Book Dash: the power of the crowd + hard graft

For several months I’ve been working on Book Dash, an initiative to create high-quality, low-cost children’s books. We get creative pros to volunteer time to create the books, and help sponsors get them printed and distributed to children. I’ve written elsewhere on why this is commercially important in the long term, but right now it’s all for the love of children’s literacy.

In this interview, I sum up our story and our aims.

Right now, we’re raising money to get books printed by crowd-funding with Thundafund. It’s going well, but it’s been extremely hard work.

Crowd-funding is not easy money. But it is quick money, compared to other ways to get sponsorship. By the end of our campaign (mid December) I reckon we’ll have raised about R80K (we’re just short of R50K now with two weeks to go). We’ve spent about two months on the campaign, including planning.

Our campaign overheads are time (some provided to Book Dash on credit by Electric Book Works where Tarryn and I work, the rest as volunteering), the rewards we promise for donors, and Thundafund commission. Thundafund takes 5% commission for non-profits (as of yesterday, Book Dash is a registered NPO), which is fair enough – I estimate they have to see R1m raised to employ one manager for a month. And Thundafund adds a surprise card-transaction fee of about 3% for the donor to pay at checkout – something I think is a real pity, because it must annoy donors just when you want them to feel happiest. (I’d rather pay Thundafund 8% and hide that fee from the donor; but these are just wrinkles to iron out.)

We’ll probably end up spending 90% of the funds raised on printing books and 10% on related donor rewards and admin. If things work out well, there’s a good chance we’ll print even more books than we’ve promised.

For Book Dash’s general overheads to date over six months, Electric Book Works has provided interest-free long-term credit totalling about R100K (with about R50K to come). It’s been very expensive for EBW, but we’re trying to be the change we want to see in the industry.

We’re learning fast, but never fast enough.

‘In South Africa, Crowd-sourced Publishing Tackles Book Poverty’

On Publishing Perspectives today, I talk about the sobering state of South African books, and what we’re doing at Book Dash to help fix that.

If as a publishing industry in 1994 we’d taken a twenty-year view, we might have seen that our biggest challenge lay in making books visible to South Africans. We’d have given away millions of free books to children – just as the UK does on National Book Day every year – and seen many of those children blossom into keen book buyers today. Seen this way, the market-based challenge lies not in finding right business model, but in taking a long-term view. Less like Jack’s beanstalk, more like bonsai.

Read the whole article here.

 

Crunch time for South African publishing

rhino_royal-ontario-museum_CC-BY-SAIt’s rare that a national industry is confronted with a single threat to its future. That just happened to South African publishing. A few days ago, the South African Department of Basic Education released a policy document, for public comment, that explains how the DBE would like to handle textbooks going forward. (If you’re in publishing, read it, here’s the PDF. Instructions for official public responses here.)

The document has big, important ideals, and contains many smart ideas. The emphasis is on making sure every child has textbooks, and no one can fault that. There are many ways to help make that happen: the department must make its textbook money go further, the distribution of textbooks must be simpler, and schools must try to reuse all of their textbooks from year to year. The document addresses these issues and more. The issues have inherent challenges and complexities, and it’s clear the authors have thought about them.

But the document contains one, huge, glaring misadventure: the DBE wants to buy a single textbook in each subject for the whole country. For example, every grade 10 child in the country will use exactly the same maths textbook. The same history textbook. The same life-orientation textbook. Whether they’re at a high-end school in suburban Joburg or a rural school in the Northern Cape.

The theory is that, this way, the DBE will find economies of scale that will reduce the cost of textbooks and their distribution, and that this will help them achieve universal textbook coverage.

It’s very difficult to respond to this theory seriously, because it’s flawed to the point of absurdity. Even if the DBE did save money this way, it wouldn’t save much, and the damage done would be far more costly in the long term:

  • Teachers would no longer choose the textbooks they want to use. They’d be less interested in a textbook prescribed for them centrally, and wouldn’t be able to pick a textbook that suits their particular class.
  • Right now, we have a few dozen educational publishers, dominated by about five big ones (Pearson, Oxford, Macmillan, Via Africa, Cambridge). Within two or three years, publishers who don’t get to sell their textbooks would go out of business. Publishers I’ve spoken to reckon there would be space for three or four publishers, and only if they have owners with deep pockets to help them weather years with no government sales.
  • Private schools, which are growing rapidly, would continue to buy whatever textbooks they choose. They’d benefit from choice and diversity, and have the ear of those publishers that survive. This would further increase the gap between the quality and perceived quality of state and private schools. Gaps like that create self-reinforcing vicious cycles.
  • Given the make-or-break high stakes involved, the process for choosing only one textbook would be even more prone to corruption than the current system. In the current system, the DBE chooses eight books per subject, a number that is already the result of a massive concession made by the publishing industry a couple of years ago. Before that, any number of textbooks might have been approved for sales to schools.
  • We’re only beginning to figure out how best to create and distribute digital textbooks. To evolve great systems, we need a diverse environment, a constant churn of solutions adapt-or-dying, funded by risk-taking angel investors. A one-textbook policy would kill that process in an instant and set digital textbooks back years.
  • Promising initiatives to create open textbooks (like Siyavula’s) could all but disappear. Open textbooks rely on philanthropic sponsors to cover their development costs, and sponsors would be wary of funding textbooks that might never be used in state schools.

