It’s a story of hundreds of books, thousands of books, millions and billions of books—or, at least, 80 million of them. This week literacy group First Book announced that it had delivered that many titles to underprivileged kids in its 18-year existence.
In 2010 alone, First Book distributed 7.5 million books—4.8 million through its free National Book Bank, which is a clearinghouse for books donated by its publishing partners, and 2.7 million through its deeply discounted online bookstore, First Book Marketplace, which sells exclusively to Title I schools and programs serving disadvantaged children.
Next year First Book hopes to double the number of books it distributes—despite recent declines in philanthropic giving nationwide and publishers’ shrinking inventories of unused books that can be given away. “We would love to get to 14 or 15 million books in 2011,” said CFO Jane Robinson.
To reach more kids, First Book is working to expand its Marketplace program, which does not rely on publisher donations. “Print runs are decreasing in size,” explained Kyle Zimmer, First Book president and co-founder. “With emerging technology like print on demand, the number of books in excess inventory is likely to go down.”
The program also lets publishers sell books to a new market for them. The Title I organizations served by the Marketplace can range from after-school programs to programs in church basements and homeless shelters to drop-in centers for teens. “If we do our work right and well, and we hold hands with these wonderful leaders on the publishing side, not only are we going to give kids that opportunity to be readers, but we’re also going to be contributing to a stronger, more vibrant publishing industry,” said Zimmer.
As more programs and kids sign up, First Book gets more “buying power” on their behalf, said Arnold. Right now it offers about 1,200 titles but would like to reach 2,000 in the next few months, said Zimmer. Publishers like the program because First Book buys its books on a nonreturnable basis. Even with prices 50 to 90 percent off retail, said Chandler Arnold, First Book’s executive v-p, “the publishers make a profit off a market they could never serve before.”
First Book never sells books that publishers donate to its Book Bank. But if a participating program cannot drive to a distribution site, it pays a 35-cents-per-book shipping and handling charge per book. To be eligible for the Book Bank, a program must serve a population that’s at least 80 percent from low-income homes.
The nonprofit will also continue to work with big-name authors such as Jon Scieszka, Mo Willems, Rosemary Wells, Laura Numeroff, Walter Dean Myers, James Patterson, and William Joyce. Scieszka, for example, took part in a joint campaign with First Book and Cheerios earlier this year.
And while Arnold couldn’t discuss First Book’s next campaign, the organization will continue to collaborate with corporations, most recently Target. First Book is one of four beneficiaries of Target’s “Give Joy” Facebook campaign, which lets people pick a “wish list” of items and submit it. For each list Target receives between December 12 and 18, it gives $5 to First Book.
But the nonprofit is not resting on its laurels. Zimmer noted that between 2008 and 2009, the poverty rate for kids under 18 increased from 19 to 20.7 percent. “As delighted as we are with 80 million,” Zimmer said, “that’s hardly scratching the surface of what needs to be done.”