Three things every editor should know about digital publishing

A while ago I gave this talk at the Cape Town Professional Editors Group. Here are my speaking notes.

Today, every passage you edit will sooner or later be read on screen. This digital world desperately needs our craft and high standards, but what does that mean for our daily work? In this talk I’ll pick out three big, important issues, and talk about some of the tools we’re using to tackle them. The first is text-only editing. That is, the end of word processing as we know it. The second is real-time, collaborative editing. And third, automagical pagination: how do we edit when there’s no such thing as ‘page two’?

So what does this digitisation thing really mean for editors? I think, basically, it means you’re editing text that will be read on a screen. Importantly, you’re editing text that will be read on a screen and on paper.

Now if you’re going to edit for the screen, the single most important thing is to actually read on a screen yourself. If you aren’t reading on screen, you simply cannot edit for the screen. Just like you can’t fix a car if you’ve never ridden in one.

That said, we are all busy people and there is an infinite amount to learn about computers: the rate at which the technium evolves far outstrips the rate that we can understand it. Even the greatest minds in computing readily admit that the Internet is now bigger and more complex than any one person understands.

So the trick is to not try too hard to learn it. Rather, just start using web- and screen-oriented tools and the learning will come when you need it. No one went to a whole seminar on how to use email before they sent an email.

In the next thirty minutes or so I’ll pick out three big, important developments and talk about some of the tools we’re using to tackle them. This is basically show and tell.

The first is text-only editing. That is, the end of word processing as we know it.

The second is real-time, collaborative editing.

And third, I’ll talk a little about automagical pagination: how do we edit when there’s no such thing as ‘page two’?

Text-only editing

First, what is text-only editing? Text-only editing is editing in plain-text files. When you do this, you’ll probably be using a particular writing structure called Markdown. For instance, let’s use Stackedit to write plain-text markdown. Type on the left, and on the right Stackedit turns our plain text into formatted HTML.

On the left, I type plain text in a markdown structure. On the right, formatted HTML.

On the left, I type plain text in a markdown structure. On the right, formatted HTML.

What we’re seeing here is the separation of content (which is structured text and image-references only) from formatting and design.

What are the big advantages of text-only editing?

  1. Smaller, faster files.
  2. Computers need perfect consistency (the digital age is a wonderful place for obsessive copy editors). Here the tools force our hand, and we learn to be less sloppy.
  3. Text-only means fewer copy-paste messes (when you copy paste into a new document and the fonts go all weird), because I’m getting only and exactly what I’m seeing. Plain text. We do have learn some new tricks like unicode glyphs (there is no ‘Insert symbol’ font or formatting gimmicks, like superscripting an o for a degrees symbol). This is actually a good thing, even if it seems like more work at first while we learn its tricks.
  4. Less file corruption, because there is simply less going on – less code to go wrong.
  5. Better version control, especially if you learn to use a tool like Git.

Collaborative editing

Collaborative editing has literally changed the way I write, edit and deliver documents.

What is collaborative editing? In short, me and someone else editing the same online document at the same time. The biggest tool for this is Google Docs.

What are the major pros of collaborative editing?

  1. It lets others watch while you work. And you can watch while others work. Publishing is weird because it’s always been a team sport played by lonely freelancers from their own home offices. Collaborative editing instantly makes the team aspect real and useful.
  2. You can use commenting for feedback and discussion. Track changes just isn’t the same as actual live annotation. No more emailing documents with increasing repetitions of the word ‘final’ in the file name. (Also, see Hypothesis.)
  3. Instant delivery of work and real-time review. As soon as you’re ready for your client to check something, share the doc and the ball’s in their court. So much editing is problem solving, and collaborative editing means the publisher-editor-designer are basically always in the room together at the same time.

I cannot believe that Google Docs has been around for years and people are still editing in MS Word. I promise, promise, promise you want to move all your writing and editing into Google Docs. (You could also use something similarly cloud-based with live collaborative editing but, for better or for worse, most people are familiar with Google and already have Google accounts).

Automagical pagination

Lastly, what is automagical pagination? Well, on screen, our software and screen size are going to decide how much text is on the ‘page’, the visible area in front of us. On screens we might refer to this as the ‘viewport’. If you’ve used Kindle, iBooks, or Google Play Books you probably know what this looks like.

There are a few key issues that arise when text flows into a viewport. And very importantly, when you’re editing the same text for both that viewport and also print output.

