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Mudpuddle_Farm-_Six_Animal_AdventuresIn addition to promoting childhood obesity, McDonald’s in the UK is now promoting childhood literacy. Until February 7th, in cooperation with England’s National Literacy Trust, all UK McDonald’s locations will be distributing print copies of the popular UK children’s series Mudpuddle Farm by Michael Morpurgo as a free Happy Meal “toy”.

A 2011 survey showed that 33% of British children do not own a book, according to the National Literacy Trust. This program is meant to help remedy that by putting an actual printed book, rather than a cheap plastic toy, in the hands of young would-be readers.

Not everyone is fond of the move. UK bookseller Katie Clapham has an essay on The Bookseller complaining that the free giveaway devalues “what we work so hard to give value to” by equating it to those cheap plastic toys.

Selfishly, what upsets me most is the news that the other token gift in the box is a voucher for another Morpurgo book, redeemable only at W H Smith. As an independent children’s bookshop in a town that shares the high street with a W H Smith we are constantly working to compete with their never-ending deals and red sticker discounts. Now they can give away for free what we have to pay to sell.

Of course, it is not surprising that an employee of a specialty children’s bookstore would feel that way, as this is clearly just another way that big chains are using their buying power to outcompete the little guy. And books that are given away for free are not books that are being bought from a bookseller, and that are likely to get kids started buying from the big chains that can offer bigger discounts.

I find it interesting that books are finally reaching the point of being given away free with Happy Meals (albeit only in the UK, and for a limited time). Are the printing costs of a book really about the same as the manufacturing costs of a cheap plastic toy? If so, it would seem to lend ammunition to the publishers who insist that printing costs are a fraction of the cost of a book and so e-books should be priced accordingly.

 
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