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Sofia Akel

'Reading books that are rich in diversity': The Free Books Campaign

Sofia Akel

Interview with Sofia Akel, a cultural historian, producer, writer, and host about her Free Books Campaign. Sofia, who specialises in Black British History guest edited Sky HISTORY's Black History Month newsletter in October 2023.

The Free Books Campaign was founded by Sofia Akel in July 2020 during the UK’s first COVID-19 lockdown. The project aims to help get books by authors of colour - who are typically underrepresented in the publishing industry - into the hands of those who are unable to access them.

Since its launch, the Free Books Campaign has raised over £10,000 in financial donations and received over 1,000 physical book donations from publishers across the UK. It has donated 8,000 books across the UK and Ireland, helping to increase book ownership and supporting readers. In 2021, it officially became a community interest company, meaning that all its funds are guaranteed to go back into the community.

Sky HISTORY caught up with Sofia to chat about the Free Books Campaign and to get her top Black History Month book recommendations.

What is the Free Books Campaign?

The Free Books Campaign is a non-profit, community interest company that gets books by authors of colour to those who can’t afford or access them for free, across the UK & Ireland.

What inspired you to launch the campaign?

The campaign came about organically - what started as a small fundraiser to get books to those who can’t afford or access them, quickly turned into a non-profit, donating over 8,000 books UK-wide. It was a real community effort, with authors, publishers, readers and more all sharing the fundraiser, finding ways to donate books to us and helping us to reach hundreds of readers.

Over the years, hundreds of essential public libraries have been permanently closed due to austerity and cuts. This means that for some, their access to free literature has been taken away from them. Books are a vital resource for people, be it in the pursuit of education or an escape, due to no fault of their own, those who relied on libraries to discover new books are now disadvantaged. This creates a widening gap in terms of access, whereby people do not have equal access to literature, which can transform lives through education, literacy skills, knowledge sharing and more. I started the Free Books Campaign to tackle this – no one should be denied the right to read.

Why did you want to focus on giving away books to authors of colour?

In the UK many of us go through the education system without reading many, if any, books by authors of colour. Research by Penguin and The Runnymede Trust’s Lit in Colour revealed that less than 1% of students study a book by an author of colour at GCSE level. Reading literature from authors from a wide range of backgrounds is essential to learning about worlds outside of your own.

In a society with so many divisions, a lack of understanding of communities outside of our own, or even the ways that history bonds us all, it’s important, now more than ever, that we learn all the amazing ways that we are connected as a people. One such way is by reading books that are rich in diversity.

The publishing industry and the education sector are two entities that almost mirror each other - cause and effect. The consequences of a publishing industry that systematically devalues authors of colour and their works – be it through the number of books published, the pay disparities, or even the size of their marketing campaigns – have a ripple effect that reaches over into education. When said industry does not invest in writers of colour, the implication here is that these works are not considered important or valuable to the industry. This also works in reverse. If the education system (and by extension our society) doesn’t value books by authors of colour, then the publishing industry does not – cause and effect.

What has the reaction been like to the campaign since its launch?

The reaction to the campaign has been so incredibly heart-warming. So many people have rallied around us, believing in the work that we’re doing – from signing up monthly donations to creating pathways for us to establishing partnerships with publishers, this is truly a community effort.

What sort of feedback do you get from readers?

Readers often share with us how important a project like the Free Books Campaign is and what impact it’s had on their lives. For example, for some young readers, this is the first time they’ve read books with characters that reflect their culture, lives, or heritage. For others, this has been the first time that they have ever owned a book – something many of us would take for granted.

Our only wish is that we could get even more books out there, but as we’re a small non-profit, we are limited by our resources. I hope that one day a campaign like this isn’t needed because no reader would have barriers to accessing important books.

Why do you think it’s so important for people to read books by authors from different backgrounds?

Reading has so many benefits for us, from supporting our mental health to improving our memory retention. One of the most important gifts that literature gives to us, is the ability to glimpse into the lives of people from different backgrounds to us. It is so important for us to learn about different cultures, histories, perspectives and more so that we can better understand our place in society, how we came to be and how we can foster community between people from all walks of life. Reading can also increase our ability to be empathetic, developing our emotional intelligence, which can help us to be better, kinder and more understanding members of our societies.  

What are some of the most popular books requested from the Free Book Campaign?

Our readers have wonderfully varied tastes, from sci-fi to historical fiction. One of the most requested genres is cookery books! Our readers love cooking, so we’re grateful to our partners Vintage Books who help us to get cookbooks to our readers.

Of the books, these can be some of the most expensive and least accessible books to buy, so it’s especially great that we’re able to get these to our readers.

Are there any history books from your offering that you would recommend for Black History Month?

These are some of the most foundational texts on Black History that I’ve read and have used in my research and lecturing:

  • Heart of the Race by Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe 
  • Here to Stay, Here to Fight: A Race Today Anthology by Edited by Paul Field, Robin Bunce, Leila Hassan, and Margaret Peacock
  • Settlers by Jimi Famurewa
  • African and Caribbean People in Britain by Hakim Adi
  • The History of Black Studies by Abdul Alkalimat
  • Superior by Angela Saini

What’s one book by an author of colour that you think everyone should read?

One of my favourite books is called The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, who is an extraordinary Vietnamese author and poet. Her books are works of multi-generational historical fiction, that bring to life the vast history of Vietnam. I love her books because they teach me so much about her nation's culture, language, history, politics, and society. She is also such a beautiful writer, and each page is truly captivating.  

How can people get involved in the Free Books Campaign?

There are a few ways that you can get involved with the Free Books Campaign.

  1. Donate – if you’re in a position to be able to share some resources, please do consider signing up for monthly donations. These help us plan, get more books to readers, and fund the campaign. So far, we’ve been going for three years strong thanks to the donations of our wonderful community both online and offline.

  2. Follow Us – you can follow us on social media on Instagram, TikTok or X [Formerly Twitter]. Here you can keep up to date with our events, find book recommendations and get in touch with us. We’re hoping to expand our team of volunteers shortly, so this will be a great place to find out about opportunities that we have coming up when they’re announced.