  1. Hyphenation and non-breaking spaces. Of course you never want to put a hard hyphen into a line because that line will be made and remade in countless different lengths in its life, and you don’t want your hyphens turning up in the middle of a line. You also don’t want the space in a number like 100 000 breaking over a line, so you need to learn how to insert a non-breaking space. And there are several other glyphs that have similar complications, like ellipses and en dashes.
  2. Cross-references. That is, referring to other places in the document. On screen, you can’t say ‘see page twenty’, because ‘page twenty’ is completely different on my computer and on my phone. You can’t say ‘Click here to go to the figure’, because in print there is nothing to click. And you can’t say, ‘in the figure below’, because on screen the figure might shift position. Common solutions are to introduce numbering systems for sections and figures, or to completely rephrase cross references. (Some smart digital-first workflows let you insert a variable that becomes a page reference in print, and is a hyperlink on screen.)
  3. Elements that appear on screen but not in print. For instance, let’s say you want to include a YouTube clip in an ebook, but you can’t have the clip in the print version. In some systems, it is possible to mark certain elements to appear in one version but be completely hidden in another.
  4. Minimalist courage. For maximum compatibility with unknown reading systems, you have to use fewer, more carefully-chosen features. You can’t have ten different variations on headings or boxes. Pick very few features, and treat them consistently with the same styling rules. Make no single-instance exceptions (e.g. never say “I’ll make this one heading smaller because otherwise it’ll look funny here.”)
  5. Strict content hierarchies. You have to place every feature of the book in a hierarchy, as if your whole book was a tree of trunk, branches and leaves. Computers need hierarchy.

There is lots more we could go into here but there isn’t enough time and we’d bore half the room. And as I suggested at the start, it doesn’t matter how much you try to stuff in your head now, when the only way to make it useful and make it stick is to deal with issues as they come up in your work.

I hope that you have some concrete questions, though, so we can spend some time dealing with those real issues that you’ve already come up against.

Uncapped: Can humans handle a blank cheque for data?

I remember the first time I used uncapped Internet. I was sitting in a friend’s coffee shop in Bristol, on a trip from South Africa, and my brain exploded. Till then, every time I’d clicked a link I’d worried about how much data it would use. I’d had to think carefully about every video, every download, every large page. And that anxiety was a constant force against browsing freely. That was just the way the web worked: you had a data allowance and, no matter how big it got, you had to use it wisely.

So uncapped Internet was not just fun, it was a revelation. Revolution, even. Suddenly nothing stood between me and anything my heart desired. I could indulge my curiosity at will. Games, video, porn, software, music, and learning. So. Much. Learning. That hour in a cafe in Bristol literally changed my life.

And now so many of us — almost anyone at the wealthier end of middle class — just take it for granted. Once we cross from limited to unlimited — from finite to infinite — we easily forget what it’s like to manage with limited resources. Our behaviour on one side of that line is very different from our behaviour on the other.

Doug Hoernle, founder of mobile-education business Rethink Education, tells me their young, low-income users are relentlessly careful about the data they consume on their phones. When a class is doing research, one student will open Wikipedia, screenshot the page, and WhatsApp the image to everyone else. This isn’t just to save data, but to ration it: they don’t know how big the Wikipedia page will be, but they can tell exactly how big a screenshot is before they download it. Similarly, before they decide to download a free app, they’ll check its size and calculate its cost in data: its real price. And even then, they’ll weigh up carefully whether that app’s size in their cheap phone’s memory is worth all the photos they could save in its place. For them, there is no such thing as ‘free’.

As much as I love unlimited data, it has a real danger: without a budgetary constraint on our browsing, there is far less pressure to choose carefully. We just open the Internet firehose and let it run. We’ll curate later, we think, and then we complain that there’s so much crap on the web and we never have any time for ourselves or our work. And then, perversely, we turn that firehose back on the web and upload our own stuff — often half-baked — for others to deal with.

Humans have a lot to learn about managing the firehose. I may learn a few tricks in my lifetime, and I’ll pass them on to my son, who’ll learn a few more. It’ll take generations for us to be comfortable, confident, happy dealing with an unlimited supply of information.

For some of those lessons, we should look to those who’re still capped, for whom every byte counts. How do they make their decisions? Who influences them? What sites and apps really matter? Are their constraints teaching them — at least till they cross that great divide — how to be more discerning people? Maybe they have something to teach us about priorities.

(This post was first published on Medium.)

