For publishers in a racist world, neutrality is not a virtue

In the days before the Göteborg Book Fair, its director Maria Källsson defended the fair’s decision to allow one (and only one) right-wing extremist publisher a platform there:

How we are to tolerantly deal with intolerance is a major dilemma in our time. It is true that we can expel extreme exhibitors from the fair. After all, we decide who is allowed to have a stand there. But we can’t expel them from society. In order to understand our approach and our principles, you have to understand what the book fair is. The book fair is an open arena for free association and freedom of expression, and it does not forbid opinions. That principle comes with a price—even detestable opinions can appear at a book fair.

The Frankfurt Book Fair faced similar ‘dilemmas’, and defended their decisions in similar ways.

The argument that we should ‘tolerantly deal with intolerance’ seems satisfyingly logical. But it hides an abdication of responsibility that leads to terrible things – especially when espoused by publishers, whose job it is to make ideas seem credible, and the fairs that celebrate them.

If you genuinely believed detestable opinions can appear at a book fair, you would allow child pornography, manuals on genital mutilation, recipes for chemical weapons, or handbooks on torturing information out of people. All of these publications doubtless exist, and yet we would never allow them space at a book fair. We recognise here, so clearly, that freedom of expression doesn’t apply to promoting cruelty. It would be absurd to tolerate even one of those publications at a book fair.

And yet right-wing extremist views, which are primarily racist, escape prohibition. Racism, inexplicably, is not considered as harmful, despite the fact that it has driven every genocide in history, and continues to fuel the neglect, bullying, oppression, torture, and murders of people across the world. And it thrives in a world, contorted by hypocrisy, that allows racists freedom to express themselves even as they silence others. Perhaps racism is so widespread and so common that this seems normal.

Like racism itself, Källsson’s argument that we should ‘tolerantly deal with intolerance’ is not rare. It’s a symptom of that particular disease of comfortable people: the mistaken belief that neutrality is a virtue. This dangerous myth suggests that it is possible to debate racism with racists, as if hatred had a logic we might disprove if only we could work it out. And, as a result, our penchant for debate gives racist organisations a platform to ride, like a perfect wave, right into the centre of our lives and our politics.

So we must remind each other, patiently, over and over again: for as long as racism exists, neutrality is not a virtue. The same goes for misogyny. At best, neutrality and debate reinforce a cruel status quo.

The shadows of the human mind will always harbour terrible ideas. There is neither value nor virtue in making them stronger. As the folktale goes, the wolf that wins is the one we feed, and no one bears a greater responsibility for that than publishers.

Eleven ways to join the resistance from your desk

If you’re feeling bewildered, you’re not alone. So, once you’ve been thoroughly nauseated on Twitter and are keen to actually do something about this shit-show, here are a few non-profit projects that I wholeheartedly believe in, and whose people I’d trust with my life and my money. Volunteer, give money, say nice things – it all helps.

Majal runs several critically important web platforms for activists, migrants, musicians, and LGBT people, especially in the Middle East. Each of their projects has different needs, but you won’t do better than giving money straight to Majal. Kickass human: Esra’a El Shafei.

CASH Music – no one works harder for musicians and what they do for society than these guys. And no one quite believes what CASH does: they make and give away free software and services to musicians, only because it’s the right thing to do. It’s so unusually altruistic that many funders actually don’t like giving them money. But we can, because we’re not assholes. Kickass human: Jesse von Doom.

The Debt Collective. If you’re in the US, these amazing people are among very few directly challenging predatory lending – and winning. For the rest of us elsewhere, let’s learn from them and apply their strategies in our own countries. Predatory lending, especially student debt, is a plague that won’t go away on its own. Kickass human: Astra Taylor.

Africa Check, and any good fact-checking organisation right now, are doing what journalism used to do by default. And they’re only the seeds of what we’re going to need in the coming years. Every cent you give them literally buys truth and buries lies. Kickass human: Peter Cunliffe-Jones.

Safecast. Simply put: get a portable Geiger counter from these guys and help grow the world’s biggest, public-domain database of radiation data. They’re also trialling devices for measuring air quality. This is just the beginning: what really matters is that Safecast proves that we don’t need governments or big organisations to quality-control earth. We can just do it our big-brained-primate selves. Kickass human: Sean Bonner.

Fight for the Future. If we’ve learned anything this last year, it’s that the Internet is a battleground for hearts and minds. FFTF have already saved your Internet bacon more than once and you probably don’t even know it. There is a lot to learn from them about Internet activism when you take your own stand, big or small. Kickass human: Tiffiniy Cheng.

