Boost a child’s brain for 56c a day (a Book Dash talk)

This is a talk about Book Dash that I gave recently about at the World Library and Information Congress in Cape Town. I originally gave it in an earlier form at Rotary Newlands.

So, I like to imagine that I’m a pharmaceutical rep, and I’m selling a drug that’s been proven to dramatically enhance brain development in young children. It’s been proven to be safe, and it’s easy and quick to administer – in fact, children love it so much they ask for it.

Till now, only wealthy families have been able to afford the drug: till now, it cost about R6 per day, which is over R10000 by the age of five. But – now! – we’ve found a way to reduce that cost tenfold: to less than 56 cents a day (that’s USD0.05). And we reckon it’s time that, as a country, we started giving it to poor families to give their kids a boost.

That drug, of course, is a book. And we’ve found a way that just 56 cents a day can buy a child a hundred books by the age of five.1

That’s also our vision at my non-profit, Book Dash – what we want for the world: that every child should own a hundred books by the age of five.


The books in my slides (more here) were produced by teams of professional writers, illustrators and designers, volunteering their time to create new children’s books that anyone, anywhere, is free to download and adapt, translate, print, republish, sell or give away.

When you print 5000 copies or more of a book, it costs less than R10 a book. At that price, a child can have a hundred books in five years for 56 cents day.

I’ll explain how we’re making that possible, and why it’s important and special.

But, first, why do I think it’s necessary to create and give away free, paper books? Surely the publishing industry is growing the market? Surely technology is solving our problems?

I’m a book publisher, and I worked in big educational publishing companies for many years. And I happen to have an especially strong love–hate relationship with technology. I’m a keen technologist, I live and breathe technology, and yet I think technology is our age’s greatest distraction to real progress, and our biggest money waster.

Back in 2006 I left my corporate publishing job, sold my little red sports car, and struck out with some friends to start Electric Book Works, a small agency where I wanted to reimagine publishing for emerging markets, using technology sensibly and humbly.

In South Africa, our environment is so very different from the places we inherited our publishing industry from, the UK and the US in particular. We inherited royalty schemes and bookshop relationships and price points and technologies and job descriptions. But our languages, our histories, our physical spaces, our ambitions and our daily lives are different.

So the book publishing industry, as it stands, doesn’t really work here. And by ‘really work’ I mean it has not and cannot make books a part of everyone’s lives.

Over the years I’ve tried dozens of experiments to tackle this problem: I’ve published ebooks with musical soundtracks (they didn’t catch on), a self-publishing service, a youth magazine. My biggest recent project was Paperight, where I was funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation to turn copy shops into print-on-demand bookstores. And my longest-running project is Bettercare, which creates learning programmes for nurses that anyone can use online for free.

The point is to keep trying something else, anything that isn’t the usual way of doing things, because the usual way has left our country with very few, very expensive books.

After all my experimenting, I’ve come to believe that there are no ‘market solutions’ to growing a book-loving nation. For most South Africans, books are a luxury they can’t afford, not when food and clothing is already hard to come by.

Recent research from UCT’s Unilever Institute showed that most families in South Africa live on less than R6000 a month. They regularly turn off the fridge before the end of the month – they’re out of electricity, and there’s no food in it anyway. Many of them skip meals towards the end of the month. It’s mad to think they’ll ever be able to buy books, at any price.

The only way to grow readers is the hard way: we simply must give away vast numbers of free books to young children.

And this isn’t some idealistic third-world charity idea. In the UK, for eight years already, every school-going child has been given free books on World Book Day. Why do our children deserve any less?

I’m not the only one who wants to give away free books: many great non-profits are trying to do the same. The Shine Centre is a shining example. But they have to buy expensive books from publishers to do it, and there are very, very few books available that are:

  • new, high-quality stories created here
  • with scenes and characters our children recognise
  • in languages they speak
  • beautiful enough to love for a lifetime.

Who here has recently tried to buy a good, local children’s book in a bookstore? A friend recently tried to buy a book by renowned local author–illustrator Niki Daly, and found that many of his books are out of print in South Africa, even some that are still in print abroad.

Why are books like this so rare and expensive? Well, traditional publishing is an expensive process.