Institutional licensing: the next textbook business model

Right now, in South Africa, the textbook-publishing industry faces a real threat to its future, because – faced with constant non-delivery of books – government is desperate to change the way it buys them. Other countries face similar challenges. Government officials often cite the ‘high price of books’ as a key issue. Whether you buy the state’s argument or not (I don’t, though I get why they’re fed up), the system is going to change, and publishers can either lead the change or be changed.

Are textbook publishers planning or being planned for? (image by Pedro Vezini, CC-BY-NC-SA, Flickr)

Are publishers planning or being planned for?

To have any real effect, the change must be a fundamental change in the mainstream textbook business model: instead of selling copies, we must sell licences. Specifically, we must sell licences with no limitations on the number of downstream copies. This is especially urgent and appropriate for school books, though it’ll work for universities and colleges, too. And it’s perfectly suited to a digital future of tablets and ebooks. Best of all, it will save government money and make publishers’ jobs simpler.

I’ll describe the model in some detail as I see it, and please contribute your thoughts and criticisms in the comments or directly with me. I’m particularly interested in hearing where similar models have already been implemented.

The textbook problem

The root of our problem is per-copy pricing. (I’ve written about this at length before.) From the moment they’re conceived to the time they’re paid for, textbooks are priced per copy:

  • If I’m a commissioning editor planning a new book, I use a spreadsheet to cost it. First, I enter my per-copy selling price, based primarily on what my customers are used to paying. Then I multiply that price by a sales guesstimate, and work out my production costs. If price × sales covers my costs, leaving some profit (often 10–15% nett), I can publish.
  • If I’m a writer, my potential royalty is a small percentage of the per-copy price. Will it justify the time I’ll spend writing? I do the maths in my head to work out how much I get from every book sold; but I have to gamble: what I’ll really earn is utterly unpredictable.
  • If I’m a marketing person, my job is to convince customers that my per-copy price represents ‘good value’, as if the effect of a given book on a child’s education can be reduced to currency. I may have a lot of work to do if I’m going to hit the publisher’s sales guesstimate. Or not – there is really no telling beforehand.
  • If I’m a state employee buying books for schools, I want to work out how many copies I can buy. So I divide my budget by the per-copy price of the books. For instance, one million rand divided by R100 per copy equals 10 000 copies. If I want more books, I ask the publisher to lower their price (or I change the rules to force a race to the per-copy-price bottom). The publisher then makes a judgement call, weighing maximum profitability against the possibility of losing the sale.

Here is a scary truth: from a textbook’s conception till the day the cash is banked, the whole system is based on false assumptions. The per-copy price is based on predicted sales, but there is no way to accurately predict sales for a given book. When future sales are always a wild guess, every aspect of a book’s financial forecast is fictional. So the per-copy price is fictional, too. For any given book, the ideal per-copy price is probably much higher or much lower than it needs to be to make the publisher a sensible margin.

Per-copy prices only start looking accurate when averaged out over dozens of loss-making and profit-making books. Once you’ve sold many different books, this fiction begins to look like truth, till we hear publishers say, in defending their prices, ‘books must cost x per copy because it costs y to create them’. Publishers say this all the time, but it’s an illusion of averages, a mirage of the fictional world we’ve chosen to sell our books in.

This is why larger publishers seem so much more successful than small publishers: the big ones don’t make better decisions, they just publish enough books to even out their guesswork.

Since everyone is in on the price-per-copy game, the entire industry is set up to make the fiction look like truth, by building business models around per-copy margins.

How did we end up in this fiction? We confused customers with beneficiaries, and our product with our solution. When your customer is your beneficiary, per-copy-pricing makes sense, as it does in general-interest publishing – when I buy a novel for myself I am the customer and the beneficiary. But in education, especially in state schooling, large institutions are our customers and their students are our beneficiaries. The state doesn’t want ‘ten thousand copies’, it wants ‘every child to have textbooks’. Those are two fundamentally different products. As publishers, we keep trying to sell ‘ten thousand copies’, when we should be selling the solution to the state’s problem.

The licensing alternative

Per-copy pricing is so ingrained that an alternative model seems inconceivable. But licensing is not only worth exploring, it’s already happening. As I’ll explain later, it’s been around for years under other names.

What do I mean by licensing? Instead of selling copies of finished textbooks (in paper or as rights-managed ebooks), a publisher sells a single, flat-fee licence to an institution. That licence lets the institution produce and distribute as many copies as they like for their beneficiaries, in print and digitally, for as long as they like.

