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In Conversation with Sofia Akel and The Free Books Campaign

It has been a rough eight months in some shape or form for everybody. In the summer as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement experienced a surge in momentum, online petitions were being shared left and right, donations encouraged, and black squares posted on social media. Interestingly, books were also a massive tool being used and recommended for allies and black people alike to learn about the historical roots of the structures reinforcing racial inequality and how they operate. The literary world and readers alike went from raving about Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light to curating reading lists to shine a light on black authors and their body of work. In particular, journalist Reni Eddo Lodge’s book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race shot to number one on multiple bestsellers lists around the world, and Reni became the first ever Black British author to top the UK Book Charts as the BLM movement interest caused protests across the country. People wanted to widen their perspective and understand the anger and impatience within the Black people around them, so the book provided a good place to start.

In the midst of all these goings-on Sofia Akel’s Free Books Campaign was brewing. The campaign started very organically, she explained. She had been talking to Verso Books in order to arrange for free copies of books (that weren’t just financially accessible but also easy to use for those with disabilities) to be made available to the public. When she started a GoFundMe for it the aim was to raise a modest £1,000 which quickly rose due to the generosity of her supporters. Donations currently stand at over £5,430 at the time of writing. 400 books are available with an additional 100 books in the works. The Campaign operates quite simply; through the money provided, Sofia is able to buy and provide books – all by authors of colour – which she can then send out to whoever requests them. The authors being people of colour is something important to Sofia, she states "more people need to hear our voices" and emphasised that whether the book centres on personal experiences or not, there is something to be learnt, a new world opened up culturally when reading the works of authors of colour.

The wonderful thing about the campaign is that it seeks to address several social problems simultaneously. Without us realising, over the years books – particularly having fresh new books you can treasure as your own – have become a luxury. Accessibility for lower income families has also become an issue. Since 2010, austerity measures pushed through by the government have resulted in the closure of several public libraries; with 800 alone reported to have been closed since 2010. As someone who grew up on a council estate, Sofia acknowledges that she is privileged to be able to afford one or two books per pay cheque. In the past, upon graduation when money was much tighter, she admitted that buying a book would always have to involve some sort of personal sacrifice; i.e. reducing the amount of money spent eating out or on leisure activities. Her passion for books is something that spurs her on and was established from childhood; she fondly recalls often borrowing huge piles of books when she was younger from the library located opposite the housing estate where she grew up. When asked what books inspire her now, as an adult, Sofia explained,

"There isn’t one single book that inspires me, rather there are a few books that inspire me for different reasons."

Amongst many books she mentioned Caleb Femi’s Poor which she says showed her "the real emotional and power that words can have when masterfully put together in prose." And A Kick in the Belly by Stella Dadzie which "showed me exactly what it means to make your history and education accessible."

Amazingly, direct donations from publishers aside, Sofia ensures that all the campaign’s books are sourced from independent bookstores. In this way, her relationship with them is mutually beneficial, they get provided with much needed business and she receives her books which become free for anyone to request.

As you can imagine, managing the operations of such a campaign is not easy – Sofia balances running the campaign with her full-time job based at a London university. Time management is therefore key for her and one of the things she admits is a constant challenge. Not only does Sofia manage the supply and delivery of books, she also oversees the publicity and marketing efforts. She marvels that there are not more significant challenges she faces but said she owes this to the amazing amount of support offered from followers of and donors to the campaign.

One thing she did note though is the challenge of trying to avoid the campaign becoming English-centric. Although England-based herself, Sofia is not limited to providing books for just people in England alone, so wants to focus on spreading the word throughout other parts of the UK in order to ensure citizens everywhere who could benefit from the campaign’s work do. On the flip side, the growth and support received from publishers and the public have been one of her highlights. A standout moment was having author Candice Carty-Williams come to Sofia’s flat to kindly sign gold editions of her book Queenie.

Despite all the campaign’s success and rapid growth so far "the publishing industry could be doing more," Sofia insists. She’s not alone in thinking this, Abiola Bello, author and co-director of Hashtag Press agreed, saying "The worst thing is going into a bookshop and seeing the same old books. It’s like no-one wants to take a risk in supporting an underrepresented writer and it’s telling us that ‘your books don’t sell’." Upon talking to a Waterstone’s bookseller Abiola noticed a bias in booksellers towards big publishing houses which she believes to be detrimental to diversifying books they sell.

But ultimately, ensuring diverse readership starts with having diverse writers and harnessing such talent is the job of publishing houses. "Readers will only buy what they can see so if they're seeing the same books, they will not be expanding their knowledge," Abiola explained. According to both women it lies with the board-level decision makers to create substantial change and tackle the structural racism which lies at the root of the bias towards ethnic minority writers. It won’t be easy, of course but Sofia points to organisations like The Black Writers Guild, Round Table Books, Jacaranda Books and Knights Of who have shown that "it is not only possible to create a social and educational impact by diversifying literature but that there is tremendous need and want for this."

What does the future hold for The Free Books campaign? Sofia admits that currently, as a one-man project she doesn’t have the resources (or funds yet) to do outreach work to identify parts of the community in much need of books. However, in the future she sees the campaign expanding – with more people power and more funding. This expansion will allow her to do and afford the outreach work to reach children in schools in deprived areas. She also hopes to launch a website in January which will act as a main go-to point for people to order books.

How can you the reader play a part in supporting the campaign? Donation is a more obvious form of contribution but Sofia shares that even more important is supporters helping to spread the word and raise awareness about the campaign. If you have social media and Whatsapp why not follow and share the Free Books Campaign with family, friends and followers?

Social Media:

Sofia’s twitter: @sofiaakel

Campaign’s twitter: @accessfreebooks

Campaign’s IG: @freebookscampaign


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