No doubt there will be much public comment on these issues. Signs are ominous that it might not make much difference: a senior DBE leader told a group of publishers recently that their position on procurement (which includes buying one textbook per subject) is very unlikely to change. We could have guessed that: weeks before the proposed policy was made public, the Minister had already announced it in her budget speech as given:

2014/15 has been targeted as the year by which the sector will be moving towards one textbook, per learner, per subject.

In South Africa, the vast majority of publishing revenue comes from the government purchase of textbooks. This revenue cross-subsidises the less lucrative publishing of fiction, children’s books, and reference books like dictionaries and atlases. As I’ve mentioned, it funds much of the experimenting around digital textbooks and online learning. And educational publishing – despite many weaknesses in this regard – supplies most of our country’s book-publishing skills. As a country we’ll pay a terrible price if our educational publishing sector shrinks.

That said, the DBE is not the root of the problem. They are simply reaching for the biggest hammer they can find to solve a long-standing problem: the gross under-supply of textbooks to poor students, and the perception that books in South Africa are too expensive and exclusive. Even if it’s the wrong hammer on the wrong nail, as the publishing industry we have to take a long, hard look at the part we’ve played getting to this point.

The spectre of state publishing and a single-textbook system has been around for many years – certainly for the twenty years I’ve worked in publishing – and always in response to these same basic problems. And yet publishing companies have not changed anything substantial about their publishing models or processes in those twenty years. As educational publishers, we’ve repeatedly fallen back on our unshakable belief that we’re already producing the best possible books for the lowest possible price. And each time that the state has threatened to force our hand, we’ve persuaded them to let us keep doing things the same way. There have been tweaks to the system, but the basic model has never changed. What if we’ve been wrong the whole time?

So perhaps the chicken has finally roosted. We’ve scraped through our tests, but now it’s exam time and we have just hours to prove ourselves. Can we find different ways to do things, or do we tell our editors, writers, designers, marketers and salespeople to find other jobs? Whatever happens, we have a lot of honest, open talking to do.

Fights and rights—Amazon and the evolution of publishing

Virginia Woolf. Flush- A Biography. London- Hogarth Press, 1933For some years now, Amazon and major publishers have been arguing about how the book industry should work. Most recently, Amazon has been tussling with Hachette. Alistair Fairweather has a neat overview in the Mail & Guardian:

For more than six months Hachette, a large publisher, has been wrestling with Amazon – the largest online retailer of its books – over pricing. The dispute soon escalated from private negotiations to a public brawl with all the hallmarks of a schoolroom hair-pulling fight.

(Read the rest here, it’s interesting.)

Amazon is becoming a vertically integrated book company, a single house that handles everything from commissioning to sales. That’s what many publishers were a hundred years ago. Think Virginia Woolf and the Hogarth Press. (In some countries, like Egypt, they still are, as Ramy Habeeb explains in this great talk.)

Over the years, businesses that specialised in certain parts of the publishing process became independent of the rest of the publishing chain, until they formed distinct industries of their own. Specialist printers took the work of the publisher’s printing department. Specialist agents and editors took on the role of curating authors’ work. Specialist booksellers took on the work of putting books in front of consumers. The days of the vertically integrated publisher were over, at least in the developed world where books are big business.

Some companies managed to keep two publishing functions in-house: rights and branding. Rights mostly means entering into contracts, and branding means deciding which stories to tell and how to package them. Pretty much anything else could be left to the specialists. But if you kept rights and branding in-house, you could call yourself a publisher, because you got to decide where and how your books would reach people. And so, in the world of books, we use the word ‘publisher’ really to mean specialists in rights and branding.

USE, Re-use, repeat, recycle, rejoice! via the Incline Press at Chetham's LibraryIn this world, for fifty years or more, the specialists lived in relatively peaceful symbiosis. This was possible while the constraints of the book trade were constant: given available technology and good sense, you could change very little about the way books were made, moved and sold. Advances like computerized typesetting and print-on-demand shuffled things a little, but they did not fundamentally change the natural constraints of making, moving and selling books.