For example, let’s say the state needs to give each learner a grade-ten maths textbook. It has to allow for a lot of uncertainty:

  • It doesn’t know how many learners will take maths over the next few years.
  • It doesn’t know when central government will change the curriculum.
  • Some learners need the book in print, and others as an ebook. This ratio will vary constantly across the country.
  • Different schools have different kinds of learners, so schools need to be able to choose, from a wide range, the books that best suit theirs.

The state’s textbook team looks at several publishers’ books and identifies their favourites by publishing an approved-books list. Teachers then get to see the books and say which ones they want to teach with.

In the traditional per-copy-pricing system, provinces would estimate how many copies they need before placing orders. For the ebooks, they’d have to know whether the publishers’ ebooks will work with the province’s ebook platform, and especially their DRM scheme, and whether those ebooks come with time-restricted licences (e.g. some publishers’ ebooks expire after, say, three years). Some provinces also work through bookstores, whose margins are included in per-copy prices.

Under a licence-based system, instead, central government would buy a licence from each publisher in return for a flat fee. Each publisher hands over a set of open digital files watermarked (in document metadata and on visible pages) with plain-language details of the licence. For instance, the title page says ‘Smart Maths 10 may be freely used by teachers and learners at government schools in South Africa. For any other uses, contact the publisher.’ Each publisher provides the state with:

  • a print-ready PDF
  • a web-optimised PDF
  • an epub file.
  • Potentially a web-based, free-to-view version.
  • Potentially a content-database API.

Each of these formats makes the licence more valuable to the state. The licence lets the state print their own copies centrally in big runs, and lets its schools and parents print their own extra copies as needed. The licence lets them email the ebooks, with no digital rights management, to all their schools. This gives all teachers electronic access to all approved textbooks, in addition to the printed copies of the one they chose for their own students. This diversity enriches their teaching and exposes teachers to new publishing brands.

If the publisher provides a content-database API, too, the state, provinces and schools can integrate the content and exercises into Learner Management Systems. (This is turn feeds usage data to the publisher. If there is a free-to-view website version, the publisher also gets to collect data on user behaviour there.)

Importantly, there is no need for expensive DRM systems to control access to digital textbooks. Right now, the per-copy-pricing model requires installing and maintaining content servers running DRM schemes that uniquely identify devices and students and lock content to each, tracking identities with hardware addresses and user logins. In under-resourced state schools, DRM is going to be a massive, complicated expense fraught with technical and educational problems. With DRM-free ebooks and free-to-view websites, all that goes away. Learners and parents can even use their own devices in addition to those provided by the state or the school, which in turn mitigates the problem of lost or damaged devices and the security risk of having children carry valuable devices around.

The licence fee

The big question is this: how much should a licence cost?

We can safely say that a high-school textbook costs about R1m (US$100K) to create. That includes paying writers, editors, artists, photographers, designers, developers, project managers, and management and admin support staff, all of whom will be working on several books at a time. That means that for a R2m licence fee, a publisher could make a good margin that lets them invest in new books before future licence deals are secured, and cross-subsidises titles that don’t get licensed.

What would it change for the state? We can make some ballpark estimates. If a country has 100 000 grade-ten learners enrolled for maths, and buys a R120-per-copy textbook for each one, it’ll spend R12m on physical books before distribution costs. If they can’t deliver a copy to every child (perhaps they under-order or under-deliver in some districts, as often happens), they’ll incur further purchasing and logistical costs to fill the gaps. If they want to buy a further, say, 10 000 ebooks at R100 each, they’ll spend another R1m before the cost of DRM infrastructure, training and maintenance. If we conservatively ballpark the DRM setup at R10m per year, the state is in for at least R23m. (Today, the South African government budgets about R5bn for books, which is very roughly R20–50m per subject per grade.)

Let’s say the state wants ten different maths textbooks for teachers to choose from. If they bought a once-off R2m licence from each publisher instead, they’d spend R20m on licences. The state could then print 100 000 copies for, say, R3m, depending on the books’ specs.

But now that the licence is paid for, next year they could print more copies without paying any further fee. Schools could fill their own gaps by printing off extra copies on school copiers or at nearby print shops, reducing the need for top-up orders. This saving would apply every year till the curriculum changes, when the publisher creates a new book for a new licence sale. Curriculum changes and updates are inevitable, so there will always be work for publishers.

Moreover, there is almost no cost for distributing ebooks, because there is no need for DRM, which is a major cost factor in ebook distribution, given the skills and server infrastructure required to manage it.

