On the upper floors of a nondescript building in the heart of Washington, First Book, a 25 year-old nonprofit, orchestrates a pioneering national distribution network that gets free and affordable low-cost books and educational materials—170 million since 1992—into the hands of educators and community leaders who work with children in low-income communities. Working with publishers across the industry to supply its two e-commerce sites—donated inventory for the First Book National Book Bank, and new discounted titles for the First Book Marketplace—First Book is able to supply educators who have little or no funds with books and other materials. First Book also turns to corporate partners and other organizations for financial support to assist its mission.
“Education is a child’s best path out of poverty,” says Chandler Arnold, First Book’s chief operating officer. “First Book provides educators serving children in need with the books and resources these kids need to thrive. Our model is not traditional, and that is precisely one reason we love what we do so much.”
Arnold says the organization’s website provides it with “models [that] allow us to work with hundreds of thousands of educators to identify unmet needs, aggregate this demand, and then provide access to free and affordable resources at an increasingly unprecedented scale.”
In order to prevent misuse, only approved eligible educators serving kids in need or military families can join, and about 1,000 do that every week. The materials those educators access represent a wide swath of bestselling and essential titles, from John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down in carton quantities discounted 64% per book to the board book Little Blue Truck at 46% off the retail price.
But First Book has gone beyond simply establishing relationships with publishers to get books to educators in need. The organization uses the insights it gleans from working with and hearing from educators to go a step further, sometimes even leading to the production of books in alternative, affordable formats that would otherwise not have been possible.
In recent years, the organization’s projects include partnering with the National Education Association to provide diverse children’s titles exclusively through the First Book Marketplace, as well as a research initiative that yielded a First Book Needs Index, which allows funders to track “resource deserts” that lack books and educational infrastructure.
First Book’s ability to foot the costs for some books has also allowed publishers to experiment. The first run of a dual-language Eric Carle title was made possible because of First Book’s interest and initial buy-in, which helped the publisher cover initial production costs for a higher print run, allowing the title to be introduced to the trade market.
“We fully understand the constraints and pressures facing the publishing industry, and that is why we developed our models to help lower the costs of books and resources for educators serving kids in need, while still providing a profit margin for publishers,” says Kyle Zimmer, president and CEO of First Book. “In addition to inspiring children’s love of reading, these books and resources provide the on-ramp for educators to further understanding and empathy and to support social and emotional learning.”