When you pay, say, R100 for a book in a bookstore, you’re paying for writing, development, editing, design, proofreading, the to-and-fro of disks and paper, project management, marketing, sales, printing, ebook conversion, shipping, warehousing, wastage, the retailer’s cut, returns of unsold books, the publisher’s profit, and VAT. And in between each of those pieces there is a lot of expensive time wasting.

Are there authors here? Publishers and editors? I’m sure you’re familiar with this.

This process is expensive, requires rare professional skills, and takes a long time. The average book-production process, after writing is complete, is about six months.

It’s also hugely competitive, especially in children’s books. This all makes publishing very risky. It’s almost impossible to make back your investment as a South African children’s book publisher, especially when you’re up against imported books that were created in London or New York and shipped all over the world in massive quantities.

Most children’s books published in South Africa are effectively cross-subsidised by textbook sales to government schools.

This is why there are so few South African children’s books. And why so few are in African languages.

In 2013, the latest year we have stats for, of R312 million in local trade publishing revenue, only R1.7 million, or 0.5%, came from books in our nine official African languages.

But here’s an interesting thing about the cost of book publishing: book publishing is 90% air and wages.

What I mean is that if you were to squeeze it like a sponge, removing all the air and wages, you could still make beautiful books, but for a fraction of the cost, in a fraction of the time. The trick is knowing how and what to squeeze.

About a year ago, I began working on that. We started asking professional writers, illustrators, designers and editors to volunteer their time to create new, high-quality, African children’s books. Working in teams for twelve straight hours at a time, they started making books together.

Here’s a clip from a book-creation day last year, to give you an idea of what it’s like.

Each team has a writer, an illustrator, and a designer, and twelve hours to create one book. Usually the writers have developed the idea for their story in advance, and the designers have thrown together some concept sketches. Expert editors then work with each group to help refine their story. We also bring in art directors and tech support, in a great venue, with great food and lots of coffee.

The room buzzes with creative energy and inspiration.

Has anyone here run the Comrades before? We call this the Comrades Marathon of creativity: not just for the long, hard day, but for the incredible solidarity it produces.

Before our first Book Dash, I’ll admit, I was really worried about the quality of the books we’d get. But what we found was astonishing: the books are just so good, and so beautiful. Committed volunteers really bring their best, because they know this is a rare chance to do something special.

Also, real-time teamwork knits the writing, illustration and design together powerfully – something that’s almost impossible in lengthy, traditional publishing workflows. One of our volunteer editors, who works by day for big publishing companies, said that this is how all children’s books should be created: with the creators sitting around a table together thrashing out every spread.

Most importantly, all our work is our gift to the world: everything is open-licensed on the day so that anyone afterwards can download, translate, print, and distribute it.

Already our books are being reused in print and digital forms around South Africa and beyond. Nal’ibali, the national reading campaign, has reused and translated our books in their newspaper story supplements, and they contribute those translations back to us. The African Storybook Project (who’ve sponsored two Book Dashes before) has republished and translated them for use online in several African countries. And we’re working with FunDza and Worldreader to put them on mobile phones here and around the world.

We’ve used crowdfunding, partnerships and corporate sponsorship to print and give away over ten thousand books in our first year, which is a small but promising start. They’ve gone to children and libraries in literacy programs, ECD projects, schools and daycare centres.

Whenever we do a give-away, we go and meet some of the children and give them books in person. And there’s nothing more wonderful for me, as a book publisher, especially one who’s buried behind a computer most days, than to give a book to a three-year-old and see them dash to a corner, open it up and start reading.

After all my experimenting, that’s the result I’ve been looking for.

Thank you.


  1. 100 books over 5 years is 20 books per year, or 1.67 books per month. At R10 a book that’s R16.70 per month, or 56c per day.

Publishing has a trust problem (and it might just kill us)

In a fascinating interview, Matt Thompson and Steve Song talk about designing for trust:

Higher trust environments, whether in families or corporations or economies, tend to be both more effective and happier.


The point is to design systems that increase trust.

That’s why Wikipedia is such a clever example; the fact that anyone can completely erase and rewrite a Wikipedia page is a form of active design trust. The very openness of it is saying: “We trust you.” And by and large, it works.

It means we need to design for trust if we want to actually encourage people to engage in the acts of generosity that build reciprocity.

[…] knowledge is transmitted in ways that are informal and social, and that aren’t captured in org charts or documents or reporting requirements.