Licence fees would likely be negotiated over time and price bands might settle. Ideally, quality, popularity and value-added services (such as LMS-pluggability or multi-platform support) might factor into final pricing. This would be an important way to keep a diverse range of publishers in business. Book diversity is critical to a healthy educational system.


What happens when the textbook leaks out of the institution? For instance, if a private school uses the textbook that was licensed to the state. Or, in contravention of the licence terms, a university puts on its intranet a textbook only licensed to another university.

Exactly what happens today when an institution illegally copies a book for its students: the publisher can choose to take legal action. Under a licence-based system, this is much easier to do than in the per-copy-pricing system:

  • Firstly, the licensed files can be watermarked (and even digitally fingerprinted), which makes them trackable and identifiable downstream. The traditional per-copy-pricing system makes watermarking a book with every customer’s details very difficult.
  • Second, institutions that matter as customers are generally easy to identify and take legal action against. They are legally exposed and must stay above the law just to stay in business.

Of course it would still be important that anyone can buy single copies from publishers at a per-copy price for small-scale or private use. But those sales would be small compared to licence-based revenue.

Institutional licensing by any other name

Licensing like this is not new. The DBE’s printing and distribution of Siyavula books is one similar system. While Siyavula books are open-licensed for anyone, not just for a specific institution, the effect is the same. Essentially, Siyavula’s philanthropic and corporate funders have paid the licence fee up front on behalf of the education system. From then on, the state can distribute copies for as long as the books suit the curriculum.

Institutional licensing is already the norm for many publications: every time any institution commissions a publication, they are effectively buying a licence to make and distribute unlimited copies to their beneficiaries. For instance, if a medical company pays a small firm to brand a book on diabetes for them, they can print and give away as many copies as they like. Many media-production companies run this way, producing IP for institutions to distribute to their beneficiaries. There is no reason this can’t work for the ones we call textbook-publishing companies.

There will still be a measure of risk-for-reward: a publisher is a company that invests in creating content in advance of a sale. After much of the initial investment is made, the state must approve and buy the licence for the investment to pay off. But licensing is a much simpler model than per-copy pricing, and with fewer marketing overheads.

In another way, institutional licensing is already baked into the DNA of the publishing industry. When a publishing company signs a contract with an author and pays a flat fee for the right to distribute their work, they are entering into exactly the kind of unlimited-copy, institutional licensing scheme I’m describing.

The challenge

To become reality, institutional licensing for textbooks requires a special kind of alchemy: perfect timing. The state must phase in a licence system at a time that fits with curriculum change and book-publishing timeframes. This is very difficult. And publishers must be ready to sell licences when the state comes knocking, despite limited resources and immediate challenges.

In South Africa, our current crisis provides, perhaps, the opportunity we need: a state department determined to change the way they buy books, and a clan of publishing companies facing an uncertain future. We are about to see what we’re made of, and it’s an exciting time to play a part.

Towards a global children’s book repository

Earlier this year I was lucky to attend a fascinating meeting in Washington DC, hosted by USAID and Worldvision (among others), to brainstorm around the idea of a global online repository for children’s reading materials. I’d been invited largely to contribute our experience building distributed print-on-demand at Paperight.

The final report from that meeting is now available – click here for the PDF. (Or visit the project’s site here.) Out of lively and long discussion, several areas of sensible consensus emerged. For me, the most important was that the world doesn’t need more repositories. Rather, we need to strengthen those that exist, and to develop standards that allow them to interact.

From the report summary:

In the first sessions, participants agreed that a) a number of digital “repositories” already exist which could be strengthened, expanded upon, and/or linked to to promote access to relevant early grade reading materials, b) a directory to consolidate access to these dispersed sources is needed to meet objectives of a repository, c) there is a need for more materials to be catalyzed, produced, identified, digitized, etc. for inclusion in any collection(s) and d) a more thorough landscape reviews of existing platforms should be taken. Both as a prerequisite for this, and as a desirable standalone initiative, a metadata standard for early grade reading materials should be developed. Beyond this, the participants emphasized the importance of developing appropriate user-interfaces, promoting good practices in developing and “storing” materials conducive for print and electronic dissemination, ensuring usability with assistive technologies, creating a repository that could host new collections of early grade reading materials (rather than simply linking to materials in existing repositories), and encouraging the translation of existing content into different languages.
The main points of divergence among participants in these early sessions focused on whether to include both commercial and freely available content (on balance – yes) and whether to screen the types of early grade reading materials made available, particularly materials which may be deemed culturally insensitive and controversial (on balance – no).

