An Alternative to Destroying Overruns: A Q&A with Books for Asia Director Melody Zavala
The Asia Foundation is providing publishers with an alternative to incinerating or pulping overruns and excess stock. Through its Books for Asia program, which the foundation started in 1954, publishers may instead donate these books for distribution to remote and impoverished areas throughout the Asian continent.
Books for Asia delivers nearly one million books and educational resources to 17 countries in Asia every year. Publishers that have already partnered with the program include McGraw-Hill, John Wiley and Sons, Scholastic, W.W. Norton, Island Press and Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Melody Zavala, director of Books for Asia, spoke with Book Business Extra about the San Francisco-based nonprofit’s work and how the U.S. book publishing community can get involved.
Book Business Extra: Why should publishers consider participating in this program?
Melody Zavala: … Three-quarters [of the world’s illiterate population] live in Asia and the Pacific region. So, there’s a real need to expand literature in Asia, and over the longer term, that can create markets for publishers. … We need to create a market for English-language materials. … English materials are valuable in Asia. They’re learning English, and it’s a path [to] their country’s economic success to have information of the world …. For publishers, this means contributing to [an area] where there is more [business] opportunity. …
Some of these donated materials may have exhausted their life in the States. Oftentimes, a new edition [of a book has been] published, and they don’t want to market [the old] one. … Here’s a whole other useful life for materials that a lot of effort went into creating. It’s more satisfying than pulping these books. … It also helps reduce the environmental footprint of the industry. And in a lot of the countries we work, they have a lot less, and they value the books even more. … For publishers, it’s win, win, win—they don’t have to dispose [of] the books, it benefits the world, and it benefits themselves.
Extra: How can publishers take part in this program?
Zavala: That’s the beauty of it. We make it easy for publishers … most everything is done by e-mail. First, we start with a brief phone or e-mail conversation to get a general idea of what kind of material a publisher has for donation and when the material was published. In general, we do not accept books published before 2002, though there are exceptions. Via e-mail, we ask the publisher to give us an “offer list”—a list of the actual books they are interested in donating. This list can be generated by the publisher’s own inventory system as long as it include titles, ISBN numbers, year of publication, and the quantity available for donation. We also provide a template that publishers can fill out if they prefer. Via e-mail, we return the list with a column that indicates the quantities we can accept by title. [Then,] the publisher instructs their warehouse to fulfill the order and send the books to our warehouse in San Leandro, Calif. We send the publisher an acknowledgment letter for tax purposes, and we e-mail their communications staff to make arrangements to link their logo and Web site to ours, if desired.
For publishers who have been prior donors, they simply periodically e-mail us an offer list, we reply with quantities and titles we can distribute, and so on. … We take a look at that and turn it around in a day. … Then we allocate it to the countries [and] distribute [it] through our field offices on the ground. There are no third parties. Instead of sending it to the pulp, [the publishers] send it to us.
Extra: What types of books are most in need there?
Zavala: The short answer is everything. The more refined answer is primary, secondary and university textbooks and children’s readers. We always need more materials. … A lot of the communities we work in are print poor. The community doesn’t have a lot of material for kids to develop that interest and love for reading. Beyond that—reference materials. Books for Asia is a program of The Asia Foundation … [and] lot of its programs deal with government and law. There’s a lot of work in the legal sector, engineering and medicine.
Extra: Are there any restrictions?
Zavala: The only thing we don’t use is religious material and anything that may be really sensitive. We stay away from romance drama and fiction. We have to remember that not everything we publish in the West would be appropriate. … Our field offices work with nonprofits on the ground, [and] they have a good feel for what they need. …
Extra: What challenges do you continue to face as an organization?
Zavala: Our real challenge is to keep attracting new publisher donors and to create ways to reach communities. Our mission is not to just donate material to institutions. We want to keep getting this information to places that cannot publish. We’re not undercutting the sales of publishers in anyway. We’re talking about countries like Borneo [and] the poor states in Malaysia. The materials have to reach there by boat. In addition to coming up with the material, we have to come up with [financial] donors to help us reach the most remote places. These places have conflict. These are the most expensive [places] to reach, but they are the most in need. …