Books Without Illumination

June 15, 2012       Patrick Sullivan      

An eight-year-old boy sprints to the mailbox on a Saturday morning. Waiting is a small package, addressed not to his mother or father but to him, from an organization called PJ Library in West Springfield, Mass. He rips it open and finds a book. He feels its weight, runs his fingers along the pages, flops on the couch and begins reading.

This scene is repeated in hundreds of thousands of living rooms around the country and the world, because PJ Library and other nonprofits distribute books to kids. Real books, the kind for which you need a moist finger to turn a page, rather than a warm digit swiped across a screen. With the lower price points and ease of distribution of e-books, technology would seem attractive to many of these organizations as a way to reduce costs and reach more kids. That’s all true but there is something missing.

“We’re proud of giving traditional books,” said Marcie Greenfield Simons, director of PJ Library. “We really believe in the power of traditional books that you can hold in your hand, smell, feel.”

It is this tactile experience that Simons and Director of Operations Adrian Bailey said is integral to PJ Library’s popularity. Since its founding in 2005, PJ Library has distributed nearly three million books about Jewish culture and ideals to kids aged 6 months through 8 years in the United States and Israel. Each child enrolled in the program receives 11 books and one music CD per year.

“I think what we’re talking about is how to capture that same PJ experience (with e-books),” said Bailey. “How do we recreate that running to the mailbox? How do kids get to experience receiving a gift?”

PJ Library is rare among book distribution nonprofits in that its mission is to promote Jewish culture instead of literacy. It is not a financially based program. It does not serve only low-income clients. Nonprofits that serve at risk or poverty stricken children also give far more paper books than e-books. The price of tablet computers and e-readers is often a barrier for the kids served by those nonprofits.

“In a lot of areas we serve, the kids don’t have e-readers,” said Evin Moore, founder and director of Burning Through Pages in Denver, Colo. “Long-term, it has the potential for saving money, but the money to go out and buy e-readers is a huge fee. And, kids love the new book smell. There’s something very sweet about kids loving (physical) books.”

Although neither organization has yet implemented e-books, they’re talking about it. Bailey said PJ Library is in the “very preliminary stages” of expanding its program to serve ages 9 through 12, and might implement an e-book system to distribute books to those ages. She said an app similar to iBooks or the Kindle app for iOS and Android devices might work best.

“Some things I’ve read say that kids in this age group are reading more digital,” said Bailey. “It’s not to say that all 10-year-olds have an iPad3, but when parents upgrade their technology the kids sometimes get hand-me-downs.”

Bailey is probably right. The study iLearn II: An Analysis of the Education Category of Apple’s App Store, released this past January by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, found that 80 percent of the top 200 paid apps in iTunes’ education category were geared toward users younger than 18 and nearly 50 percent of the top 25 targeted elementary school kids. Scholastic Corporation’s 2010 Kids and Family Reading Report showed that of a sample of 1,045 children aged 6 through 17, only one-quarter had read a book on an electronic device, but 57 percent said they’d like to try it.

Even a small organization like Burning Through Pages, which the 27-year-old Moore started by emptying his retirement account a year ago, is considering e-books.

“It’s definitely something we’ve talked about at length,” said Moore. “We love the idea. Kids respond great to technology.”

Though it does not distribute e-books, Burning Through Pages utilizes technology in other ways. You might have seen the These Are Your Kids On Books poster that has been making rounds on Facebook pages and Twitter feeds from New Jersey to New Zealand. It garnered more than 10,000 “likes” and nearly 10,000 shares on Facebook between April 24 and May 10. Denver artist Mike Andereck created it for Burning Through Pages. Moore loved it from the start but said he had “no idea” it would be such a hit.

“It’s a very simple but profound message: Anyone can be anything when they read a book,” he said.

It’s already making an impact. “We’ve definitely seen an increase in donations, but not a lot more,” said Moore. What they have seen, though, is interest from kids and volunteers across the nation. “It’s certainly kept us very busy the last few weeks.”

Unlike many similar nonprofits, which often serve elementary school children, Burning Through Pages focuses on teens. “The teen years are when you start to lose your love of reading,” said Moore. “It becomes a chore and a hindrance. It’s a tragedy.” To that end, Burning Through Pages does not make selections based on content, as PJ Library does, but rather on demand. “It’s not about what we think (kids) should read, it’s about what they want to read,” Moore said.