I’ve highlighted key concepts in bold there. If this is your field, take a moment to look through the report and let me know your thoughts. I’ll be sure to gather and feed them back to the team behind it. Given that this discussion may inform big funding decisions by USAID and others organisations in future, it’s important that all those working in this area put their minds to getting it right.

A publisher’s journey to tech and back

In 2005, I left a big-publishing job and, without knowing it, set out on a mission to reimagine publishing for emerging markets. Since then I’ve worked on dozens of innovative technology projects, from creating musical ebooks to teaching maths on tablets. And now, after nine years hacking through the technology jungle, I’m a bigger believer than ever in the power of paper. This is the text of a talk about that, originally delivered at U3A in Greyton near Cape Town.

I used to be a textbook publisher for two multinational companies. And when you’re a book publisher you realise pretty quickly that you either make books for rich people, or you sell cookie-cutter textbooks to government. Most people in the world – perhaps six or seven billion – could never buy the books you make.

Most South Africans, we can be fairly sure, live their entire lives without owning a book.

A 2006 study showed that “80% of South African children were not yet reading with comprehension after five years of schooling.” (Stephen Taylor et al). in 2011, 53% of all Grade 3 children and 70% of all Grade 6 children scored less than 35% on the Annual National Assessment language test (Nal’ibali).

So why is the world like this?


Well, all traditional publishing works like this:

  1. The publisher develops a finished product, based on their best guess of market needs.
  2. Then manufactures it.
  3. Stores it.
  4. Ships it.
  5. Then a retailer displays it.
  6. Sells a few copies.
  7. And returns or destroys the copies not sold.

This is very expensive: not only are there multiple links in the supply chain adding costs and very little value, but the risk of getting the initial product design wrong is high. Many publishers will tell you that only one in ten books makes money. So, as a result, the industry’s customers must be wealthy to pay for all this, and its retailers must be located close to those wealthy consumers. This is as true online as it is in bricks.

The industry can’t expand beyond these little clusters of wealthy consumers. It’s stuck. And in this form it can’t even live up to its name, ‘publishing’: to make public, and so to spread stories and education and professional knowledge. It’s a problem that, in South Africa, I like to call the trap of very exclusive books.

Only a disruptive innovation could solve this problem, an innovation that fundamentally changes the way that books are made and distributed.

And in big publishing companies that would be hard to achieve, because of what Clayton Christensen famously described as the innovator’s dilemma: big companies must meet their current customers’ needs, and this prevents them from investing in the very disruptive innovations that will ultimately destroy them, especially in low-margin markets.


Early attempts

In 2006 I left big publishing to start Electric Book Works, a small consultancy that would set examples for innovative publishing, with a focus on technology. My co-founders and I were a rag tag bunch of friends who wanted to use technology to make digital products, and also just to make paper books more efficiently.

But over the next few years, we failed again and again at creating good, replicable examples of inclusive books.

Here are some of the things we tried.

  • We made ebooks for publishers at loss-making margins to try to spur demand, and did lots of training of their staff: but we had to do it at very low margins because publishers needed to avoid spending money on what was really R&D.
  • We developed super lean production processes in creating a service that helped authors self-publish books, providing high quality design and international print and ebook distribution: but authors underestimated what it costs to create a book and we couldn’t make it viable.
  • We created ebooks with soundtracks, to test whether buyers would pay for more than just the story, but they didn’t. Perhaps bandwidth was too low to make the big files popular, and many popular ereaders didn’t support the technology standards we had to use. Perhaps people didn’t care.
  • We let nurses read our healthcare books and do quizzes and earn certificates online: but nurses couldn’t get to computers and didn’t have email addresses or credit cards for registering on our site.
  • We helped South Africa’s biggest media companies with their ebook plans, but just couldn’t mount a real challenge to Amazon, and we suspect that four years later they’re still not making a profit.

In many of these cases we were too early for the market, and that’s okay. We learned many valuable lessons and I don’t regret that. The biggest lesson was that by reaching for technological solutions to problems, most of the time you just create a new set of problems. Technology is no panacea.

Importantly, none of these innovations really spurred more reading among those who hadn’t bought books before. Maybe 45 million South Africans, ninety per cent of us. We were just making more products for the wealthy, and leaving everyone else behind.

Meanwhile, the digital divide, between the Internet haves and have-nots, kept getting worse as the lure of technology drew in more and more institutions, leading them to provide digital products for the wealthy, and to stop providing paper products that the poor once shared in.

