Open educational publishing is commercial publishing

Recently I spoke on a panel at the Education Week conference about developing open educational resources. It was great to share a stage with innovators like Mark Horner of Siyavula, Andrew Einhorn of Numeric, and Brett Simpson of Breadbin Interactive. I spoke about the relationship between OER publishing and proprietary publishing – sometimes called mainstream, traditional or commercial, though those labels are neither useful nor accurate. Here are my speaking notes.

I’m Arthur. I’m a fellow with the Shuttleworth Foundation, so you know I’m going to be a fan of open educational resources. I’ve also founded two companies in book publishing that work with OERs: Bettercare and Paperight.

I wasn’t always this way. About ten years ago I was working as an editor for a big textbook company, Oxford University Press. One day I heard about this guy at UCT who was getting students to write free high-school science textbooks. Hah hah hah! What a lunatic, I thought. He sounded quite brave but a little naive. I reckoned his band of enthusiasts would never be able to produce books as good as mine, or get people to actually use them.

Siyavula Grade 10 Physical ScienceToday, those textbooks are on more learners’ desks than any other textbook in maths or science. They’re beautiful. And you can read them on paper or on your computer or on your phone. Wow, I’ve had to eat my words. And now he’s sitting here beside me, as the founder of Siyavula. Hi Mark.

To make matters worse, he married my cousin, so now we’re related. Hayi. Life is funny.

So I’ve learned from his example now. At Bettercare we publish some of the best nursing textbooks in the country. We can get dozens of leading experts to contribute to our books because we open-licence them. Those experts know that their work will be able to spread freely. We can do this because we make money selling the printed versions to hospitals and universities.

At Paperight, we make money distributing OERs from many publishers, because we work with photocopy shops to sell print-outs in their stores. (We earn a service fee for bringing the copy shops the extra business.) So in photocopy shops from Khayelitsha to Peddie to Petrus Steyn, people pay for print-outs of all kinds of OERs (and other books), because we make it easy for them.

What I’m saying is that open-licensed publishing is not the zero-revenue opposite of ‘commercial’, proprietary publishing. Open-licensing can be a powerful add-on to commercial models.

A few weeks ago the International Publishers Association released a press release and position paper on OERs. Despite its title (‘Publishers and Open Educational Resources can work together‘), it was a disappointing, deeply flawed, reactionary piece, which argues that books published under closed licensing models are inevitably better than OERs. It says the same kinds of silly things that said I myself when I first encountered Mark Horner’s work ten years ago.

This misunderstanding is based on the notion that OERs are produced in a kind of financial vacuum; that they emerge clumsily – through ‘untested content creation mechanisms’ – without any costs being incurred. Whereas ‘commercial’ publishers, they say, invest lots of money in proprietary books, and this makes the books better.

That’s not true.

Open resources are just as expensive to produce. But they’re paid for in the time of volunteers, by grants from philanthropists, and from commercial CSR or advertising funding. It’s not that the costs are different. What’s different is the customer.

Who benefits from a textbook, and therefore will pay for its development?

For proprietary books, the publisher’s customer is an individual school child and their parents, who must pay for textbooks for their child’s sole benefit. (Sometimes not directly in cash, but in school fees or by choosing lesser schools with state subsidies.) Development costs are bundled into that price.

For OERs, the publisher’s customer is civil society, who will benefit over and over again from that child being educated. In the forms of volunteer time, philanthropy and corporate sponsorship, civil society picks up the book-development tab as an investment in its collective future.

Eventually, this could reduce costs, because the more open-licensed material there is, the more we share and reuse it, and the less authors and publishers have to spend reinventing the wheel. Or civil society could just keep investing in making those resources better and better.

Traditional publishers have a tremendous opportunity to use their expertise to contribute here, by changing who their customer is. And if they can’t do that, then more and more organisations just like Siyavula will step in and do it instead. Open educational publishing is commercial publishing.

Thank you.

PS For more on the usefulness and high quality of OERs, follow the work of Shuttleworth Fellow David Wiley at Lumen Learning.

Let’s bust this “reading is dying” myth

In a wonderful piece for Time, Annie Murphy Paul argues that reading literature makes us smarter and nicer people. That’s something most book lovers would agree is a no-brainer. Apparently a professor at the University of Nottingham wasn’t convinced, so Paul did a great job stacking up the evidence.

In doing so, however, she worries that deep reading is dying, and that young people increasingly read only superficially:

“Deep reading” — as opposed to the often superficial reading we do on the Web — is an endangered practice, one we ought to take steps to preserve as we would a historic building or a significant work of art. Its disappearance would imperil the intellectual and emotional development of generations growing up online, as well as the perpetuation of a critical part of our culture: the novels, poems and other kinds of literature that can be appreciated only by readers whose brains, quite literally, have been trained to apprehend them.