ContentMine. If you’re not in academia, you might not know there’s a pitched battle going on for ownership of new scientific knowledge. No kidding, there are actually big companies that own and control the science we pay for with our taxes. WTF. ContentMine have a plan to counter that. Apart from donating to their work, if you have technical skills you can use their open tech to make scientific facts public. Kickass human: Peter Murray-Rust.

The Open Knowledge Foundation. The first task of dictators is to hide information from the public. It’s OKFN’s job to stop that from happening. OKFN have a network of groups around the world, which do things like make government information easy for people to find and understand. Joining one might be the closest you’ll come to joining a rebel assault on the Scarif databank. Except it’s legal and you won’t get killed.

Bettercare (I’m a co-founder and board member) publishes open-access learning material for nurses and midwives in badly resourced clinics and hospitals. This stuff helps save lives every day, especially the lives of women and children. Every incoming cent helps to create new material and keep existing material up-to-date and openly available. If you have a medical background, you can also help by using and reviewing the material. Talk to me for details.

Book Dash (I’m a co-founder and board member) gathers volunteer designers, writers and illustrators to create free, high-quality children’s books that anyone can download, translate, print or distribute. Developers can contribute to the open-source Book Dash apps, or help improve the Book Dash website. Talk to me for details.

MyConstitution.co.za (I’m the founder and project maintainer) is a community project to put the South African constitution, in all official languages, in the public domain –here in South Africa, you would not believe how hard it is for citizens to read their own constitution. The project needs managers, the tech needs developers, and the content needs legal experts and experienced translators. Talk to me for details.

All of these projects are close to my heart, and have structures in place for volunteer contributions or donations. I’ve kept the list short so you’d read it, but I’d also vouch for any others funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation, and a bunch I’ll kick myself for forgetting here.

Do the right thing. Sleep better. Wake up stronger.

Boost a child’s brain for 56c a day (a Book Dash talk)

This is a talk about Book Dash that I gave recently about at the World Library and Information Congress in Cape Town. I originally gave it in an earlier form at Rotary Newlands.

So, I like to imagine that I’m a pharmaceutical rep, and I’m selling a drug that’s been proven to dramatically enhance brain development in young children. It’s been proven to be safe, and it’s easy and quick to administer – in fact, children love it so much they ask for it.

Till now, only wealthy families have been able to afford the drug: till now, it cost about R6 per day, which is over R10000 by the age of five. But – now! – we’ve found a way to reduce that cost tenfold: to less than 56 cents a day (that’s USD0.05). And we reckon it’s time that, as a country, we started giving it to poor families to give their kids a boost.

That drug, of course, is a book. And we’ve found a way that just 56 cents a day can buy a child a hundred books by the age of five.1

That’s also our vision at my non-profit, Book Dash – what we want for the world: that every child should own a hundred books by the age of five.

 

The books in my slides (more here) were produced by teams of professional writers, illustrators and designers, volunteering their time to create new children’s books that anyone, anywhere, is free to download and adapt, translate, print, republish, sell or give away.

When you print 5000 copies or more of a book, it costs less than R10 a book. At that price, a child can have a hundred books in five years for 56 cents day.

I’ll explain how we’re making that possible, and why it’s important and special.

But, first, why do I think it’s necessary to create and give away free, paper books? Surely the publishing industry is growing the market? Surely technology is solving our problems?

I’m a book publisher, and I worked in big educational publishing companies for many years. And I happen to have an especially strong love–hate relationship with technology. I’m a keen technologist, I live and breathe technology, and yet I think technology is our age’s greatest distraction to real progress, and our biggest money waster.

Back in 2006 I left my corporate publishing job, sold my little red sports car, and struck out with some friends to start Electric Book Works, a small agency where I wanted to reimagine publishing for emerging markets, using technology sensibly and humbly.

In South Africa, our environment is so very different from the places we inherited our publishing industry from, the UK and the US in particular. We inherited royalty schemes and bookshop relationships and price points and technologies and job descriptions. But our languages, our histories, our physical spaces, our ambitions and our daily lives are different.

So the book publishing industry, as it stands, doesn’t really work here. And by ‘really work’ I mean it has not and cannot make books a part of everyone’s lives.

Over the years I’ve tried dozens of experiments to tackle this problem: I’ve published ebooks with musical soundtracks (they didn’t catch on), a self-publishing service, a youth magazine. My biggest recent project was Paperight, where I was funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation to turn copy shops into print-on-demand bookstores. And my longest-running project is Bettercare, which creates learning programmes for nurses that anyone can use online for free.

