31 October 2011

Reading Between the Buy One Give One Lines

After a book has finished its task of entertaining or informing a reader, it will find space to occupy on a shelf, the floor, a friend's hands, a landfill, or a buyer. It may travel around a bit, but will eventually come to rest in a place where it will never again be taken in by a person's eyes. Better World Books (BWB) developed to provide a new space for finished texts to find new readers, in the hands of people who need them.

College students need books each semester. With all the fees necessary to be a student, reducing costs becomes imperative. By setting up donation bins on college campuses, BWB hit the population that goes through many books that they never want to open again and provides them to other students who need those used books at a cheap price.

With the income earned selling the donated books, BWB has been able to use the proceeds to fund education programs. Since starting 9 years ago, BWB has funded $10 million in education programs both domestically and abroad. Additionally, because of such a large stock of books, BWB has donated 5 million books worldwide. With updated textbooks hard to come by in parts of the world, BWB has been able to bring university students the latest editions of science and technical books.

With a well-established model, BWB did something strange; they made an announcement that they would join the ranks of TOMS and implement the buy-one-give-one model. The campaign, called Book for Book, says that BWB will donate one book for every book purchased. Their announcement sparked the interest of some news sources like Fast Company, who touted the new initiative. What struck me was that nobody was asking why.

The stories linked BWB to TOMS, were written in an excited tone, said what BWB has accomplished and concluded. Having already donated a significant amount of books, why was BWB changing its model? Would this have an impact on the cost of books? Will they need more donations to keep up with the match? What impact will this flood of books have on local markets?

Seeking to learn more, I began a twitter conversation with the BWB account which led to a phone call with VP of Marketing John Ujda. When I asked why the change he said, "It is not so much a change for Better World Books, rather it is adding a commitment to what we are already doing." He pointed out that this would not impact the mission of BWB, which is to support the development of education. "Literacy is more than having books," Mr. Ujda said, "Our mission continues to be to improve the access to education."

Through our conversation I learned that the likening BWB to TOMS was not very accurate. Both now operate the buy-one-give-one model and believe in the triple bottom line, but that is where the similarities end. TOMS has shifted slightly with its eye care initiative, but it still is mainly an international shoe distribution channel. BWB incorporates the distribution of books into its model because of necessity rather than mission. With so many donated books and textbooks that are useless after the newest edition is released, book distribution is a way to fill a need and prevent books from being the latest addition to a local landfill.

The hope of the new initiative is to grow interest. Mr. Ujda lamented that people have such a short attention span that it is hard to catch their interest. Buy-one-give-one does so in four short words. With that, he hopes that people can learn more about how the BWB model works and become supporters of education, not just free books. The trick will be in making that transition.

The paradox of raising awareness and transferring it to lasting understanding remains unsolved. What is encouraging is that this growth of understanding is a part of the goal of the Books for Books campaign. Since it has only just begun it is impossible to evaluate if it will be effective, but I am optimistic.

The majority of donations go through Feed the Children, a domestic nonprofit. The books that are sent internationally are for the most part textbooks for university students. This means that the recipients will already have a fluency in English and the donations are filling a space that is not presently being adequately served.

This does raise concerns in regards to language and markets. Additionally, distributing books for free means that they will not be sourced through local means. As seen in the second-hand clothing market, the sale of extremely cheap clothing has a damaging impact on the growth of the textile industries in countries like Tanzania and Kenya. It has also increased access by providing quality clothing at a low price.

While hard to quantify, it is possible that giving away free books could have a similar effect. Local publishers could be squeezed out because they cannot compete with a free product. The benefit is that students are receiving books now rather than waiting for the publishing industry to catch up or paying high prices for the $100+ text books to be shipped from England.

Recent reports show that universities throughout Africa are woefully behind while NGOs focus on lower levels of education. Though books do not fix everything, providing the recourses and increasing access can have a positive impact on the English-speaking universities that receive textbook donations from Better World Books.