Many a Book Token I received as a child in Scotland. They were never exactly what you wanted, as they carried that hint of “this will be good for you”, but they were obviously much better than socks or hand-kerchiefs. In those days the Book Token would be a little greeting card, costing 3d, into which the bookseller would stick a sort of postage-stamp-like thing which indicated how many pounds the purchaser had paid to their local bookshop, and thus the amount you could spend in your nearest shop. All bookshops accepted them in those days.

Book Tokens were first introduced in Britain in 1932; a brainwave of Harold Raymond, publisher at Chatto and Windus. Booksellers were skeptical, seeing the whole process as a fiddly additional cost. They were eventually mollified by the evident success of the scheme, and importantly by the additional discount they were granted on books thus sold. As Iain Stevenson tells us in Book Makers, “Part of the antipathy . . . arose from confusion with the gift vouchers provided by the tobacco manufacturers Wix and Sons with Kensitas cigarettes.” Among the gifts for which these cigarette “tokens” could be redeemed was a list of 450 different books. Booksellers pointed out that the cost of the cigarettes you’d need to buy in order to qualify for a free book came in many cases to less than the retail price of the book. This objection evaporated when Wix withdrew the vouchers in 1933.

Reverse of Lackington token. From Bryars & Bryars

As close readers of this blog may recall “book tokens” had in fact been invented rather earlier. In the late 18th century James Lackington at The Temple of the Muses, had issued medallion-like tokens which could be exchanged for books. Bryars and Bryars give more details of these tokens.

 

Book Tokens still exist in Britain, but unsurprisingly they are now little electronic debit card things. The National Book Tokens site provides a lot of information. We don’t have anything exactly similar over here in America: an Amazon gift card can be frittered away on anything, even, god save us, groceries! You can in fact buy a gift card for “mind food” — a subscription to Kindle Unlimited, but as the Amazon help page emphasizes you can trade it in for a general Amazon gift card if you don’t want to be lumbered with anything as boring as buying an ebook. In January The Digital Reader (and Shelf Awareness) reported on Amazon’s testing title-specific Kindle gift cards — I don’t know whether the test is still on-going, and what may have been learned. The Digital Reader post mentions a few other similar failed initiatives.