Transit: being stuck, clearing debt, and investing in yourself

This is a talk I gave at a Creative Mornings Cape Town online event on 30 October 2020. Creative Mornings is an international network of city-based chapters, who’d normally meet once a month in their city. The worldwide organisation picks a theme each month, and all its speakers that month speak to that theme. For this talk, that theme was ‘Transit’, the journey we take between two points.

Hi, it’s great to be talking to you, and thank you for giving your time to be here.

I want to start out by saying:

I believe there is no such thing as ‘advice’.

There are only other people’s stories. So, if I go and generalise in this talk and sound like I’m expounding some universal law, well, you decide for yourself whether our stories align, and take from this only what you find useful.

I also like to think everything happens for a reason that you can make up afterwards.

And those reasons we make up afterwards matter. Because if we didn’t make up stories like this for ourselves, our lives would seem unbearably random.

So, at first, what I really wanted to do today was tell a story about something I did. Some set of decisions I took that led to some beautiful book or exciting project. Because we do a lot of that at Electric Book Works, where my team and I make books and websites, and at Book Dash, the children’s book non-profit I help to lead.

The word 'Transit' on a white background.

But, this month’s theme is ‘transit’.

And the more I thought about transit, the more I realised that there is another story in all our lives, which is the story of what happens between the doing of things. When we’re no longer doing A, and not yet doing B.

So I thought back and asked, what happened when I wasn’t moving forward? When I was in the empty spaces. The passive spaces.

A spread from Dr Seuss's 'Oh, the Places You'll Go', showing a small man walking along a winding road to an eerie castle.

What Dr Seuss calls The Waiting Place.

One minute we’re trotting along, full of beans, in control. The next minute, we grind to a halt, often for reasons beyond our control. And find ourselves in The Waiting Place.

I suspect many of us are feeling stuck this year. I know I am, in at least one area: the healthcare non-profit I help lead, called Bettercare, has been flattened by the pandemic. We could no longer employ a wonderful colleague, and we’ve had to shutter most of our services. We are no longer where we were, and not yet where we want to be. We are stuck in the Waiting Place.

The wing of an aeroplane in flight, photographed from inside the plane.

And when any of us get stuck, we take a seat on a kind of cosmic public transit, and wait. It’s as if we’re on a bus or a plane, sitting still: but whether we like it or not, we’re being moved from where we once were to where we will be. And we don’t know where we’ll land up.

And there’s a big difference between being on a trip we’ve chosen, and finding ourselves stuck on one chosen for us. But that’s the way the world works: whether we like it or not, either we’re doing the moving, or we’re stuck and the world is moving us. Life doesn’t stop. It just starts making our decisions for us.

In this swirling universe, there is no such thing as being stationary.

I have a funny story about public transit.

It’s become a personal metaphor for me. A few years ago, I was travelling to a kind of retreat near Merida, in rural Mexico, and had to fly via Mexico City Airport. So, Mexico City Airport had a lot of flights, but not as many gates, so several flights might board from one gate at the same time. This was pretty unnerving, but everyone else seemed totally fine with it.

So, I muddle my way to the plane, find my seat, and sit there for a long time, until another passenger clambers in and tells me that I’m in his seat. I’m a bit taken aback, and show him my boarding pass; and then his eyes widen and he tells me quietly that I am on the wrong plane.

Somehow, no one who’d checked my boarding pass had noticed. So after some general panic and confusion, the ground staff rocketed me across the tarmac in a small bakkie to the right plane – this plane – which, thankfully, was still waiting, despite my strange disappearance.

And I often wonder what would have happened if I’d landed somewhere entirely unfamiliar, on the other side of Mexico, not knowing where on earth I was.

Now, of course, every time I’m on a plane I know that I really might be on the wrong one. I hate that! And that feeling is what the Waiting Place is like.

You’re not making the decisions, and you could land up anywhere! So when life sticks us in the Waiting Place, it can be really hard.

A page from Dr Seuss's 'Oh, the Places You'll Go' showing a sad character whose hot-air balloon has burst and is caught on a tree.

But it’s going to happen. And it’s going to keep happening.

So, how should I make sense of these sudden stops?

If I can make sense of them, if I can make up some reason for them, maybe they won’t feel so unfair and disempowering, and I’ll weather them better.

Okay. So. There have been a couple of ways I’ve landed in the Waiting Place. Maybe you’ll recognise these in your own story.

The words 'Bad luck and not enough resources.' on a white background

Sometimes, the world just bursts my bubble. It’s like an earthquake, or a pandemic, or just bad luck. I don’t have the resources to weather the storm, and there’s nothing I can do.

