It’s that textbook-buying time of year again, and as students make their way back to school, one company is offering affordable class text materials while also helping fight international illiteracy issues.
A socially-minded enterprise, Better World Books uses some of its sales to help fund nonprofit organizations promoting literacy, by donating a book to an individual in need for every book that is sold. The company is devoted to improving international literacy, as it states that low literacy rates are alive and well in the 21st century. Currently, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates that 781,000,000 adults are illiterate, while the National Assessment of Adult Literacy states that 30,000,000 adults in just the U.S. have below-basic literacy skills.
Through its efforts, Better World Books funds global literacy projects, collects and recycles books — which would otherwise be buried in landfills — as well as offers carbon-balanced shipping.
    “In a nutshell, we try to find unwanted books that might otherwise go to landfill and we put them online for sale, and every time we sell one of those books, we donate a book to someone in need and raise funds for literacy,” John Ujda, vice president of marketing for Better World Books, said.
     The company’s roots go back to when the company’s founders, who were recent college graduates at the time, decided to sell their old textbooks online. When they sold them all within a few days, they became intrigued by the online book market and decided to hold a local book drive to collect more materials. After raking in $10,000 selling the books, the duo realized they could develop an entire business model off of the book-selling,
     While textbooks once accounted for 100 percent of the company’s sales, they now comprise only about 20 percent of it and Ujda said the company has “diversified” in recent years. The text book company offers materials in a wide range of genres — from architecture to art, biographies to cookbooks, or health and fitness books to history books. “If you can find it on Barnes & Noble or Amazon, chances are you can find it on Better World Books,” Ujda said.
     Whenever someone buys a book from Better World Books, the company donates a book to Feed the Children or Books for Africa through a program called Book-for-Book. Feed the Children distributes food and other necessities to children and their families and has filled donation backpacks with over two million children’s books. Books for Africa, however, distributes books specifically to African children with the goal of ending the “book famine” in Africa. Books for Africa has sent over 28 million books to the African continent in the 25 years the organization has existed, and officials say it has seen particular growth in the past 10 years, since it first began collaborating with Better World Books.
     “We pride ourselves on how we give books of all kinds, and they’ve expanded our ability to send books in a variety of subject areas,” Maggie Meyer, administration and communications specialist for Books for Africa, said.  According to Meyer, Better World Books provides the organization with a multitude of high-quality college textbooks as well.
     Better World Books also allows the customer to select a nonprofit partner to benefit from the sale of each book, serving the international organizations Books for Africa, The National Center for Family Literacy, Room to Read and Worldfund.
     “Each partner fulfills the literacy mission in a different way,” Ujda said.  The National Center for Family Literacy aims to create a literate America by teaching families to read together. Room to Read is a global organization that develops good reading habits among primary school-aged children and gives scholarships to girls in developing countries in Africa and Asia to ensure they complete secondary school. Worldfund, on the other hand, trains teachers from Latin America — bringing instructors from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, and Venezuela — to the U.S. to earn degrees from the American education system. So far, this efforts has reach 32,000 students in these lesser developed countries.
     Better World Books has held semester-long book drives at over 1,800 college campuses, including UCSB, and the company has raised nearly $15 million for literacy efforts worldwide.
     “In the last 10 years we have had 110 million books come through our operation. This year we’ll have half as many come through in one year. If we do a little bit better than our plan, we could actually get to the 20 million mark by the end of the fiscal year,” Ujda said.
A version of this article appeared on page 10 of the September 26, 2013 print issue.