The point is to keep trying something else, anything that isn’t the usual way of doing things, because the usual way has left our country with very few, very expensive books.

After all my experimenting, I’ve come to believe that there are no ‘market solutions’ to growing a book-loving nation. For most South Africans, books are a luxury they can’t afford, not when food and clothing is already hard to come by.

Recent research from UCT’s Unilever Institute showed that most families in South Africa live on less than R6000 a month. They regularly turn off the fridge before the end of the month – they’re out of electricity, and there’s no food in it anyway. Many of them skip meals towards the end of the month. It’s mad to think they’ll ever be able to buy books, at any price.

The only way to grow readers is the hard way: we simply must give away vast numbers of free books to young children.

And this isn’t some idealistic third-world charity idea. In the UK, for eight years already, every school-going child has been given free books on World Book Day. Why do our children deserve any less?

I’m not the only one who wants to give away free books: many great non-profits are trying to do the same. The Shine Centre is a shining example. But they have to buy expensive books from publishers to do it, and there are very, very few books available that are:

  • new, high-quality stories created here
  • with scenes and characters our children recognise
  • in languages they speak
  • beautiful enough to love for a lifetime.

Who here has recently tried to buy a good, local children’s book in a bookstore? A friend recently tried to buy a book by renowned local author–illustrator Niki Daly, and found that many of his books are out of print in South Africa, even some that are still in print abroad.

Why are books like this so rare and expensive? Well, traditional publishing is an expensive process.

When you pay, say, R100 for a book in a bookstore, you’re paying for writing, development, editing, design, proofreading, the to-and-fro of disks and paper, project management, marketing, sales, printing, ebook conversion, shipping, warehousing, wastage, the retailer’s cut, returns of unsold books, the publisher’s profit, and VAT. And in between each of those pieces there is a lot of expensive time wasting.

Are there authors here? Publishers and editors? I’m sure you’re familiar with this.

This process is expensive, requires rare professional skills, and takes a long time. The average book-production process, after writing is complete, is about six months.

It’s also hugely competitive, especially in children’s books. This all makes publishing very risky. It’s almost impossible to make back your investment as a South African children’s book publisher, especially when you’re up against imported books that were created in London or New York and shipped all over the world in massive quantities.

Most children’s books published in South Africa are effectively cross-subsidised by textbook sales to government schools.

This is why there are so few South African children’s books. And why so few are in African languages.

In 2013, the latest year we have stats for, of R312 million in local trade publishing revenue, only R1.7 million, or 0.5%, came from books in our nine official African languages.

But here’s an interesting thing about the cost of book publishing: book publishing is 90% air and wages.

What I mean is that if you were to squeeze it like a sponge, removing all the air and wages, you could still make beautiful books, but for a fraction of the cost, in a fraction of the time. The trick is knowing how and what to squeeze.

About a year ago, I began working on that. We started asking professional writers, illustrators, designers and editors to volunteer their time to create new, high-quality, African children’s books. Working in teams for twelve straight hours at a time, they started making books together.

Here’s a clip from a book-creation day last year, to give you an idea of what it’s like.

Each team has a writer, an illustrator, and a designer, and twelve hours to create one book. Usually the writers have developed the idea for their story in advance, and the illustrators have thrown together some concept sketches. Expert editors then work with each group to help refine their story. We also bring in art directors and tech support, in a great venue, with great food and lots of coffee.

The room buzzes with creative energy and inspiration.

Has anyone here run the Comrades before? We call this the Comrades Marathon of creativity: not just for the long, hard day, but for the incredible solidarity it produces.

Before our first Book Dash, I’ll admit, I was really worried about the quality of the books we’d get. But what we found was astonishing: the books are just so good, and so beautiful. Committed volunteers really bring their best, because they know this is a rare chance to do something special.

Also, real-time teamwork knits the writing, illustration and design together powerfully – something that’s almost impossible in lengthy, traditional publishing workflows. One of our volunteer editors, who works by day for big publishing companies, said that this is how all children’s books should be created: with the creators sitting around a table together thrashing out every spread.

Most importantly, all our work is our gift to the world: everything is open-licensed on the day so that anyone afterwards can download, translate, print, and distribute it.

Already our books are being reused in print and digital forms around South Africa and beyond. Nal’ibali, the national reading campaign, has reused and translated our books in their newspaper story supplements, and they contribute those translations back to us. The African Storybook Project (who’ve sponsored two Book Dashes before) has republished and translated them for use online in several African countries. And we’re working with FunDza and Worldreader to put them on mobile phones here and around the world.

