Interview with AFKInsider

I enjoyed corresponding with Cornelius Fortune at AFKInsider recently for an interview about Paperight. Here’s an excerpt.

AFKInsider: You grew up in South Africa. What was that experience like? In what ways did it prepare you for the work you’re doing now?
Arthur Attwell: I was lucky that – unlike many young white South Africans – my parents made sure I knew what was going on: we were living a safe and privileged life compared to most South Africans, and we all had to work hard to fix it. White guilt is often unfairly maligned; it’s one of the most powerful forces for good in South Africa, and I’m very happy to say that I work hard at building businesses with positive social outcomes because I owe it to my fellow South Africans.
AFKInsider: Where did you get the idea for Paperight?
Arthur Attwell: I was a textbook publisher for many years, and it depressed and frustrated me that something as important as a book was absurdly expensive only because it was inefficiently produced and clumsily distributed. In my first company, Electric Book Works, I tried to tackle these problems with technology and ebooks. We could make ebooks cheaply, but we couldn’t distribute them, because very few South Africans are in a financial position to buy and read ebooks — they need devices, data, electricity, credit cards, and know-how.
During a research project in 2008, I was looking for cheaper ways to print books, and as I looked for smaller, local book printers, it became blindingly obvious: copy shops are the most ubiquitous book printers around. We just need them to print out the ebooks on demand. There is nothing magical about the idea, I’m no genius. I’m just the guy who decided it was worth trying, and found great partners to help.

Read the whole thing here.

Disruptive innovations in emerging markets: Mxit, Siyavula, Paperight and Worldreader

At the superb publishing-technology conference Tools of Change for Publishing last week, Michael Smith of Worldreader and I presented a session called ‘Disruptive Innovations in Emerging Markets: Mxit, Siyavula, Paperight and Worldreader’. Here are my notes, and you can see Michael’s slides on Slideshare.


I come from Cape Town, South Africa, and my background’s in educational publishing and ebook production. South Africa is like two different countries: about 2 million wealthy people who support the publishing industry (excluding schools publishing, where the state is the largest client by far), and about 48 million people who could never afford an ereader, don’t have credit cards to buy things online, or can’t afford to physically travel to a bookstore. So to make it possible for most people to read books, we need to totally rethink how we sell books. And that’s going to take some disruptive innovations. Continue reading

‘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? Continue reading

Three disruptive innovations in publishing: Fiction on Mxit, Siyavula, Paperight

At the International Publishers Congress in Cape Town today, I got to present in a session called ‘Literacy for Digital Natives’. While none of the speakers were too keen on that label, we did what we could with it. I talked about the need for disruptive innovation, and about three platforms: fiction on phones (especially Mxit), Siyavula’s open textbooks, and Paperight. Here is what I said.

As the Internet provides countless new ways for young people to find and process information, and technology-focused retail and advertising companies sweep them off their feet, as book publishers we have only a little time left as the natural custodians of books as we know them: these carefully curated packages of information and stories. Already, books have to work harder than ever to earn their place on a person’s mental bookshelf, as it gets filled with all manner of other ways to learn and explore. Continue reading