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Literacy Award Winner First Book CEO Discusses Marketplace Innovation

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David Rubenstein, benefactor of the 2016 Library of Congress Literacy Awards, interviews Rubenstein Prize winner Kyle Zimmer, President and CEO of First Books, February 17, 2016. Photo by Shawn Miller.
David Rubenstein, benefactor of the 2016 Library of Congress Literacy Awards, interviews Rubenstein Prize winner Kyle Zimmer, President and CEO of First Book, February 17, 2016. Photo by Shawn Miller.

(The following is a guest post by Guy Lamolinara, communications officer in the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress.)

Demonstrating a pioneering approach to increasing literacy levels is a key component in a successful application for a Library of Congress Literacy Award, and First Book fulfills that criterion through its marketplace innovation.

The 2015 Rubenstein Prize winner of $150,000, First Book, based in Washington, D.C., and established in 1992, has given away more than 160 million books to young people, many of whom have never had a book to call their own. First Book also distributes books at a very low cost to purchasers.

“It’s two jet engines,” said First Book CEO Kyle Zimmer in an interview with the philanthropist David M. Rubenstein, who provides funding for the awards program, which is administered by the Library of Congress Center for the Book.

“One is called the First Book National Book Bank,” Zimmer continued. “We designed that on our understanding of the book industry. … There’s a tremendous backflow of inventory. And so we went to the publishers and we said, ‘Do you give those books away?’ And they did what they could. But it’s a very expensive thing to manage. So we stepped into that space and built the first system of its kind that now manages the lion’s share of contributed books from the publishing industry. That’s the Book Bank.

“And then there’s the marketplace. …The marketplace is when we buy the inventory from the publishers. What we said to the publishers in that instance is, ‘The market for books is constrained to the top veneer of socioeconomic strata. And what we will do is we’ll go out and aggregate the base of the pyramid. So we will pay for aggregation. We will buy on a non-consignment, a non-returnable basis.’ And that was music to their ears of course.”

You can see the full interview with Zimmer and learn more about the other award winners by viewing our webcast.

If you are an organization doing innovative work, or know of another worthy organization, that has a proven record of decreasing illiteracy, then an application to the Library of Congress Literacy Awards should be on your to-do list. The application process is easy and the payoff could be an award of $150,000 or $50,000. For more information, go to

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