‘Books for Africa’: Paperight at The Owl Club

It was a huge honour to be invited to speak at The Owl Club in Cape Town on 20 November 2012. The Owl Club gathers together every month a hundred of the wisest, friendliest, most distinguished men of Cape Town for an evening of smart conversation, music, and guest speaking. This talk was titled ‘Books for Africa’.

I’m sure none of us can imagine growing up without books. And I don’t think it’s overreaching to say that without reading books, whether that’s fiction, biography, history, business, psychology or art, it is almost impossible to be a self-sufficient, clear-thinking, competitive member of society.

And yet the terrifying reality is that bookshops and libraries are vanishingly rare in most of Africa.

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

So, if the stakes are so high, why do we have this problem?

Well, simply put, the book business is expensive.

For publishers, a high-quality book requires significant investment. Every book is a small startup business, and comes with all the attendant risks of venture capital, in a fiercely fickle, competitive, low-margin market. In South Africa, moreover, many publishers will tell you that South Africans don’t read, so print runs are small and prices high. I believe that’s a myth, that South Africans don’t read, and I’ll back to that.

And on the retail side, it costs a fortune to stock a bookstore, especially when even a small store needs to carry a few thousand books to keep customers coming back. Credit is hard to come by. And bookstores need lots of floor space and are highly dependent on foot traffic, so their rent is usually very high.

And if you want to try to start an online store, most people don’t have credit cards, or can 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 the 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 looks even more like a crisis when books can save lives.

In Tanzania an NGO called CCBRT treats 120 000 people with disabilities every year at their clinics, and they have recently built a new maternity hospital.

To train nurses and midwives, they order course books by post from Cape Town, 5000 kilometres away. A leading neonatologist working with CCBRT 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 the books there is absurdly high.

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

One way to tackle this problem is to put books on mobile phones. The projects that are doing this are thoroughly disproving the myth that poor people don’t read.

At Electric Book Works (which I co-founded with Owl Norman Hooper and two others in 2006) we put one of our nursing textbooks on child healthcare online for people to access for free, just to see what would happen. It gets about 800 visits a month from developing countries. That’s ten times the number of printed copies sold.

In 2010 and 2011, a free novel by Sam Wilson called Kontax, which is mostly read on cellphones using Mxit, was read over 63000 times by South African teens from every part of the country.

And in late 2011 a new publishing enterprise, the FunDza Literary Trust, started putting short stories and novels on Mxit. Within a year, they had over 360 000 active readers, many of whom take the time to comment and talk online about the stories. Some of these readers have since become authors themselves, like Mbu Maloni, whose biography ‘Nobody will ever kill me’ is one of FunDza’s most popular stories.

In education, over 200 000 schoolchildren read Siyavula’s free science and maths textbooks on their phones, also on the Mxit platform.

This is nothing short of a revolution of enormous proportions. All the numbers we used to take for granted in book publishing just go out the window when we start looking at this new medium for reading. In print, a book that sells over 5000 copies in South Africa is considered a bestseller. A Sunday Times Literary Award winning book might sell 20 000 copies. Now, when a first-time novel on a cellphone can get 70 000 readers without any real advertising, we simply have to change the way we think about South African readers. The simple fact is that, given the chance, South Africans love to read.

Significantly, however, while readership numbers are up exponentially on mobile phones, most of these books are free or very, very cheap. No one has really figured out yet how to make money in this revolution.

There is a danger that this mobile-phone reading revolution has created a dangerous myth: that books on phones — or tablets and ereaders for that matter — is the answer to a developing country’s ills. Day after day commentators say “If we just put tablets into schools, and put books on phones, we’ll avoid the kinds of debacle we saw in Limpopo this year.” It’s so seductive to think the technology alone is the answer, especially when as wealthy decisions makers we’re using high-end phones on expensive contracts in our WIFI-enabled offices.

There are three myths that are most dangerous:

1. The first myth is that it’s easy to simply buy tablets for schoolchildren. A recent pilot study in Ethiopia tried this recently, handed tablets to a class of children and walked away, and lo and behold the children taught themselves how to use the tablets and really enjoyed them. Well, duh! Talk about proving the obvious. But that’s not a sustainable plan. Devices of any kind require an ecosystem of resellers, repair-shops, insurance, and Internet connections, in settings where children can walk home from school safely with a tablet in their bag.

2. The second myth is that textbooks will magically be cheaper when delivered on tablets, because there is no paper to print on and ship. As a former schoolbook publisher, I assure you that under current business models and with company overheads as they are, there will be no such savings. Despite some savings in printing and shipping, the investment in technology required at the publisher to produce tablet-ready books is significant and ongoing, easily matching the cost of printing and shipping. And the cost of the tablets and keeping them maintained is not insignificant.

