Follow-up to Better World Books Article
Better World has both supporters and detractors.
By Susan Halas
November's lead story on Better World Books of Mishawaka, Indiana, not only attracted a greater than usual number of readers, but also evoked quite a bit of response both directly to AE and in the form of long running threads on various dealer and collector lists. We are following up with two unedited responses that we hope will help clarify the practices of the firm and the concerns of traditional book dealers.
We thank Better World Books for being kind enough to host our visit and also thank the many dealers, collectors and library patrons who wrote to express their opinion.
AE Monthly Writer
Reach Susan at email@example.com
Response to Article from Better World Books
By Tara Gilchrist
Head Antiquarian, Rare and Collectible Department
It was with pleasure that we welcomed Susan and AE readers to our warehouse, and we were happy to show her around and answer her questions. She was able to speak to executives and employees, to dig in our boxes and poke through our shelves.
Her viewpoint is that of a "bookseller", a traditional bookseller from the "old school". We understand and respect that tradition of knowledge and the craft of bookselling, and seek to keep the best of those traditions while using the book to make a powerful social impact. While Susan's article was fairly thorough, we appreciate the opportunity to clarify three points in particular.
It's not clear in the article that the tipper is only used for thrift books - not the books the libraries send us, or from campus book drives. It's used for the books that we purchase outright from the thrift stores, which arrive in big, unwieldy Gaylords. No client is losing any value with the tipper, as we outright own those books. The tipper makes it easier to sort the shoes, belts, and headless Barbie dolls from the actual books. No mention was made in the article of our improving that process, which has been underway for several months.
It was curious to read Susan's comment about the lack of intellectuals in our crowd; if it meant grumpy, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking, bushy-browed types, then that would be accurate. We apply our considerable intellect to designing the best programs for libraries, our customers, and those supported by our literacy partners.
As for the sensationalized headline of "Cultural Strip Mining": we are saving many books, every day, which may have otherwise been lost: from the $10 German-language 1940 agriculture report to Peter Force's Declaration of Independence to signed Picasso lithographs, we sell books to the curious, collectors, academics, libraries, and booksellers, at a fair price.
Calling out libraries for "letting these books go" without understanding where they are going is uninformed at best. The needs of academic and public libraries are constantly changing. Their primary directive is to provide relevant books and materials to their constituents, and they excel at this. They operate with a different definition of "value" than booksellers: libraries, without a doubt, value their culture and communities, and they are called to respond to those fluctuating needs in a timely manner. Booksellers value money. Librarians have a different skill set, and a different bottom line, than those of booksellers: they work hard to balance traditional needs with modern demands to best serve their public. Booksellers, on the other hand, work hard to generate the best profit: Susan has been selling books for over 60 years, and she's still learning new things, keeping up with changing markets and sales venues... every good bookseller is always doing these things, and cataloging books, and talking with customers... Librarians are dedicated to keeping up with the needs and values of an entire community; booksellers have other bottom-line priorities.
I believe we need to give the libraries a big round of applause. They are constantly seeking means to support their communities by providing them with a specific kind of immediate, cultural value, and finding homes for the books which no longer suit those needs. They do this under enormous pressure from their directors, under tight budget constraints, and with insufficient time to do the task. I suggest that Susan attend the summer ALA conference; I believe that Susan would do both librarians and booksellers a great service by writing a story about the choices and challenges of today's librarians, both academic and public; perhaps she will not be as critical after listening to librarians from all walks.
Follow-up to Better World Books Article
Response to BWB article from Balopticon Books, Delmar, NY
Nice article on BWB Susan, and not nearly as fluffy as we usually see. They have done some good for literacy, they are employing Americans, and I like the uniform shipping rates and money back guarantee and certain other things, but for me this all raises more questions than it answers, as follows.
-When you say the BWB model does not "make them a lot of friends among the older generation of booksellers," you leave out the reasons why, which may not be apparent even to the average reader of Americana Exchange. On their About Us page they still claim to be "The Online Bookstore with a Soul." This will always rub many independent online booksellers the wrong way, no matter how defenders parse it. Then there is the completely unprofessional way they list the vast majority of their books, the one-size-fits-all boilerplate in place of actual condition description, and insane prices on the high end (and software pricing is no excuse for so many paperbacks priced in the thousands). I asked them about the condition of a fairly expensive book once and got a generic reply because they could not be bothered to inspect their own wares. The ARC (that acronym is already taken in the book trade) department is another matter, with over 60,000 better titles entered by "real, live" catalogers, but you can see them struggling with the selection (broken sets that nobody wants even when complete, hopeless textbooks from 1992 only because their software says it is scarce, etc.) and the description (pretty wordy and cringey at times). And so many of these are ex-library titles on the not-uncommon side, which real collectors just don't want.
