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Information Scotland

The Journal of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

ISSN 1743-5471

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October 2008 Volume 6(5)

Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

Books and reading

Books for a better world

If you are looking for an ethical, easy and profitable way to clear out unwanted books, a US organisation is setting up in Edinburgh to serve just this purpose in the UK. Information Scotland found out all about it from UK Development Director Hannah Smith.

Better World Books (BWB) is a social business that targets illiteracy by collecting used books from libraries and bookstores, and selling them on more than 17 online marketplaces. This generates funding for both libraries and non-profit literacy initiatives. BWB was set up in 2002 in Indiana by three graduates who realised that some good could come from selling on old textbooks otherwise destined for the landfill – and now it is establishing a UK base, in Edinburgh.

BWB has raised more than £2.4m for literacy organisations from its US operation. It has its own socially responsible online bookselling site, and will soon be launching a UK version. With specialist knowledge of rare, antiquarian and collectible books, plus the use of proprietary software that means books are priced according to market demand, it endeavors to get the right price for each book.

IS: Why are you expanding to the UK?
Hannah Smith: In terms of what we can offer libraries, we provide a service that doesn’t seem to exist in the UK on a national scale. My personal motivation for being involved is to ‘do good things with old books’ – and it struck me from the beginning that what BWB does is exceptional in terms of scale, professionalism and positive impact.

Why did you decide to base your UK operation in Edinburgh? 
Edinburgh is the first UNESCO City of Literature and an exceptionally dynamic place for all book lovers. This, combined with Scotland’s encouragement of incoming business, seemed to be an unmissable opportunity. Our base just outside of Edinburgh will serve the UK as a whole – and we are already working with a couple of libraries outside the UK and talking to some interested librarians in the Republic of Ireland.

What have you achieved so far over here?
We are already working with libraries and charity shops around the country and uplifting large quantities of unwanted books on demand. We have also formed partnerships with two national charities – the National Literacy Trust and READ International. So far, we are seeing an extremely positive response to our service. There are more partners in the pipeline and we are always open to approaches if anyone has a literacy cause in mind.

Is the setup going to be similar to the US business?
We’ll be importing the systems that work well in the States but adapting them as necessary, to make the most of any interesting opportunities. For example, we are working in close collaboration with READ International on an exciting university book collection project, which will see a greater percentage of each book’s sale price going directly to them. We are also working with charity shops – which don’t exist in quite the same form in the US. We are always open to new ideas.

How do libraries make money from their donations?
While the specific terms of our individual arrangements are confidential, typically a library could expect to receive 15% of the net sale price of each book sent to us that we are able to sell. More details on the procedure are given in an Information Pack available from our website.

How will you be selling the books that you collect in the UK?
All the saleable books we collect are listed across multiple online marketplaces – giving them the best possible chance of sale. We have customers worldwide. We take particular care over any that have antiquarian or collectable value and we have significant expertise in this area.

How does the book donating work in practical terms? Is it an easy procedure for interested libraries?
Absolutely! We’ve already got some glowing testimonials from people brave enough to be ‘guinea pigs’ in the UK. We aim for it to be as easy as possible for people to work with us. The service is free for the participating library. It’s also an environmentally sound solution to the problem of surplus books and, by following some simple guidelines, the library can make money too. Practically speaking, there is not much involved beyond packing up the boxes. We will shortly be launching our ‘Client Portal’ too – where libraries can organise next-day pick-ups at the click of a button.

You have also saved metal shelving from libraries in the US – do you intend to do this here?
Yes. We’re still on the look out for shelving so would appreciate contact from your readers!

In what other ways is BWB involved in literacy work in the US? Will you replicate this in the UK?
In the US, BWB employees have paid volunteering time as standard – and many use it to tutor others in the community who have difficulty with reading and writing. We are looking forward to starting up some similar initiatives in Scotland. 

What is your ‘proprietary software’ work that allows you to price books according to market demand?
Essentially our software – called ‘Indaba’ (a Zulu word meeting ‘getting together to do business’) is an automated marketplace management system (and it was created by us). It has extremely sophisticated pricing functions, meaning we get the best possible price on each individual marketplace for every single book.

BWB is sure to appeal to librarians’ sense of ‘giving something back’, recycling, and most of all helping literacy. What would you say to readers to urge them to get involved?
Give us a try! You can’t lose - it’s a free service, your surplus books will be kept out of landfill and you can make money for your libraries and some great charities too. If it wasn’t already free, we wouldn’t hesitate to offer a money back guarantee of satisfaction!

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Information Scotland Vol. 6(5) October 2008

© Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

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Last updated: 16-Jan-2009