Book Worm Angels (BWA) in Chicago, Ill., is a relatively small nonprofit that distributes recreational reading materials to low-income students who might not have easy access to books. It creates lending libraries in classrooms and gets its books through approximately 200 book drives per year. It operates in an estimated 200 schools, mostly in the greater Chicago area and Indiana. It has smaller programs in South Carolina, Massachusetts and Georgia schools.

Like Burning Through Pages and PJ Library, BWA does not distribute e-books, but the organization is talking about how it can do so in the future, according to Executive Director Michael Ban.

“The future truly is the e-book,” he said. “The math makes sense. You have to buy a relatively expensive reader, but then you can upload books instead of having to ship them,” as well as get donations of usually cheaper e-books.

Ban said BWA is thinking about different ways in which it could implement an e-book program in schools. One of the ideas is a parallel program in which BWA buys an e-reader for a classroom, which the children can then take home and return. The kids keeping or losing the e-reader could be a risk, said Ban, “but our experience has been so good and our loss rate so low,” that he said it’s worth a look. BWA only loses between 5 and 7 percent of books per classroom every year.

One nonprofit that does utilize e-books is First Book, based in Washington, D.C. But, the number of e-books it distributes is infinitesimal compared to the number of traditional books. One of the largest book distribution nonprofits in the U.S., First Book has sent approximately 90 million books to more than 27,000 school and community partners since its founding in 1992. Its e-book titles number 60, all Encyclopedia Britannica.

“Primarily, we’re concerned with children gaining reading skills; it’s one of the biggest determinates of success (in later life),” said Brian Minter, director of communications for First Book. “Currently, the best way to (promote) that is through physical books.”

The e-books that First Book distributes are designed in such a way that no e-reader is necessary. Teachers can download the e-books and give students an access code to view them on school computers.

First Book last year distributed 10.5 million books. It has two distribution channels: First Book National Book Bank and First Book Marketplace. The Book Bank receives excess inventory directly from publishers, and First Book distributes them for free. The organization distributed 8.2 million books through the Book Bank in 2011.

First Book Marketplace, on the other hand, acts as an “aggregate voice,” according to Minter. Schools and programs combine their purchasing power and buy books at a discount of between 50 and 90 percent through the Marketplace. First Book distributed 2.3 million books via the Marketplace during 2011.

“Book Bank does a lot more volume, but Marketplace is the program that will be the solution for the future,” said Minter. “Book Bank does scale, but we can’t control what’s coming in. What we get depends on what (publishers) have to give. With the Marketplace, we can combine programs into one voice.”

Using the Marketplace, First Book was able to get a custom bilingual edition of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” created by Philomel Books, the imprint of Penguin Group (USA), that publishes the book, due to demand for a bilingual edition that did not previously exist. First Book added a selection of anti-bullying and conflict resolution books this year and a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) section last year based on its customers’ requests. “Marketplace scales,” said Minter. “The more programs that use the service, the lower we’ll be able to drop prices. We’re mostly reacting to curricula across the country.”

Like the other organizations, We Give Books (WGB), a project of the New York City-based Pearson Foundation, does not donate e-books to the approximately 40 organizations with which it partners. It does make digital books available, though. Users can log onto WGB’s website, and when they open up one of the 198 digital books, a physical book gets donated to one of the half-dozen campaigns running at any given time. To date, the organization has donated more than a million books since its inception in 2010.

“We Give Books connects people directly to giving,” said Adam Ray, director of alliances and communications for the Pearson Foundation. “It takes advantage of a great resource: digital children’s books. When a kid is learning to read, he or she is also learning to give. We’re trying to show young people that the little things you do can have a big effect.” WGB partners with the Penguin Group to make the digital books available for free on a website, and uses the Issuu digital publishing platform for online reading. Users select a book to read, and digitally “flip” the pages. Once the user reaches the end, a “donate books” button, previously shaded, becomes clickable. The user then selects a campaign to which to donate.

There is a one-to-one correlation between the number of books read and the number of books donated, but the books read are not usually the same as those donated. “Our gifts to our charity partners meet the needs of the partners,” said Ray. If someone reads Goodnight Moon 50 times, that doesn’t mean 50 copies of Goodnight Moon will get donated.

Prior to WGB’s launch, Ray said the organization considered donating e-books but ultimately decided against it. There are too many complications surrounding the pricing and distribution of e-books, said Ray. But, if some of those issues get worked out, WGB would consider donating e-books. “Our charter is to celebrate literacy and increase engagement,” said Ray. “We’d consider doing that in any setting.” NPT