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica went out of print – so you won’t find an up-to-date printed encyclopaedia in a libraries ever again.
  • Maps went online.
  • UNISA took its postgrad courses online.
  • Combined with a lack of imagination in the industry, piracy (copying and online) continued to make textbooks so expensive that poor students go without.
  • And digital became so sexy that even though paper still accounts for the lion’s share of the market, almost everyone has rushed to spend R&D money on digital, and have stopped innovating around paper.

It took several years for me to realise that the innovation we needed in South Africa would not come from a new, first-world technology. Adopting new technologies requires disposable income and the space and time to learn new things, and human beings are stingy and don’t change quickly.

For example, even in the US, fourteen years since ebooks became widely available, and after seven years of massive investment and ebook cost-cutting by Amazon, no more than 30% of all books purchased there are ebooks.

Given the ecosystem of devices, data, support and credit cards that they require, ebooks are just as exclusive as traditional books. Their overheads are just easier to take for granted when you’re rich.

Intermediate technology

So I realised we wouldn’t solve the problem in South Africa by throwing ereaders at schoolchildren, or asking everyone to read their textbooks on tiny feature phone screens. I’m glad some of my closest friends are working on that stuff, it’s important for the future, but right now we need something really simple to bandage our reading crisis. Something that requires no new infrastructure or technology. Something that builds on the energy of entrepreneurs and small businesses. It had to work for established publishers, but not rely on them to change their businesses.

Because, sadly, the local publishing industry seems utterly impervious to real change. And so it cannot seem to do anything substantial about the literary and digital divides, despite the desperate, desperate need for accessible, cheap books in South Africa.

Here’s an example of how bad the situation is.


The value of local print publishing in 2012 by language:

  • English: over R156m
  • Afrikaans: over R156m
  • All 9 official African languages together: under R1.7m.

That means all 9 official African languages account for 0.005% of local print publishing. That’s five thousandths of a percent.

Let’s drill down to local fiction publishing in 2012 by language:


  • English: R19.5m
  • Afrikaans: R48.7m
  • All 9 official African languages together: R17000.

That’s 0.0002% of local fiction publishing.

We’re told that technology is changing publishing: but after 20 years in publishing I see no real change at all. I see deckchairs shuffling, but the products are really the same, the business models are the same, and the people are certainly the same. I’m one of them.

What has happened is that, without meaning to, the formal publishing industry has found itself holding South Africa to ransom, saying: “pay us what we need to survive without changing, or we will lock up the country’s textbooks and literature behind expensive pricing, inaccessible technology, and bookshops in suburban malls. And if you can’t pay, then that’s too bad.”

In tackling this disaster, I wanted to find an intermediate technology to distribute books cheaply and sustainably.

Building Paperight

One answer may have arrived during a research project in 2008: there are thousands of photocopy shops around South Africa, printing CVs and flyers and booklets, and photocopying books every day. These shops are in city streets, townships, and rural villages. They’re in schools and churches, at the backs of hair salons and in converted shipping containers. We only needed to harness their power, and make it legal and easy for them to print and sell books.


The key is ‘legal’: copy shops have long had a reputation for copying and selling books illegally. Where that is true, it’s because they are meeting the needs of their communities in ways the formal book industry can’t. I wanted to bring this informal market into the formal distribution chain, for everyone’s benefit.

So in 2011, with the Shuttleworth Foundation as our investors, I gathered a team and began building Paperight: a network of independent copy shops that print books out for customers quickly and legally.


Our website,, enables any print shop with an Internet connection to print out and sell books, paying only a small licence fee per book from a prepaid account. Amazingly, publishers can make the same margins that they do from their fancy editions, and still the total cost to the customer is usually less than a traditional book.

More importantly, the customer just walks to their local copy shop for it: no long trips to the bookstore to discover they’re out of stock, or waiting weeks for a delivery. No need for a credit card.

Books made on copy-printers are an example of what EF Schumacher, over fifty years ago, called an ‘intermediate technology’: a technology that’s more advanced than the poor are used to, but cheaper to set up than the first world’s cutting-edge stuff. Base of pyramid initiatives will always rely on intermediate technologies to be sustainable.

Intermediate technologies work today. Our member copy shops across the country have delivered thousands of books, many in places where no bookstores exist, like Peddie in the rural Eastern Cape, and the CBDs of Khayelitsha.


But we won’t survive on those sales, they’re too low to sustain us. And to be honest, copy shop staff really struggle to think like booksellers.

I thought that by making books cheaper and easier to find on your doorstep, people would buy books. But I was wrong. I had underestimated the behaviour change necessary to create book buyers.