She quotes a study by Britain’s National Literacy Trust full of ‘more-likely-less-likely’ stats about young readers that seem designed to leave us more confused than terrified. For me, surveys like this are far less useful or trustworthy than empirical evidence. It seems to me that deep reading is far from endangered among young readers. In recent years, young adult reading has boomed. The Mail Online wrote a year ago:

From Twilight to The Hunger Games teen fiction is booming, with sales jumping almost 150 per cent in just six years. In the first five months of this year more than 2.4 million books in the category were sold compared to 981,000 in 2006, according to figures compiled by Neilsen BookScan.

Here in South Africa, Yoza, FunDza and Bozza have enabled hundreds of thousands of teens to read long-form fiction and non-fiction on their phones – and engaging deeply with material that just wasn’t accessible to them before. Some have even become successful writers themselves.

Paperight Young Writers Anthology 2013At Paperight, we’re about to release the first Paperight Young Writers Anthology, a collection of the best poetry, essays, short stories and illustration from South African high school students. I was involved in the poetry selection, and I guarantee that these astonishing writers are voracious readers: it’s clear from their craft that they read deeply and often.

Young people love reading deeply. Let’s celebrate that, and build our literature around it, instead of worrying needlessly that the world we think we remember is going to pieces.

Building an open business

Over a decade ago, when I was working for a large multinational, I was deeply concerned that so many of my colleagues were unhappy. I decided I would one day build my own company. It would be founded on one key principle: a company exists as a way for its team to lead whole and happy lives: providing purposeful work and a comfortable livelihood. If it cannot do that, it should not exist, because its constituents would be better off doing something else. And a company of happy constituents simply had to be more effective than an unhappy one. The happiness of our constituents would be our competitive advantage.

One of the keys to running such a company would be transparency, particularly transparency about our supply chain, how our products affected the lives of customers, and how our finances worked. The more you know about the company you work for, the happier you are, because you can make informed choices: about what to focus on, who you’re working with, and whether or not to work for that company at all. And since a company’s constituents are not only its staff but its suppliers and customers, that transparency would have to extend to them too.

I began building that company in 2006 when I co-founded Electric Book Works, but am only beginning to really get it right at Paperight. We bake some of it into our employment contracts:

By joining Paperight, you’re taking on joint responsibility for the company’s financial, social, and environmental successes and failures, including how wisely it spends money on its team. You’ll have access to the company’s financial records and bank-account-balance details, so you’ll be fully informed at all times. It’s your responsibility – and that of every team member – to understand and engage with the financial affairs of the company. You should be a part of every financial decision, although final decisions are made by the company’s CEO.

We don’t hide salaries. (When you hide salary information, you’re planting a grenade in your company: because the day someone feels unhappy, they’ll dig up that hidden salary info specifically to have something to explode over.) Our job descriptions are three bullet points long, and describe areas of functional authority – not narrow, forgettable KPIs – so we can all easily remember each other’s priorities. We let anyone join Paperight, even tiny self-publishers and solo entrepreneurs running a printer in their shack. If a customer, supplier or journalist asks for financial information, we provide it (unless disclosing it requires disclosing a customer or a supplier’s private information). We own up to our mistakes as individuals and as a company. We celebrate audacious failures (a failed experiment teaches us much more than doing the safe thing over and over). We love watching and working with competitors (believing always that we can and must do better than them). We all wash dishes.

In short: we go out of our way to share. Actively sharing makes our transparency meaningful. It’s easier to make decisions and move quickly, because we don’t have secrets to worry about protecting. When we share, others share back. And all of this makes us happier to do what we’re doing. And that is what it means to run an open business.

Still, we’re not fundamentalist about it. We don’t take open for granted. In recent months I’ve actively explored and discussed and toyed with aspects of closed business models: strategic exclusivity partnerships, creating artificial scarcity, and raising barriers to entry for our members. We must know what we’re missing out on – what our opportunity costs are. If we want to put every book within walking distance of every home, would elements of closed – opacity, secrecy, scarcity, exclusivity – get us there faster?


In small, strategic doses, perhaps. So we’ll experiment in small doses. For instance, we’ll deliberately make our Young Writers Anthology hard to find in places other than Paperight outlets. We’ll make short-term exclusivity deals to entice new partners to join our movement. In our communications, we’ll try holding back certain numbers in favour of others, just to see how people respond. In other words, we’ll carefully and deliberately sample what most other businesses do every day. And then we’ll be happy to share what we find out.

As I’ve talked to friends, funders and fellow entrepreneurs about this, it’s clear that transparency, tied as it is to sharing and openness, is still the key to our competitive advantage. And a transparent, happy company is the only kind we want to build.

