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Building better world a book at a time

  • Story Highlights
  • Three partners build business on used college textbooks, library volumes
  • Better World Books brings in and sends out 40,000 to 50,000 books daily
  • Revenue has grown from $4 million in 2005 to a projected $31 million in 2009
  • Five to 10 percent of revenue donated to libraries, literacy programs
By Stephanie Elam
CNN
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MISHAWAKA, Indiana (CNN) -- "What should I do with my used textbooks?"

Xavier Helgesen of Better World Books and his partners say  they have a small business plan others can follow.

Xavier Helgesen of Better World Books and his partners say they have a small business plan others can follow.

That's a question many college students have pondered. But for Xavier Helgesen and his partners, Kreece Fuchs and Jeff Kurtzman, that question laid the foundation for their company, Better World Books.

"We just thought, like, wow, there are all these books out there that the bookstores are just saying, 'No, I don't want it,' but there's totally value in those books," Helgesen said.

"You just gotta get them efficiently up on the Internet and then someone will buy them."

Since the university bookstore wouldn't buy back their used textbooks, the founders tried selling the books on the eBay company half.com. The books sold like "gangbusters," Helgesen said, for about $50 each.

From there the partners began holding book drives. In one drive in 2002, they collected 2,000 books and then sold them for $20,000 the next autumn. That success led to other drives, but textbooks couldn't sustain the business alone. So Better World Books began reaching out to libraries.

"We went to the American Library Association conference with kind of a one page printed pamphlet that said, 'We'll sell your books,' and we heard all these horror stories," Helgesen said.

"We heard of libraries having to dump books down a well at midnight because they weren't allowed to even recycle them, but they didn't have any room on their shelves and they needed a home for these old books.

"Once we started doing that ... we get twice as many books from libraries now than we do from college campuses." Video Watch Helgesen talk about how the company got started »

Every day, Better World brings in 40,000 to 50,000 books, and the company says they send just as many out. Now with more than 2 million books in their Mishawaka, Indiana, warehouse at any given time, the owners of Better World Books said they think they have a book for everyone -- and a small business plan others can follow.

Maintaining a successful small business, one that continues to grow in a recession, is no easy feat.

After funding the business themselves for the first five years, the founders got a Small Business Administration-backed credit line in 2004, followed by a $2.4 million venture capital investment in 2008.

They used the funding to build up their Web site and the Better World Books brand. As other small businesses have struggled, Helgesen and his partners have seen their revenues grow, from $4 million a year in 2005 to a projected $31 million in 2009. And all the time they are helping others buy books they might not ordinarily be able to afford.

The cheapest books sell for about $3.50 each, and all of the books are shipped at no cost to customers -- whether they buy 5 or 500 books at a time. The average order is for three or four books. But textbook deals remain at the heart of the Better World Books business.

"We've gone through great lengths to build a business where we bring in tons and tons of college textbooks," Helgesen said.

"What's cool about us is we post them at about market level, so some of the books will only be about 20 or 30 percent off, so they may still be $80 to $90. Some other ones are 90 percent off, so you may be getting a $100 book for $10, and that happens every day here."

For Helgesen, Fuchs and Kurtzman, giving back is a vital part of the operation. Better World Books donates 5 to 10 percent of its revenue back into the hands of libraries and literacy programs around the world.

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And what about the books that still don't sell even at Better World Books? If a book doesn't sell and isn't fit for donation, the company will ship it off for recycling.

"We actually audit our recycler," Helgesen said. "We go there and see what they do, we check who they sell to and try to make sure they're being ethical and not just lighting a big bonfire with the books."

CNN Producer Ben Tinker contributed to this report.

All About American Library AssociationU.S. Small Business Administration

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