I think that’s an interesting space, and if I were looking at organizational work practice design, that’s what I would experiment with: those little design changes that inspire people to make that “trust deposit” that then hopefully inspires reciprocity.

Read the whole thing here.

How do we design for trust? Steve argues that that’s where openness is important: “openness is a means to an end, not the endgame. Trust is the endgame.” To build trust, build openness into your systems.

In publishing we spend a lot of time and energy making up for a lack of trust – in our colleagues, our business partners and our customers. We use endless sign-off processes, overwrought contracts, and arcane DRM. We guard royalty percentages and salary ranges like national secrets. And we rely overwhelmingly on the devils we know, from authors to booksellers. In trying to sell new ideas to publishers, I’ve seen well-meaning champions of change falter as colleagues choose not to trust their judgement.

This is not sustainable business. And it makes it harder for us to deliver what the world needs from us: more good content to more people.

Greater openness and transparency – and the greater trust they’d build – would help us divert some of that energy to things that matter more. And if we don’t build that trust into our organisations, then other, better organisations will deserve to take our place.

The way to talk about open licensing is to not talk about open licensing


Open-licensing can be incredibly powerful. Converts to open-licensing become zealots quickly, because they can see that a world that is open-by-default is a healthier world.

The problem with open-licensing is that it’s hard to describe. Evangelism is incredibly difficult. Those of us familiar with copyright law and licensing tend to forget that phrases like ‘open-license’, ‘Creative Commons’, ‘CC-BY’, ‘No-derivatives’, and ‘copyleft’ are opaque to most people. Our challenge is to find ways to talk about open-licensing without ever saying ‘license’.

At Bettercare and at Book Dash we use Creative Commons licenses for our publications. At Bettercare, we use a CC-BY-ND-NC license strategically. It’s very important that our customers and competitors know exactly what that means, and why we’re doing it. At Book Dash, we use CC-BY to make sure our books can travel as widely and cheaply as possible. We rely on lots of volunteers, and can’t waste time explaining the technicalities of open-licensing to them.

Over the last few months, I’ve worked hard to remove the jargon from our messaging. Our Bettercare page on licensing is called ‘Reusing our materials’, and starts like this:

Unlike most publishers, we let you make your own copies of our material for free, under certain circumstances. So, in certain special cases, you can reuse or share our books without asking for our permission.

If you follow these three simple rules, you can re-use or copy our books without asking for permission:

  • Each copy must say where it came from: Bettercare, including the web address.
  • You can’t change anything. You must reuse or copy the books as-is. This protects us and our authors from liability, should others’ changes be in any way dangerous or harmful.
  • You cannot reuse or copy them for a money-making activity. This is to protect our financial sustainability. There is more detail about this below.

We go into more detail in plain-language. It’s not perfect, but we’re on the right track. You can read the whole thing here.

At Book Dash, we focus on two phrases: ‘books that anyone can freely download, translate and distribute’ and ‘our work is our gift to the world’. We only use technical terms like ‘Creative Commons’ when there is space and time to do it properly.

If you’ve worked on translating open-licensing jargon into plain language, please let me know.

Why I won’t run another startup

Earlier this year, I closed my startup. So now I get to reflect on what I’d have done differently. Hindsight is unfair and inaccurate, but I still enjoy its lessons. This is one, a note to my future self: Don’t call your projects ‘startups’.It’s a semantic trick, but a really important one. Here’s why.

‘Startups’ have become a commodity in an industry of startup conferences, websites, courses and competitions. As founders of young organisations, we struggle to distinguish genuine guidance and support from the distracting pizzazz of the startup industry, where we’re just the product, not the customer. Lured by the lights, we spend valuable hours crafting slide decks, jumping on planes, giving presentations and filling out entry forms, almost always so that someone can sell tickets to the show. I worked it hard, and I didn’t see the return. I want that time back for my business.

Here are five new rules for myself.

1. No more startup events

I’ve been invited to four startup events just this week. Wait — checks email — that’s five. It’s a freakin’ craze. Startup seminars, breakfasts, retreats, showcases. Say no to all of them.

Startup events are supposedly ‘good for networking.’ I made an interesting connection at one or two, I think. For the most part they’ve sucked vast amounts of time I really should have put into working on my organisation.

