Better or Not? Better World Books adds Donation Boxes, A Book Drive for Haiti and a Partnership with Powell’s to the Mix April 28, 2010 – Tags: , ,

It has been a couple of years since we profiled Better World Books here at Book Patrol. I thought it a good time touch base with them.

I talked with BWB co-founder Xavier Hegelsen about some of their recent initiatives. Though I still have my doubts about whether or not their model is one that is beneficial to the book world at large it is clear that are continuing to increase their footprint on the book universe.

Better World Books warehouse in Mishawaka, Ind. Image by Steve Kagan for The New York Times

Book Donation Boxes

Book Patrol: I did a story back in May about the Book Donation boxes of Thrift Recycle Management. What I found was that of all the books donated about half end up getting pulped, 25% end up going to non-profits and the rest are offered for sale through TRM. Few of the books end up in the communities in which they were donated.

Does BWB approach to the donation box differ from the approach of TRM? and if so how? Is the money received for books that are pulped including in the equation when calculating the amounts for your literacy partners?

Have any more been added since the 5 boxes in South Bend and the 25 in Atlanta were deployed? What benchmarks are you looking for before expanding nationally?

Xavier Helgensen: As you know, our primary goal is to put books back into circulation — this provides revenue, money for our literacy partners and keeps the books out of landfills. And while we would like to see more books recirculate in the communities where they are donated, we would need to scale up first in terms of both bins and brick and mortar stores. This is certainly a consideration, but both efforts are currently pilot programs and our focus remains on finding new and innovative ways to keep books in circulation.

One key difference between our program and TRM’s is that we provide literacy funding through every book we sell. I believe TRM donates books, but does not raise cash for non-profits. We donate both cash and books. The money we receive from recyclers is highly variable and sometimes they do not pay anything. A revenue share on this would not be material, and at any rate, it is built into the business model. Another way of saying that is that the revenue shares are set with the assumption that there will be some minimal cost recovery from recycling from time to time.

Haiti Book Drive

BP: First, good for you guys for undertaking such a needed program. How is the program going? Is BWB happy with the results to date? How is it that BWB is only donating 50% of the net sales to the project? Why not 100%? You are basing it on net sales, which I assume means you are deducting your expenses beforehand.

XH. Because we hope and expect this effort to run for years, we believe a business model is better suited for a project like this than pure charity. While net sales takes out our direct costs, any indirect costs (rent, utilities, servers, salaries) are not taken out. So, this venture would become a money losing venture fighting for priority
with the many other charitable things we do that do not lose money.

We essentially found the best partner we could in Haiti, allocated the maximum we could to funding them while still running a business, and made it a part of the company for a long time. And, in addition to an outright grant of $10,000 we made to Haiti relief when we launched the program, we are also very transparent about the amount that goes to Haiti. Finally, as for results, it is really too early to tell — it often takes 6-12 months to see how a program like this works out.


BP: I am interested to hear more about your new partnership with Powell’s. How did the partnership come about? Will the potential volume of material coming from them necessitate any infrastructure changes? Will their be any co-branding or will the material simply be absorbed into the existing BWB world.

XH: The partnership evolved as we realized that Better World Books and Powell’s have different but complementary customer bases and sales channels. Books that Powell’s could no longer hold due to space constraints or lack of demand from their customers could still have a shot at finding a home on the shelves of Better World Books. We are also able to find homes for a good deal of their books as donations to organizations such as Books For Africa. We’ve teamed up to raise money for Write Around Portland,
and everything seems to be going well so far.

The books from Powell’s are shipped and branded just like any other order from Better World Books. These books are a very small percentage of the total number of books that Powell’s sees, and we are lucky at Better World Books to have a lot of affordable warehouse space, so we don’t have any need to expand our footprint at this time to handle their account.

What’s Next:

BP: Any other news on the horizon that you would like to share?

XH: As for other news on the horizon… We just opened the RFP process for the next Reader’s Choice Literacy Grant. This year’s $20,000 grant went to a great group that uses dogs to help kids learn to read.
Check it out —

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