We’ve used crowdfunding, partnerships and corporate sponsorship to print and give away over ten thousand books in our first year, which is a small but promising start. They’ve gone to children and libraries in literacy programs, ECD projects, schools and daycare centres.

Whenever we do a give-away, we go and meet some of the children and give them books in person. And there’s nothing more wonderful for me, as a book publisher, especially one who’s buried behind a computer most days, than to give a book to a three-year-old and see them dash to a corner, open it up and start reading.

After all my experimenting, that’s the result I’ve been looking for.

Thank you.

Notes

  1. 100 books over 5 years is 20 books per year, or 1.67 books per month. At R10 a book that’s R16.70 per month, or 56c per day.

The way to talk about open licensing is to not talk about open licensing

sweet-chill-arts-ccbysa-flickr

Open-licensing can be incredibly powerful. Converts to open-licensing become zealots quickly, because they can see that a world that is open-by-default is a healthier world.

The problem with open-licensing is that it’s hard to describe. Evangelism is incredibly difficult. Those of us familiar with copyright law and licensing tend to forget that phrases like ‘open-license’, ‘Creative Commons’, ‘CC-BY’, ‘No-derivatives’, and ‘copyleft’ are opaque to most people. Our challenge is to find ways to talk about open-licensing without ever saying ‘license’.

At Bettercare and at Book Dash we use Creative Commons licenses for our publications. At Bettercare, we use a CC-BY-ND-NC license strategically. It’s very important that our customers and competitors know exactly what that means, and why we’re doing it. At Book Dash, we use CC-BY to make sure our books can travel as widely and cheaply as possible. We rely on lots of volunteers, and can’t waste time explaining the technicalities of open-licensing to them.

Over the last few months, I’ve worked hard to remove the jargon from our messaging. Our Bettercare page on licensing is called ‘Reusing our materials’, and starts like this:

Unlike most publishers, we let you make your own copies of our material for free, under certain circumstances. So, in certain special cases, you can reuse or share our books without asking for our permission.

If you follow these three simple rules, you can re-use or copy our books without asking for permission:

  • Each copy must say where it came from: Bettercare, including the bettercare.co.za web address.
  • You can’t change anything. You must reuse or copy the books as-is. This protects us and our authors from liability, should others’ changes be in any way dangerous or harmful.
  • You cannot reuse or copy them for a money-making activity. This is to protect our financial sustainability. There is more detail about this below.

We go into more detail in plain-language. It’s not perfect, but we’re on the right track. You can read the whole thing here.

At Book Dash, we focus on two phrases: ‘books that anyone can freely download, translate and distribute’ and ‘our work is our gift to the world’. We only use technical terms like ‘Creative Commons’ when there is space and time to do it properly.

If you’ve worked on translating open-licensing jargon into plain language, please let me know.

Book Dash: the power of the crowd + hard graft

For several months I’ve been working on Book Dash, an initiative to create high-quality, low-cost children’s books. We get creative pros to volunteer time to create the books, and help sponsors get them printed and distributed to children. I’ve written elsewhere on why this is commercially important in the long term, but right now it’s all for the love of children’s literacy.

In this interview, I sum up our story and our aims.

Right now, we’re raising money to get books printed by crowd-funding with Thundafund. It’s going well, but it’s been extremely hard work.

Crowd-funding is not easy money. But it is quick money, compared to other ways to get sponsorship. By the end of our campaign (mid December) I reckon we’ll have raised about R80K (we’re just short of R50K now with two weeks to go). We’ve spent about two months on the campaign, including planning.

Our campaign overheads are time (some provided to Book Dash on credit by Electric Book Works where Tarryn and I work, the rest as volunteering), the rewards we promise for donors, and Thundafund commission. Thundafund takes 5% commission for non-profits (as of yesterday, Book Dash is a registered NPO), which is fair enough – I estimate they have to see R1m raised to employ one manager for a month. And Thundafund adds a surprise card-transaction fee of about 3% for the donor to pay at checkout – something I think is a real pity, because it must annoy donors just when you want them to feel happiest. (I’d rather pay Thundafund 8% and hide that fee from the donor; but these are just wrinkles to iron out.)

We’ll probably end up spending 90% of the funds raised on printing books and 10% on related donor rewards and admin. If things work out well, there’s a good chance we’ll print even more books than we’ve promised.

For Book Dash’s general overheads to date over six months, Electric Book Works has provided interest-free long-term credit totalling about R100K (with about R50K to come). It’s been very expensive for EBW, but we’re trying to be the change we want to see in the industry.

We’re learning fast, but never fast enough.