A quick guide to self-publishing: start small and cheap

I was asked recently for advice on self-publishing a science fiction novel written by a teen author. He’s been quoted R9000 (about $1000) by an ebook-only self-publishing company, but was also keen to produce a paperback edition.

Now, paying R9000 for book production may or may not be worthwhile, as long as it doesn’t involve any kind of exclusive licence or copyright assignment, and the provider does more than just convert a Word file to EPUB format. But really that’s not the point. For a novel, he should be getting the book into the market himself, and saving that R9000 for later.

Every book is a unique project, so there is no simple template of what to do. In fact, publishing a book is like starting a business, with all the attendant risk and uncertainty. So the best thing for a new business is always to start off as small and as cheaply as possible, and to gather feedback from customers from the start. You must find out as quickly as possible what your customers want, and whether they’ll pay for your product.

The best guide to first-time publishing is really The Lean Startup by Eric Ries – it’s written for entrepreneurs, but the lessons are all the same for self-publishing authors. Its most important lesson is that you should spend as little time and money as possible before getting the product (your book) in front of customers and getting their feedback. The clearest feedback will be in actual sales, but verbal feedback can be just as valuable.

So, even though there’s no template for how to publish a first book, I would say these are some fundamentals:

  1. Create a single neat, edited file in something like Word, OpenOffice or Google Docs. (If you want to create an ebook file, you shouldn’t pay more than about R2500, or $250, for the conversion. You may want to pay for professional editing, too.)
  2. Distribute it as an ebook on Amazon Kindle using Kindle Direct Publishing. (There are loads of other places to sell ebooks, but don’t invest time on them till you have good sales on Amazon, which has about 80% market share in ebook retail.)
  3. Market it by telling your friends about it and hoping word of mouth spreads. Just use email, social networks, and meeting people at any events related to the book’s genre.
  4. If sales pick up, and you think there’s demand for it, use the proceeds to pay for more expensive versions like a paperback, where you have to pay for design and print distribution too.
  5. When you do produce a paperback, never print a large print run. Always use print-on-demand services like CreateSpace or LightningSource.

(If you think there’s a market in South Africa, consider putting it on Paperight, too, to reach a large, low-income market. Paperight is my distribution company, a network of independent copy shops that print out books on-demand for walk-in customers. It’s simple and free to sell books through the Paperight network.)

For some technical guidance on ebooks, check out the Electric Book Works Knowledge Base, which contains lots of guidance I’ve written on technical and admin matters. You could skip to the section on self-publishing ebooks.


A conversation on innovation at Paperight (and beyond)

I recently enjoyed an email conversation with Wouter Burger, a marketing executive who, for his part-time studies, is writing a paper on innovation and brand leadership. We talked about Paperight in particular, and innovation in general. Here is the conversation.

WB: An organisations ability to innovate is a strategic asset. What is your view on innovation?

AA: Innovation is a bit broad to have ‘a view’ on. It’s a big, complex area. I suppose in short you could say that without innovating, a company will die quickly. But that’s obvious, and not an interesting or useful thing to say. My two favourite takes on how innovation does or can happen are described in Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma and Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup. Both centre around the principle that to innovate you have to be enthusiastic about experimentation and learning from failure. Everything I’ve built at Electric Book Works and Paperight is the product of a long genealogy of experimentation and failure.

WB: How is Paperight set up to drive innovation and not see the same fate as Kontax?

AA: Kontax was great – it proved that teens would read if they had easy access to stories, something many publishers doubted – but it never set out to have a self-sustaining business model. Paperight is structured very differently: it’s a for-profit company with a clear revenue model. This means the team culture is oriented around self-sustainability. Our conversations are literally of a different sort. And then that self-sustainability requires constant innovation. Every day we’re tweaking the system, our marketing messages, our promotional strategies, our approach to content. And those tweaks can add up to or precipitate large strategic shifts.

WB: Do you actively consider the appointment of employees in relation to their ability to contribute to the innovation process?

AA: We’re lucky to have attracted a team of naturally innovative people. I think innovative people get what Paperight is about more quickly than those who think ecosystems are static. So they tend to apply to work with us first. If I’ve had not-very-innovative team members over the years, I suspect they moved on, I can’t even remember. Statically minded people struggle with constant experimentation and failure. Innovative people thrive on it.

WB: Can you explain your organisations culture?

AA: Culture is hard to describe briefly. Perhaps most importantly, we’re a tight-knit team of multi-talented people who focus above all else on shipping – getting stuff done and out the door. But there is so much more to company culture. We follow a similar ethos to two companies who have tried to write describe their culture clearly: Valve (the game-software company) gives its new employees the Valve Handbook, and there’s a lot there that rings true for us. And HubSpot have summarised their culture in a great slide deck. HubSpot’s approach is almost exactly ours, except that we don’t have unlimited vacation time!

