Talk: ‘Paperight and beyond: learning from f̶a̶i̶l̶u̶r̶e̶ disappointment’

At a Mobile Literacy Network Meeting this week hosted by the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg, I talked about Paperight, why we had to close, and some of the lessons my team and I are taking to our next ventures – particularly Bettercare and Book Dash.

From the talk:

Our problems were of course, in part, the result our strategic decisions: out of an infinite number of possible alternatives, some would have been better than others. But aside from that, we knew we had three major external challenges:

Despite our disappointment, buried in those revenue stats is a promising story: we made far more as a publisher than as a distributor. We had created a hundred simple, low-priced books of our own: collections of past grade-12 exam papers. That one small collection of high-value, low-priced titles made as much as all our other sales combined. And that’s after those past-papers were free for the first seven months.

Read the whole thing on The Paperight Story.


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

At TEDxAIMS: “Tech spreads slowly”

Arthur Attwell at TEDxAIMSYesterday’s TEDxAIMS was incredible. AIMS is the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, an institution that provides full one-year, live-in scholarships to post-grad sciences students from around Africa, and leads the inspiring Next Einstein Initiative. I spoke about my experiences trying to build fancy-tech products in South Africa, and my belief that for as long as we think “technology spreads quickly”, we’ll be working on the wrong problems.

Update 19 Feb 2013: I’ve now added the video. The text of the talk is below.

Continue reading

Disruptive innovations at Tools of Change

Tools of ChangeI’m thrilled to be heading to New York for this year’s Tools of Change for Publishing conference. I’ll be presenting along with Michael Smith of Worldreader in a session called “Disruptive Innovations In Emerging Markets: Mxit, Siyavula, Paperight and Worldreader“.

Here is an excerpt from my notes for the talk.

I think the real challenge for publishing is to appeal to new markets of young people in places where there are no bookstores or libraries or electronics stores or affordable Internet data. The size of the markets we’ve been selling to for the last hundred years are a drop in the ocean compared to this audience. Most are in developing countries.
We have to introduce completely new value propositions for these markets. A value proposition means: what do you get for how much money and in what way?
Clayton Christensen explained in The Innovator’s Dilemma fifteen years ago why it’s extremely difficult for established companies to create new value propositions. Often, the only way to do it is through acquisition or by spinning out entirely independent business units that can experiment freely and fail with confidence.
So the most promising innovations are most likely going to come from small players, who are able to grow in emerging markets with low margins.
No market needs a new value proposition more than the poor in developing countries, like the forty million people in South Africa who’ve likely never bought a book, but who all have a mobile phone and limited access to data. There is today simply no compelling reason for them to buy a printed book or an ebook given current prices and processes.
Three South African platforms in particular are tackling low literacy and book-purchasing rates in this market by changing the traditional publishing value proposition:
1. The first is a family of projects publishing stories on mobile phone app Mxit;
2. the second integrates textbooks with online media optimised for phones; and
3. the third is my own project, helping the ubiquitous photocopy shop legally print books out anywhere.

‘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