3. The third myth is that we can reach everyone everywhere by putting books on phones and tablets. Books on phones need electricity, airtime, and require reading from a very small screen that can’t handle complex images. Worst of all, Internet access is not as widespread as the tech world likes to tell itself. If you look at a map of South Africa showing 3G internet coverage: 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. Heck, I can’t even get a good signal in Constantia. In reality, the Internet is not in everyone’s pocket, despite what we read in the papers.

I’ve no doubt phones and tablets are an important part of the future of reading. But to quote the author William Gibson, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Phones don’t work for everything and everyone today. And given the scale of our education crisis, we need solutions now. And those solutions are going to have to involve print. Print is something anyone can take anywhere and share with anyone, and it’s easy to produce.

In 2009 I took on two research projects into the potential for print-on-demand in Africa, and found some interesting things. I started looking at big printing factories in the developed world, especially those with the capability to print single copies of books in minutes, order to order. The fact is, when you buy a print book from Amazon.com, it’s very likely that that physical book doesn’t exist yet. It will be printed for you in one of these well-oiled factories moments later, and be in the post to you tomorrow.

In my research, my task was to see whether that first-world technology could be applied more directly and usefully in Africa, where online credit-card purchases and fast, affordable shipping are rare luxuries. So I started looking for smaller, local printing factories. And the more I looked, the smaller these printing factories got. Until eventually, standing on Station Road in Observatory, I noticed that the low-cost hairdresser beside my office had a photocopier in the back, and was, de facto, a very, very small printing factory, catering to a very specific market. There was no good reason they shouldn’t be printing books out for their customers.

As it turns out, there are print-and-copy shops in every town in the world, and countless villages, churning out pamphlets, flyers, adverts, CVs, and – yes – books. For instance, students will regularly photocopy entire textbooks in these shops for far less than the price of the official edition.

Compared to bookselling, a copy shop can be profitable very quickly. For a monthly lease of a few hundred rand, and just a small space to work in, you can get a copier business up and running, selling thousands of sheets a month, and margins easily exceeding 500%.

As a result, the copier-printer may be the 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. Since those customers often have no other way to find or afford a book, they’re fulfilling an important social function that the traditional publishing industry cannot.

But they have to do it illegally. By law in most countries, you can’t copy or scan a copyrighted book, and you definitely can’t sell a printout to someone else.

This is largely because, as you can imagine, publishers are terrified of copy shops. When I was publishing textbooks ten years ago, we even tried printing in special inks that we thought wouldn’t photocopy well. As you can imagine, it didn’t work.

The more our books were copied, the less we sold, and the higher we pushed our prices. And the more we did that, the more convinced we became that copy shops didn’t care about us, could not be trusted, and were our sworn enemy.

And then, one day, I got tired of thinking this way. It’s exhausting and stupid to have a sworn enemy.

As a publisher, I thought: if copy shops are solving our customer’s problems, and putting books more books in the world, we should help them do it better and faster.

Imagine if they paid us to make their jobs easier, and legal. We could build a network — an entire movement — of copy shops printing out books for people as and when they need them. The printouts can be rudimentary — most readers don’t need an expensively bound book. If all they can afford is a copier-printout, that’ll do just fine, just as it did for many of us when we were students.

We could let these copy shops print and sell from a whole library of books on a simple website. And we could make this website so fast and easy to use that it would be more profitable for the copy shop – and more cost-effective for their customers – to pay for our service than to copy old books the hard way.

Only a local corner store would have to be online for a whole village to have access to books.

Then, would publishers make money selling books through copy shops? In places where no bookstores exist?

So I decided to find out. For two years we tested and prototyped — learning a lot from trial and error, as Norman Hooper can attest — until we had something concrete enough to attract investment from the Shuttleworth Foundation. I gathered a team, built a website called Paperight, and started signing up copy shops.

Using Paperight, any business can sell print-outs of books to their customers. Within five months we had 200 outlets around South Africa, and have been delivering hundreds of print outs a week, mostly study material for matric students.

What’s surprising is that print-outs of books are so affordable. A 300-page novel for R120, including a healthy margin for the publisher. In fact, publishers can choose to make similar margins selling this way as they do from their traditional 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-printer can be turned into an entire bookstore.

Even in the most remote village, every school can have 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 can walk to their village store and buy a ten-page installment of a favourite story.

At Paperight we say that copy shops are the book shops of the future — they just don’t look that way yet. There’s no reason a copy shop shouldn’t be as comfortable as a bookstore with a coffee bar. And our network of copy shops is steadily becoming a movement of businesspeople and entrepreneurs who feel the same way.

This movement has one grand ambition: to put every book within walking distance of every home.

I believe we can do that within four years. Alongside the successes of tablets and phones, our most powerful tool may be the humble copy-printer.

Thank you.

2 thoughts on “‘Books for Africa’: Paperight at The Owl Club

  1. Pingback: New experiments shipped | The Paperight Story

  2. Hi. I am very keen to contact the Owl Club, to see if they have any records of my grandfather, a renowned prospector & explorer, who apparently spoke there on occasion. I am unable to find any contact details and would really appreciate any leads. Thanks

Comments are closed.