WB: Was it a conscious effort to get to this place (the culture mentioned above)?

AA: Absolutely. Culture does not happen by accident. It starts with conscious decisions by a company’s leaders about how a company must feel to be a part of. Then you have to translate that feeling into clear, concrete ways of working that get passed on to the team as they join. Every recruitment decision must take culture into account (I’ve turned away highly talented job applicants because their personalities don’t suit the culture we’re building), but also tiny decisions like where people sit, where and how they make coffee, how meetings are run, what software we use, and how we answer the phone.

WB: Do you mix teams to get the innovation going i.e. a creative with a strategic person?

AA: Yes. There’s no pre-existing formula. But when you put a team together for a project, you’re making a decision about the culture of that project. It will have a subculture of its own, within the greater organisational culture. I take for granted that our project teams will be innovative, but perhaps unconsciously I’d avoid teaming people who as a combination might stifle each others’ ability to innovate.

WB: Do you think innovation is a creative or a strategic spinoff and which type of thinking is better conducive for this?

AA: Creative and strategic ways of thinking can’t be neatly separated. They’re a big grey jumble. Any successful project needs both to be innovative, effective and sustainable. But there’s no recipe.

WB: With the innovation of Paperight, who played the roles of creative and strategist?

AA: Since I’m the sole founder, I suppose I’ve worn both hats. I designed the logo, wrote most of the early messaging, and developed the product-development strategy, for instance. But if I’d been on my own entirely, it all would have sucked. What we’ve done well has only been good because I and my team have actively gathered input from others. You have to be humble about what you can do yourself, and excited about what others bring to a project. In addition to the amazing team I have around me now, over the years my co-workers, friends and suppliers have helped invent and refine many of the creative and strategic innovations at Paperight. Nowadays, my role is to filter that input, organise it usefully, and have a casting vote on what we implement.

WB: Looking at yourself as the leader of a brand awarded with such a prestigious innovation award must feel great and validate your efforts. What qualities do you see compulsory for leaders looking to drive this innovation?

AA: There are many different ways to drive innovation, so there’s probably not a single set of qualities you have to have. If I have to name one, I’d say empathy. You have to be able to put yourself in others’ shoes, to see the world as they do. Who you choose to empathise with may differ: not many would say Steve Jobs was empathetic to his staff, but he was masterfully empathetic to his customers: he understood perfectly what it is and should be like to use a device as a consumer. When I encounter people who struggle to innovate, I get the feeling they’re low on empathy: they’re locked into their own worldview and don’t see the world as others do.

WB: While working in your previous publishing position, did you always look out for ways to innovate?

AA: Absolutely! I genuinely can’t believe everyone isn’t always trying to innovate, whether that means changing the world or changing your doorbell. Wherever a system isn’t perfect, there’s an opportunity to innovate – why wouldn’t you want to take that opportunity? Improving things, doing them in new, better ways is the most fun you can have in life.

WB: In the commercial sense, Amazon did a lot for digital publishing with the Kindle – however, this did not help lower income groups attain quality reading materials. The spinoff for Africa came in the form of Worldreader – looking to bring the e-readers to Africa. This is also happening too slow to get the level of reach and education you are targeting. There will be a stage where the above scenario starts changing and copyshops will then become less frequented (although quite far in the future). How will you position your offering to innovate for such a challenge, or is it something you keep in mind but only assess when you’re at that junction?

AA: Ereading is the future. No question. But that future is much, much further off than most people think. We could build Paperight for twenty years and never run out of customers.

That said, Paperight is a small piece of a bigger puzzle. It may look like we’re just printing books out. What we’re really doing is building a rights marketplace where licences to repackage content are instantly and effortlessly traded. In time, those licences might be for repackaging software, music, or video. Already most African economies are driven by small-scale entrepreneurs who understand their specific local markets. Those entrepreneurs are best placed to know what their communities want and how to package and sell it – not some suit-wearing editor in London or New York. The editor should create great content, and leave it to the entrepreneur to repackage and sell it under licence to specific, local markets.

Most exciting of all, a network of local outlets could produce 3D-printed objects, like crockery or spectacles. Right now, we live in a world where, for the most part, the creators of objects control their design and their physical production: Ikea designs your desk lamp and controls its production. Oakley designs your glasses and controls their production. But production of even the most complex items is getting cheaper and cheaper to do locally, on-demand, using generic tools and open hardware, like 3D printers. In future, Ikea may design your new desk lamp, but your local corner store will print it for you on demand, with a quick, easy licence from Ikea. At that point, I hope we’ll power those licensing platforms, and serve that network of printing and repackaging outlets.