Your next project may be in publishing, healthcare, engineering or another industry, but it’s probably not in the startup industry. At a startup-industry event, you’re only going to meet startup-industry people. They are not your customers. Only go to events packed full of potential customers in your industry.

Very occasionally, treat yourself to a dinner with a few entrepreneurs you like — it helps fight the loneliness. Otherwise, if you’re not out selling, get back to your office and work. Or go home and spend some down-time with your family.

2. No more startup competitions

Then there are the competitions. Innovation competitions, pitching competitions, business-plan competitions. Sometimes the prize is an investment in your company. (First prize, an investor! Second prize, two investors!)

Honestly, do you want an investor who comes shopping for startups at a cocktail function? Winning an investment is like your bank calling to say you’ve won an overdraft. Lucky you.

It can be worse. I got a call from a major international consulting firm to tell me we’d won a big innovation award. But I can’t tell you about it because I have to pay them a licence fee if I do. Seriously: they wanted 7500 euros just to let us tell people we’d won. Another time, I got interviewed on a startup-support radio show, only to be asked to sign a letter afterwards saying they’d given us R188000 in airtime. (I didn’t sign.)

You can also win ‘business support’, or well-meaning MBA students to ‘help you grow your business’ for their course project. I’ve spent days with teams who are new to my industry using my time to tell me things I already know. I want those days back.

If you’re certain that you have time to enter competitions, only enter the ones where they’re giving out loads of free money and you know you can win. Don’t be the product.

3. Beware the warm glow of startup media

The startup-industry press is so seductive. It’s pretty and says it loves you. Being a startup, especially based in Africa, is great for media coverage, more especially if you win a startup award.

At Paperight we kept a long list of posts and articles about us that came from startup-industry acclaim. We won startup and innovation awards in London, Frankfurt and New York, an Accenture Innovation Award, and public congratulations in South Africa’s national parliament. We were featured in several ‘startups to watch’ articles and were profiled on the websites of CNN, Forbes and others. We were even featured in a book about open-business innovation. We’re fairly certain that the awards made this coverage happen.

But in not one case did we see a corresponding spike in sales (or calls from investors), and for a young business running out of runway, sales are all that really matters. For a while, the acclaim is great for motivating staff, and to help inspire an investor’s confidence, but the effect wanes after a few awards. Don’t chase coverage in the startup industry. Find your own industry’s media outlets (they’re harder to find and less sexy than the startup press) and focus only on them.

4. Don’t tell customers you’re a startup

Every office-bound exec wants to love a startup. Like a pet. But no one wants to buy from a startup. Especially big companies. Big companies want to buy from big, stable businesses. They want to trust that you’ll still be around in a few years. And their people need to feel you’re a familiar name. At Paperight, we needed book publishers to trust us with their most valuable IP. It’s insane to think they’d give it to a ‘startup’. We could have put our whole business in a cupboard for ten years, then dusted it off and they’d be more likely to work with us, because we’d be too old to be called a startup.

5. Get real help

The startup industry appeals to a very real need for emotional, intellectual and financial support. But (except in very rare cases) it is going to distract you more than it delivers. It’s bad for focus. Instead, find experienced confidants from an industry like yours. If nothing else, their emotional support will mean more to you than a hundred hollow prizes.

I’ll be surprised if I stick to my new rules. So remind me, please, because I’ll probably forget: run a business, not a startup. You don’t have the time.

This article was originally published on Medium.

Talk: ‘Paperight and beyond: learning from f̶a̶i̶l̶u̶r̶e̶ disappointment’

At a Mobile Literacy Network Meeting this week hosted by the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg, I talked about Paperight, why we had to close, and some of the lessons my team and I are taking to our next ventures – particularly Bettercare and Book Dash.

From the talk:

Our problems were of course, in part, the result our strategic decisions: out of an infinite number of possible alternatives, some would have been better than others. But aside from that, we knew we had three major external challenges:

Despite our disappointment, buried in those revenue stats is a promising story: we made far more as a publisher than as a distributor. We had created a hundred simple, low-priced books of our own: collections of past grade-12 exam papers. That one small collection of high-value, low-priced titles made as much as all our other sales combined. And that’s after those past-papers were free for the first seven months.

Read the whole thing on The Paperight Story.