The words 'Bad luck and not enough resources. Or push too hard, till things break.' on a white background.

And at other times, I push so hard that something breaks. Maybe I push myself till I get sick. Or I overspend on a project. I don’t manage my resources, and that’s totally on me.

In both cases, I want to understand what happened. And I want to know what to do with myself while I’m stuck in the Waiting Place.

The logo for Paperight, a blue P with the word 'paperight' below it

Back in 2014, my startup, Paperight, was crashing.

I’d been through the crash of a startup before, five years earlier, but this was much worse.

The Paperight team of 11 people

At Paperight, we had a big, bold vision: we wanted every book within walking distance of every home. And what we did towards that was make it possible, and legal, for photocopy shops to print books out for you on demand.

The shop window of a high-end copy shop offering print-on-demand study guides

You walk into any photocopy shop, ask for a book, and they could print it out for you while you wait. The copy shop pays a small licence fee, and you pay for that and the printing. And anyone with a printer-copier could be a reseller like this.

A sign on a wall saying Arnie's Printing, and including the Paperight logo

We could slash the cost of books by 40 per cent, and because we cut out so much of the supply chain – like warehousing and delivery – publishers still earned the same amount of money per copy as they did from their regular editions.

A page from a magazine, headline 'No Textbooks? No Problem!' and a photograph of a man holding a printout, outside a rural home.

We had over four hundred registered copy shops, and two thousand books in our catalogue. We were winning innovation prizes around the world, we were congratulated in Parliament, and I was on TV and the covers of magazines. We were being generously funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation.

An advert with a stylised image of Che Guevara saying 'SHAWCO has joined the #textbookrevolution

But all this time, we couldn’t sign the one kind of book we most needed: university textbooks. Those were the sweet spot: there was huge demand for them, and they carried a substantial licence fee that would have made us sustainable. But: higher-ed publishers just would not sign with us. They could not bring themselves to treat copy shops as legitimate booksellers, rather than sites of piracy.

The Paperight logo slated and leaving the image at the bottom

And after five years trying, I eventually had to admit defeat.

It was a crushing blow to my confidence. And I was really bitter. I’d really thought we had a way to put every book within walking distance of every home, and to spark the kind of reading culture that every publisher dreams of publishing for. And I could not believe that so many people had brushed that off as wishful thinking.

Anyway, I knew Paperight was on the ropes, but we hadn’t made that public yet. I felt really stuck. Paperight’s future was out of my control.

And the thing about being a solo founder when everything’s coming apart is that you feel very, very alone. And I think something in that loneliness made me wonder, in a kind of petulant, ‘I’ll show you all’ way, if we really needed to work with all these publishers to make a real difference. What could we do without them? Did we really need their help to get more books to people? If we couldn’t distribute other publishers’ books, what if we just made our own books?

I remember going on these really, really long runs, because that was one place I felt I could think creatively. And on one of them, by the time I got home I knew that, even if Paperight was going to die, at least I was going to make children’s books and give them away.

I thrashed out the idea with my colleague Tarryn and my wife Michelle, and we called it ‘Book Dash’

Scenes from a Book Dash event show people collaborating at desks in an office

And two months later we held our first book-making event, where we created two new children’s books in one day. By the end of the year, we’d published 20 books and crowd-funded thousands of free copies for children.

And back then, I could not imagine that today, six years later, we’d have published 146 books, and that next month a child will get our one-millionth free book, delivered in a Santa’s Shoebox for Christmas. A million books!

Still, all that was yet to come.

The Paperight team of 11 people looking serious

Right then, I still had a problem: I had no way to pay salaries.

I still had a dying company on my hands. I spent the next twelve months grasping at straws, and steadily letting the team go. Until eventually I shut everything down.

The Paperight office, empty

And to pay my own bills, I went back to the thing that had got me through the last time a business failed: doing freelance book layout from home, and trying to sell healthcare books with Bettercare, a little business I’d started before Paperight. But, man, I was finished.

The Paperight experience had wiped out my confidence: I had genuinely lost the ability to make decisions, or to feel sure about anything.

And while outwardly I kept up a brave face, inwardly I was giving up.

And to feel better about myself, I put more and more of my creative energy into our side project Book Dash, and some experimental software I was writing for making books.

And emotionally, those side projects were keeping me sane.

By late 2015, I was running on empty. I’d spent eighteen months in the Waiting Place, unable to make decisions with any confidence, and clueless about how I was going to piece a career together. I was sending out job applications, and not even getting replies.