Most of us grew up in that world, so we think it’s normal. But it’s really just a phase in the evolution of the book business. A phase held in place by constraints on what was possible. And perhaps the biggest constraint – an effect of the physical nature of books and the way we sold them – was the book-selling specialists’ inability to sell books to exponentially more consumers.

Amazon changed that. Bezos and his team solved the constraint on sales, as Fairweather puts it, “by consistently pleasing millions of customers for nearly two decades”.

With a key constraint removed, the symbiosis was over. For a few years now, Amazon has been vertically integrating publishing under its very big roof. Today, Amazon is a publisher (rights and branding), a self-publishing service in ebooks and in print, and of course a marketing and sales powerhouse. It owns a large piece of the Internet’s infrastructure. And last year Bezos bought a major newspaper, which may help Amazon do and learn more about marketing.

Don’t think that this is normal, either. Or that Amazon will remain the only troll under the bridge. This new phase may last fifty years, as the last did. Or the rapid change that the Internet makes possible will shorten it dramatically.

In the meantime, if you’ve been working for a publisher, it may be useful to focus on this: if rights and branding are what you’re good at, get better at it. Most importantly, be creative about it. Ever since the Internet made copies almost free, the biggest barrier between you and new customers is a rights barrier. Don’t make rights your admin person’s side job. And don’t clog your rights department with lawyers: a lawyer’s job is to eliminate risk, and finding new customers always involves risk. While you may have to lose battles with Amazon, you don’t want to lose the battles over rights, such as battles over exclusivity, lowest pricing, and territory.

Of course rights are exactly where Amazon needs to win on its road to vertical integration. Amazon often asks for exclusivity in key areas (such as lowest pricing), for instance. And its direct approaches to authors are a move on original rights. Your best defense in rights discussions may be your own precedents: if you are already creatively exploiting rights you control, it’s that much harder for Amazon and others to claw them off you.

There is another reason to get creative with rights, too. In another part of this galaxy, but not so far away, open-licensing players are getting stronger every day. They are doing high-quality, game-changing work. The publishing industry’s us-vs-them attitude to open licensing (see this PDF press release and this PDF paper) is self-defeating: open licensing isn’t other than book publishing, it’s a creative tool of business.

I would love to see the publishers of today become the creative rights managers of tomorrow. Not only would it make my job at Paperight easier, but because publishing companies employ so many of my good friends and family. Ultimately, we all care most about the individual lives affected by all this fuss; the people who make the books and the people who need them. Wherever they’re coming out ahead, the book business is doing well.

Towards a global children’s book repository

Earlier this year I was lucky to attend a fascinating meeting in Washington DC, hosted by USAID and Worldvision (among others), to brainstorm around the idea of a global online repository for children’s reading materials. I’d been invited largely to contribute our experience building distributed print-on-demand at Paperight.

The final report from that meeting is now available – click here for the PDF. (Or visit the project’s site here.) Out of lively and long discussion, several areas of sensible consensus emerged. For me, the most important was that the world doesn’t need more repositories. Rather, we need to strengthen those that exist, and to develop standards that allow them to interact.

From the report summary:

In the first sessions, participants agreed that a) a number of digital “repositories” already exist which could be strengthened, expanded upon, and/or linked to to promote access to relevant early grade reading materials, b) a directory to consolidate access to these dispersed sources is needed to meet objectives of a repository, c) there is a need for more materials to be catalyzed, produced, identified, digitized, etc. for inclusion in any collection(s) and d) a more thorough landscape reviews of existing platforms should be taken. Both as a prerequisite for this, and as a desirable standalone initiative, a metadata standard for early grade reading materials should be developed. Beyond this, the participants emphasized the importance of developing appropriate user-interfaces, promoting good practices in developing and “storing” materials conducive for print and electronic dissemination, ensuring usability with assistive technologies, creating a repository that could host new collections of early grade reading materials (rather than simply linking to materials in existing repositories), and encouraging the translation of existing content into different languages.
The main points of divergence among participants in these early sessions focused on whether to include both commercial and freely available content (on balance – yes) and whether to screen the types of early grade reading materials made available, particularly materials which may be deemed culturally insensitive and controversial (on balance – no).

I’ve highlighted key concepts in bold there. If this is your field, take a moment to look through the report and let me know your thoughts. I’ll be sure to gather and feed them back to the team behind it. Given that this discussion may inform big funding decisions by USAID and others organisations in future, it’s important that all those working in this area put their minds to getting it right.