TEDxCapeTown: Every book within walking distance of every home

On 21 July 2012 I presented at TEDxCapeTown, an amazing day of incredible ideas and conversation. This is what I said. (See my shorter version of this talk for the TED Talent Search here. You can Recommend and Comment there, too, if you reckon I should be speaking at TED 2013.)

Update 1 October 2012: You can see the video here.

I have a question! Who here had one of these books to read when we were growing up?

That makes us really lucky, because bookshops and libraries are vanishingly rare in South Africa.

And when they do exist, they’re tiny and badly stocked.

We know people need books – to learn and imagine and explore. So why do we have this problem?

Well, the book business is expensive.

It costs a fortune to stock a bookstore. Even a small store needs to carry a few thousand books just to keep customers coming back. What’s more, bookstores need lots of floor space for shelves, and they are highly dependent on foot traffic, so the rent is expensive.
So the margins are low, and the risks are high.
And if you want to try to start an online store instead, you need to be ready to lose a lot of money at first. And then, in South Africa, most people don’t have credit cards, or can’t get online to use them.
A few years ago, the Centre for the Book distributed free children’s books to 7000 rural homes. But there was no existing way to get them there. In some places, volunteers used wheelbarrows to carry the books from a post office to homes and schools.
If you live any distance from a wealthy city suburb, books are simply not a part of your landscape.

The problem is particularly desperate when books can even save lives.

This clinic in Tanzania is run by an NGO called CCBRT. They treat over 120 000 people with disabilities every year, and now they are building a new maternity hospital. To train nurses and midwives, they order their course books by post from Cape Town, 5000 kilometres away. A leading neonatologist there said recently that training with these books could save many of the 45000 newborn lives lost in Tanzania every year. But I know: the cost of getting them there is absurdly high.

By the time a book travels to a printer, and then to a warehouse, gets shipped across countries, stored again, displayed and finally purchased, its cost has risen four times over.

One way to tackle this problem is to put books on mobile phones.

This free book for nurses on child healthcare gets about 1500 visits a month, about half of those from developing countries. That’s ten times the number of printed copies sold. A free novel by Sam Wilson called Kontax, which is mostly read on Mxit, has been read over 63000 times by South African teens from every part of the country. And more and more schoolchildren are reading free Siyavula science and maths textbooks on their phones.

But there are still obstacles: no publisher has figured out how to make these books pay for themselves yet. And to read a book on a phone you need electricity and airtime, and you have to read on a small screen that can’t handle complex images.

Worst of all, Internet access is not as widespread as we like to believe. If you look at a map of 3G internet coverage in South Africa, from a great distance it seems you can get online anywhere. But as you zoom in, and get closer to the ground, you find that coverage actually extends in hundreds of narrow spines from city centres, leaving big gaps in coverage only a short distance from significant towns. In reality, the Internet is not in everyone’s pocket.

Books on phones might be the way of the future, but they don’t work for everyone today. And we need a solution now.

Of course, people are resourceful!

Despite these obstacles, they do read. They find a way to get to school and study.
Where do they get their books? More than anything, they photocopy.

There are print-and-copy shops in every town in the world, churning out pamphlets, flyers, adverts, CVs, and – yes – books.

You see, unlike bookselling, you can get a copy-print shop profitable quickly. For a monthly lease of only a few hundred rand, and just a small space to work in, you can get a copier business selling thousands of sheets a month.

As a result, the copier-printer may be the single most common distribution channel for publishing in the developing world.

Copy shops will laboriously scan and print the books their customers find and bring in. And since those customers often have no other way to find or afford a book, they’re performing an important social function. But they have to do it illegally.

By law in most countries, you can’t scan and print a copyrighted book, and you definitely can’t sell that printout to someone else.

As you can imagine, copy shops terrify publishers. When I was publishing textbooks some years ago, we even tried printing in special inks that we thought wouldn’t photocopy well! (It didn’t work.) And the more our books were copied, the fewer we sold, and the higher we pushed our prices. And the more that happened, the more convinced we became that copy shops could never be trusted, that they didn’t understand our industry, and that they were our sworn enemy.

And then, one day, I got tired of thinking this way. It’s exhausting and stupid having a sworn enemy. If copy shops are solving our customer’s problems, and putting books more books in the world, surely we should help them do it better and faster?

Imagine if we made their jobs easier, and legal.

What if we let copy shops print and sell from a whole library of books on a simple website? What if we made that website so fast and easy to use that it was more profitable for the copy shop – and more cost-effective for their customer – to pay for the service than to keep copying old books the hard way?

Only a local corner store would have to be online for a whole village to have access to books! And would publishers make money selling books through copy shops?

I decided to find out. I gathered a team and, working with the Shuttleworth Foundation, we built a website called Paperight.

On Paperight, anyone with a printer can download books and print them out for customers. Many books are free to download, and for others, the publisher charges a rights fee. Amazingly, publishers can make the same margins from these downloads that they do from their fancy editions, and still the total cost to the customer is often less than that fancy edition sold in a mall.

Instantly, with only a basic Internet connection, every copy shop is turned into an entire bookstore.

Even in the most remote village, every school has access to new textbooks, which can boost literacy rates and help teachers teach.

Every hospital with a laser printer can train new nurses and midwives with up-to-date information.

And every child with a few rand can walk to their local store, buy a chapter of their favourite novel, and immerse themselves in the magical worlds that most of us once took for granted.

In this smart audience there are readers, and writers, and publishers, and we all have one goal: to put every book within walking distance of every home. I believe we can do that in four years. And our most powerful tool may be the humble copy-printer.

Thank you.

5 thoughts on “TEDxCapeTown: Every book within walking distance of every home

  1. Pingback: TEDxCapeTown: Every book within walking distance of every home (video) | Arthur Attwell

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