Behaviour change

I grew up in a non-foodie family. We lived on fish fingers and macaroni cheese. It was great. I had no wish for anything else. But when I met my wife I discovered things like vanilla pods, cumin and pomegranates, things I kind of knew existed but would never have bought for myself. I had no conception what I’d do with them, or that there was any reason to spend money on them, even though they’d always been in the supermarket right in front of me.

The same goes for a person who grew up without books. If you’ve grown up in a home without books, and your parents never had books, why would you suddenly start buying books just because you now can?

So to change behaviour, we need to do much more than put books in copy shops. I believe there are three key ideas that might be part of the solution.

  1. We have to make tertiary level textbooks effectively free. It’s ridiculous that exactly the students who are most book-poor can’t afford textbooks. And when students get to college or university, it may be our last chance to get them into the habit of reading.
  2. We have to grow readers from a young age. Growing readers is like growing bonsai: start early and take a twenty-year view. That means giving away a great many children’s books.
  3. We have to instill a love of literature in people’s home languages.

Free textbooks

First, free tertiary textbooks. To understand the textbook problem, we need to understand how textbook publishing works.


When you buy a textbook, 70% of the price goes to the supply chain: printing, shipping, warehousing, wastage and retail. Now of course universities could subsidise this by buying in bulk from publishers and recovering the cost from fees. But they don’t: they require students to buy their own books because the university can’t predict what students are going to register for. (And because they’ve always done things one way and lack the will to change, but that’s another story.)

Today, we can change that in two ways:

  1. Print-on-demand paid from tuition fees: the moment a student registers, their textbooks could be printed on demand nearby, the same day, and collected tomorrow. The publisher would earns a rights fee, either through a system like Paperight or direct to the publisher.
  2. Open textbooks: textbooks developed by experts paid up front from philanthropy, and available for anyone to download and print (and adapt as needed) freely. There are many superb open textbooks available already, and where there aren’t, universities could easily afford to pay their best teachers to create them. (They would need to be slightly less obsessed with research outputs and a little more attentive to undergraduate teaching, but that’s also another story.)

In South Africa, open textbooks are already arriving in schools: the Department of Basic Education prints and distributes open textbooks created by Siyavula. In higher education, my company’s nursing textbooks are open-licensed. We still make money because people want to buy professional-looking books from us, but if anyone wants to make their own copies, we aren’t going to stop that. We want people to use our material, because the more they use it, the more dependent they’ll become on it, and the more we can build new revenue models around that.

Growing readers

Second, we must grow readers from a very young age. How many books would you like your children or grandchildren to own by the age of five? What is best for their development? 100? 500?

Let’s aim just to have every child own 100 books by the age of 5.

Imagine if we’d given away 500 million free children’s books in 1994. I think we’d live in a very different country now. We certainly wouldn’t be complaining that university students are graduating without being able to write a letter. We’d be selling more fiction. We’d have more smart young entrepreneurs.  We’d have better read, wiser and more eloquent leaders emerging in youth movements.

Today, to give every child under five a hundred books we have to give away 600 million books.

How can we afford to buy those from publishers? Never. Not only would it cost a staggering amount, but more importantly, the vested interests would be immense. A purchase order for a million books? The potential for corruption would be overwhelming. As a publisher you’d do almost anything to get your books among those being purchased in such big numbers.

Instead, we have to get volunteers to create books that anyone can print and distribute freely. Top writers and illustrators putting in their own time on solving a national crisis. Volunteer development has worked for years in software — open-source software runs most of the Internet. I see no reason it can’t work in children’s books.

Then we can get sponsors to print large quantities at the cheapest printers in the world, and give them away everywhere: every creche, every supermarket, every clinic. Imagine a world where free children’s books are as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola.

So my newest project, called Book Dash, aims to do that.


Literature in local languages

Finally, we have to help young readers discover literature in their own languages. We are among very few countries to translate almost no major international bestsellers into local languages. If a teenager can’t get Harry Potter or Twilight in their home language, what are they supposed to read? That’s what the English kids are reading.

We simply must translate at least the major bestsellers, and make them available as audiobooks and cheap paperbacks.

Right now we’re negotiating the translation rights for a major international bestseller, and pitching for funding for the translation. We’ll start small by serialising the first few chapters as audio on radio, to see the response.

I have no idea how these grand experiments are going to turn out. But whatever happens, my eight-year learning curve shows no sign of levelling out. And I wouldn’t want it to, either.