Giving Back

Better World Books

Whether hardcover, paperback, magazine or eBook, most of us read for enjoyment and to acquire information – much as you are doing right now. Better World Books was founded in 2002 by three friends from the University of Notre Dame who decided to sell textbooks online; but what began as a rather simple venture grew into a business with a mission to promote literacy.

John Ujda, the Vice President of Marketing at Better World Books, has fallen in love with books of all kinds, and believes that what the company has done has truly made a difference in the lives of budget conscious students all over the world – helping the environment all the while. With bases in Georgia and Indiana, the company offers a socially responsible way of reusing unwanted books from schools, libraries and other sources.

The company co-founders graduated from the University of Notre Dame right into the collapse of the dot.com bubble. Encountering a need to make a bit of money, they attempted to resell their textbooks and quickly found that they were being offered a pittance for formerly expensive texts. Instead, they put them for sale online, where they found quite a different market. “After a few days, there was an ‘a-ha’ moment as they were able to get half of the retail cost of the books as opposed to a mere fraction of what a struggling student would have paid,” explains John.

The founders wanted to “make a difference while making a living,” says John, and held their very first book drive at Notre Dame. The approximately two thousand books sold within a week, raising ten thousand dollars for the Learning Center. When they realized that this could be done at every campus across America, they spread out to orchestrate book drives across the country.

John says the company has grown into where it is today simply by finding unwanted books and then putting these books for sale online. “Every time we sell a book, part of the funds go to non-profit literacy charities that are in operation around the world,” he shares. “We have been around for ten years and in that time we have raised over fifteen million dollars for libraries and literacy and we have donated about ten million books.” Better World Books also sells new titles in addition to supporting book drives.

Through a network of over 2,300 college campuses and partnerships with more than three thousand libraries across the nation, the organization collects used textbooks and other books. To date, the company has collected over 117 million books, the sales of which have translated into over $15 million in funding for literacy and education.

Each year, libraries must make room for new books. Millions of excess books are put into storage or end up as garbage. To save both the books and the planet, the company has partnered with librarians nationwide, enabling it to sell the books while raising money for the libraries themselves. Better World Books estimates it has diverted over 73,000 tons of books from landfills through its efforts. Although most books are cleaned up and are able to sold, not all can be salvaged. “This is something that has been brought up over the years,” says John. “For trade books, we are working with certified recyclers.”

There has, of course, been some movement in academia toward online textbooks, but the up-take has been slow. Even with the prevalence of physical books, however, John notes that obtaining used textbooks for sale is not as easy as one might think. “The dealing in textbooks is a very cyclical business and it is feast or famine,” he explains. In order to get the most out of potential resources, the company has organized the Green Drop Book Boxes project in the last couple of years. These have been appearing all over the Eastern United States and the program is expanding, with all books going back for sorting to the company’s central location in Indiana.

Better World Books operates proactive donation programs as well as traditional student-run book drives and collection areas. Book stores are beginning to partner with Better World Books as well, with bins for donation appearing in stores. “Our situation is win/win,” says John. “The industry is very competitive, and on the library side we do head to head bidding for library books; on the sell side, there are thousands of people competing. What we do to stay ahead of the curve is to be more than just a bookseller.”

Chief Executive Officer Mike Miller agrees, “We have also become really good at moving books around and at applying analysis to know what books will sell, how fast and at what price.”

Mike describes the company as a triple-bottom-line company; people and the planet, in addition to profit, are used as metrics of business success. “We focus on social, environmental and economic outcomes equally,” he says, adding that, “Although we’re a purpose-driven organization, being for-profit has let us take on growth capital to scale our impact without grants or cash donations.”

While it is important that the business do well, a policy of social and environmental responsibility remains at the core. The company believes that education and access to books are basic human rights. Books sold through the company’s website help fund literacy projects around the world and every purchase on the website is matched with a book donation to literacy programs in need.

To keep up with the company’s impressive growth rate, John says that the business is almost always looking to hire interns. “When we are hiring, we are looking for a cultural and core values fit. We are a very different type of company. We like to give back, and of course we are looking for candidates with skills; but overall we are looking for that ‘give back’ mentality. Some may be more passionate about the environment and others are far more excited about the literacy side.”

In the future, Mike predicts that the company will continue to undergo substantial changes, as it has throughout its history. “I would anticipate things like more reliance on automation to achieve scale, use of better selling technologies, further logistics optimization, leverage of the electronic book space, and expansion beyond books.” He says that the company has continuously adapted to accommodate both market conditions and, with its ten year revenue compound annual growth rate of sixty-six percent, its increased scale. Indeed, this growth has placed Better World Books on the Inc. 5000 fastest growing private companies list for five years in a row. The company has also received an award for social innovation.

John says that his biggest challenge in marketing is just making people aware of the company and how it operates. “If I could just get people’s attention for two minutes, they will never buy a book anywhere else. Having said that, I just think there is this interesting and growing movement of social consciousness among consumers and in businesses.”

Indeed, people have the opportunity to choose where and how they shop and many times, ethical considerations form a part of their decision-making process. “Not every business can do what we’re doing, and I would love to challenge managers and business owners to be cognisant of that and be thinking about how their business can have an impact. Often what you find, when you take that step, is the consumers of your product are so appreciative of what you’ve done, they become more loyal.”

Mike agrees that, “Trusted relationships built on our mission – the combination of excellence in logistics and analytics – is what makes us tick. People contribute books to us because they trust us.”

Better World Books believes that nearly all books have value. As it helps to find new homes for unwanted books, it has the potential to help change the world.

October 20, 2017, 1:58 PM EDT

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