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.

Many of us are adjusting the ways we do things to sustain our current margins, partners and customers, and others are leaping boldly into disruptive technologies, where most of our experiments will fail, and a precious few will be the seeds of lasting success.

As publishers today, we stand at the cusp of an extraordinary crisis and, if we’re lucky, an extraordinary opportunity. It’s a great pity that at this time so much popular talk about publishers is about survival, as if the mission of our industry is to survive. Our mission should not be to survive. Survival is an utterly boring mission. It’s really just a means to a more important end.

Our real mission should be to put every book within walking distance of every home. And I believe we can do this within four years.

Our success will depend entirely on how we get books to this person we call the ‘digital native’: someone for whom paper is secondary to the screen. And the majority of whom have probably never even seen or owned a printed book. When we use this term ‘digital natives’, sometimes we mean young people who’ve grown up with both books and the Internet.

I think the real challenge of shifting our business to appeal to true digital natives means appealing to young people whose only access to written stories and information will be through their phone or an occasional visit to an Internet Cafe. In places where there are no bookstores or libraries or electronics stores. 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.

Clayton Christensen explained in The Innovator’s Dilemma fifteen years ago why it’s extremely difficult for established companies to do this. Often, the only way to do it is through acquisition of 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.

Now, 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.

I want to talk about three South African platforms that I know well that 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 phones;
  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.

So, first, fiction on mobile phones.

Yoza is a project that publishes stories for mobile phones, written especially for teens in the poorest parts of Cape Town. It has been massively successful in terms of readership, most of which comes through the massive phone-based social network Mxit.

[Live demo using Mxit emulator: This is Mxit, a very simple phone-based social network that uses minimal data for send and receive messages, so it’s incredibly cheap to use as a stripped-down instant-messenger and web-browser. I navigate to the Yoza stories in a kind of question-and-answer dialogue through the Mxit menus.]

Yoza’s first story on Mxit was a novella in short chapters by Cape Town screenwriter Sam Wilson. It was written after in-depth research among teens in Cape Town’s poorest neighbourhoods. It had over 63000 reads and received thousands of reader comments in response.

As a project funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation, Yoza did not have a self-sustaining business model, but its success in terms of readership was so immense that it inspired other projects to try to build self-sustaining business models in the same space.

Bozza distributes literature in text, audio and video, from poetry to fiction to education, and sells advertising around that.

Fundza is a literacy trust working with publisher Cover2Cover to put novellas for teens on phones, where some stories are free and others are paid for.


Second, transmedia textbooks, with an alternative business model.

Siyavula is a company that produces textbooks that are entirely open-licensed. Their PDF textbooks can be freely downloaded online as open educational resources, and read like regular textbooks. You can buy printed versions from Siyavula, too.

However, there is more to them: at almost every unit of knowledge, there is a short code. When you visit a textbook’s site on a mobile phone or a computer, you enter the shortcode to find extra information, pictures, videos, and interactive activities.

[Live demo: Use short code ESACL from Siyavula’s Everything Science (PDF) on the Everything Science website, showing interactive wave animation.]

Siyavula know that teaching and learning increasingly can and should span different media. But the company’s business model is not based on selling that content, but on selling the support and training services that surround a full implementation of transmedia learning materials.

It’s a model that has proven very successful in the software industry, where companies like Red Hat and Canonical sell services around open-source software.


Third, my own project, called Paperight. We are turning the ubiquitous photocopier into a book-distribution partner. Let me explain why.

For the last six years, I’ve run a consulting company called Electric Book Works, focusing on ebooks and the web. And that has made me a huge fan of what Yoza and Siyavula are doing. But I’m also acutely aware that books on phones don’t work for everything.

They need electricity, Internet access, airtime, and require reading from a very small screen that can’t handle complex images.

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 thousands 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, despite what we read in the papers.
And despite these obstacles, people read. They find a way to get to school and study.

Where are they getting their books?

More than anything, they photocopy. Unlike bookselling, copying and printing is a profitable business with a low barrier to entry. As a result, the copier-printer may be the most common distribution channel for publishing in the developing world.

Normally, copy shops terrify publishers. Typically, copy shops laboriously scan and print the books their customers bring in. And to meet this need, they have to do this illegally.

What if—instead—we made it legal, and let the copy shops choose from a whole library of books on a simple website? Only the copy shop in a town would need to be online.
What if we made this website so fast and easy to use that it’s more profitable for the copy shop — and more cost-effective for their customer overall — to pay for the service than to copy old books the hard way?

Would publishers make money selling books through copy shops?

That’s what we’re finding out.

Using our site, any copy shop, school, university, business or NGO can find books and print them out for customers legally. We broker an instant, affordable, single-copy licence with one click. Many of our books are free, and for others the publisher earns a fee from a copy shop’s pre-paid account. We work directly with publishers to prepare content and set prices.

[Live demo: get a PDF from Paperight as an outlet.]

Instantly, with only a basic Internet connection, every copy shop is turned into an entire bookstore. We’re building on ebook infrastructure and the ubiquitous copy shop to solve a distribution problem today, right now.

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-the-minute information. Every child can walk to their corner store and buy a five-page comic – and bury themselves in the magical worlds that most of us once took for granted.

The publishing industry has the means to put every book within walking distance of every home within four years. We only have to seize the opportunity.

Thank you.

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

  1. Having lived in Zambia for the last 17 years, I relate completely to your comments on the availability of the internet. Your comments and observations are most interesting.

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