-"The determination of what has value happens very rapidly and is done for the most part by computers." What is the general nature of the algorithms they use and how do they arrive at the value of a book in such a hurry when there are so many variables, especially for pre-ISBN titles?
-"Books that do not meet the BWB value thresholds are either shipped to literacy partners or sent by the container load to be recycled for such uses such as paper napkins." What percentage of these rejects go to literacy partners, as opposed to recycling facilities? The recycling part sounds ominous, like mass extermination. Many of them could probably find a good home in a regular library sale run by local volunteers, where all the income goes to the library. They boast over 36 million books saved from landfills but they sound like the biggest book killers in the world. And getting 100,000 books a day or whatever the figure is to Indiana from all over the country must leave an enormous carbon footprint (I know they claim 17,000 tons of carbon offset but that seems like the probable pennies on a dollar they actually donate to charity when all is said and done).
-"Payment is made on a sliding scale that ranges from about 15% for low value books to 50% for books worth $500 or more." How do libraries know they are getting everything promised from the initial valuation right through to final payment? Can they ask for a full report on what is essentially a consignment some years down the road?
-"Books in Gaylords are treated roughly; if they weren't wrecked by the time they got to Mishawaka, what's left after BWB has taken a fast look is, in many cases, waste paper." If true this makes one wonder why they bother. Are they just looking for sturdy textbooks with higher price tags that can stand such awful treatment or what?
-"Though they are readers, friends of literacy, book lovers all…" All? I'm picturing some forklift drivers, sorters, accountants and tax lawyers who might not fit that description.
-"Any dealer can put out donation boxes…" Nice thought but BWB pulls this off by half masquerading as a non-profit. I don't think my town or university would agree to personal donation boxes.
Follow-up to Better World Books Article
-"Also very few more traditional booksellers are as young, smart, hip, quick, hard working, coordinated and pleasant to deal with as this fast paced crew." Good point, but I don't know about the "hard working" part, as many of us work hard too in shifts longer than eight hours a day, though in a hand crafted rather than a brute force way; and many pickers are "pleasant" but they are ripping you off at the same time. And that raises another question I always have, about some of these books going home in knapsacks to be sold on the side. This must be an issue for outfits like BWB.
-"In all the years I've been buying and selling antiquarian books, and all the years my parents did it before me, I have never once heard the words "business plan" mentioned..." They should be compared to companies like AbeBooks, Alibris, and especially Amazon - all of which have business plans - rather than to traditional booksellers.
-Are the "funds raised for global literacy" totaling close to $9 million so far in cash, or does the value of donated books count toward that? I am not sure I get the "literacy" part either. Presumably most of these books are in English, going to classes that already speak English, as in the video they provide in which young folks say they want to become doctors, etc. It seems like "education" would be a better word, though it isn't quite as appealing to those who would give to charity.
-"I hope that the decisions to dump thousands of volumes from academic libraries has a rationale behind it that is more substantial than the limited revenue stream these books may eventually generate and the space their absence will make for newer and more recent acquisitions."
Your insightful comments under "Cultural Strip Mining" are the best thing I have read yet about why research and academic libraries in particular should be very hesitant to work with companies like BWB. My biggest surprise as a librarian was the realization that a significant number in the profession (often tending toward administration) are actually not very fond of older books and journals. Budget cuts, digitization, and renting subscription databases have provided cover for not buying new books and weeding out old ones, and now BWB comes along to cart the bodies off. The book is not dead with the advent of these new technologies, of course, but research libraries should hold on to their older materials in original artifact form, as they will be of even greater use and interest in the decades to come as their comrades perish or fall into private hands. Microformat and digital counterparts and subscription databases are rife with problems, including missing and unreadable pages and degraded images and homogenization. Libraries need to start thinking of these items as museums think of their own collections. Libraries will be able to leverage these original materials in the decades to come in ways that can barely be imagined now if they can only hold on through this current onslaught against the printed word.
The other huge issue with BWB is that they seem like charlatans to many of us. The founders say up front that they are for profit, right there in the small print, but they also take great pains to make the whole thing seem like a green charity, and library boards and administrators more interested in expediency than mission or legacy buy right into that. I would feel better about BWB if they could make a living from thrift store rejects and on-campus donation boxes rather than from community donation boxes and the deforestation of tax-supported libraries. It would be interesting to see the salary structures within this corporation too.
BWB has gotten tons of good press because it sounds like (and in many ways is) such a feel-good story, but some day an investigative reporter will get the inside scoop or gain access to the financial records, and we will see that you can't always judge a book by its cover. I agree that we should ignore BWB at our peril--especially at the cultural peril of research library collections--but they thrive under cover of charity and I don't think that is the wave of the future.
Reach Shawn Purcell at firstname.lastname@example.org