting into hospices and care home libraries and prisons, you know, places where they have a very difficult time getting books, for financial reasons. And theses are places where I think the books will really be enjoyed and have a real impact.

One of the givers this year is a rather amazing young man who last year, because he was in the prison system, was given a book on World Book Night. His mother filled out his application for him to be a World Book Night giver this year because he wasn’t getting released until April 12 and the deadline was back in January. So this guy is going to be a giver this year and the thing that he asked his mother to write in on his behalf was, look, I was lucky enough to be given a book last year and that completely transformed my life and since then I’ve been an avid reader and it’s changed my life for the better in so many ways.

And I don’t know how many experiences like that we heard, but it’s hard to put a value on that.

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How are the titles selected?

In a really lively meeting. An editorial committee was formed, which had no publishers on it, but was made up of librarians and booksellers and authors. In year two it was slightly different; what we did was through the website started inviting the public to suggest what books they’d like to see for World Book Night 2012. So we gathered together the tens of thousands of lists to produce a top 100. That top 100 was shared with the editorial committee, because we wanted to make sure that the people’s choices were in mind when we made the list.

Is there anything you wanted to add?

[There’s an] epigraph in the beginning of Imagine by Jonah Lehrer, which is T.S. Eliot in an introduction to Dante’s Inferno. And the line has just been in my head: “Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing.” And I wouldn’t say that heaven is a place where everything connects with everything, but I do think that one of the great things that World Book Night has aspired to do is connect people with one another and using the book as that connector. I just love the fact that’s it’s being embraced.

For more information on World Book Night events taking place on April 23, visit www.us.worldbooknight.org