Then, in late 2015, I got on that flight to Mexico.

The Shuttleworth Foundation, who’d funded Paperight, was gathering its fellows from around the world in a hacienda in the rural Yucatan.

But at the time I was feeling very rubbish. I had bad hay-fever and a bad cold, and my ears were all blocked. My skin was all broken out from stress. The last thing I wanted to do was travel forty hours to be with a group of upbeat entrepreneurs. But Michelle persuaded me, saying it would be a good break. And maybe she wanted a little break from her miserable husband, too.

So I made the trip, popping Disprins all the way.

As I mentioned earlier, it did not start well. Or, rather, it could have started in entirely the wrong part of Mexico, and who knows where I’d be now!

The Disprins thinned my blood so badly that one evening I had to leave dinner because a mosquito bite I scratched literally bled all over my shirt.

My ears got so blocked that I went totally deaf on one side.

And every day everyone was talking about their amazing projects and I just felt so awful that mine had crashed so spectacularly.

And even though I was trying so hard to pretend I was fine, eventually I couldn’t do it any more. And by the last day I was in tears in front of everyone, admitting how shitty I felt about taking three years of their funding and support and having nothing to show for it.

But no one minded. They were so kind. And that, I think with hindsight, was a turning point. Imperceptibly small. But a turning point nonetheless. Some kind of weight lifted. And somehow that moment marked the end of an eighteen-month stint in the Waiting Place.

And, a few months later, that experimental software I’d been working on had become the foundation of what is now Electric Book Works.

So, what do I tell myself about the Waiting Place now?

Well, the way I think about it is this: when I’m in the Waiting Place, I’m rebalancing my debts, and reinvesting in myself.

To explain what I mean by that, I need to take a step back.

The words 'To grow anything, we have to borrow from somewhere.' on a white background

To grow anything, we have to borrow from somewhere.

We get nowhere meaningful in life, or build anything significant, if we don’t invest something extra. And where do we get our resources to invest? We borrow. We get into debt to others, and to parts of ourselves.

I don’t just mean money debt. Just like we might borrow money to buy better tools, we borrow energy from friends for support. We borrow from our bodies by not exercising, not sleeping enough, and eating badly. We borrow ideas. We borrow from our education to support our families. We borrow from our families for our education. We are all, always, managing debt in many forms.

And, very importantly: this kind of debt is not a bad thing. Debt is inevitable and necessary. It is the lever by which we lift ourselves and others.

It’s closely related to what economists call opportunity costs: how by doing A we give up the opportunity to do B. Like the opportunity cost of a night out is a cosy evening at home. And the opportunity cost of a business trip is time with our children.

And the world will collect on those debts eventually. One way or another we’ll pay them, in money, or in kind, or in loneliness or shame, or, if we’re lucky, in the joy we bring to others with what we create. Or any number of ways. Climate change, even, is a kind of global debt collection.

And to create, we have to be allowed to borrow.

Paperight fell short because I couldn’t borrow enough.

Paperight needed one more thing that I couldn’t borrow: higher-ed publishers wouldn’t lend me their IP. They wouldn’t extend that kind of credit. And that, frustratingly enough, was their prerogative.

They didn’t have to lend me the credence that others had done. It doesn’t matter whether I think they missed an opportunity.

And then, when Paperight crashed, I was embarrassed and disappointed in myself. I’d been on the covers of magazines. I’ve given TEDx talks. I had made a compelling promise to society that we could fix book distribution, and society had extended me a line of ‘credibility credit’.

Society had said, ‘Okay, we’ll choose to believe you. You can borrow our trust. Here are prizes and acclaim.’ And when it didn’t work out, that debt came due in embarrassment and a loss of confidence.

By the time I went to Mexico, I was burned out.

I’d driven myself to exhaustion. I’d racked up too much debt against my own body. I’d borrowed too much from my stores of confidence, and didn’t have the strength to pretend any more.

I’d tried to push through that embarrassment and lack of confidence with hard work and late nights and constant worry. I’d borrowed against my body, and against my relationships, and I was in debt to them over my head.

That’s okay now. I took those deals and they didn’t work out. I was really lucky that I could borrow from other places to weather the storm: I borrowed from the bank for money, and from my family and my friends for support.

It reminds me how important it is that those who’re hit hard by the pandemic right now can borrow, in all kinds of ways, to weather this storm.

The Waiting Places are where my debts rebalance.

During those stopping times, those transit times in the waiting place, somehow those debts are slowly, slowly and steadily forgiven or forgotten, or find a new, more sustainable equilibrium.

And eventually, we become free of the worst of them, and find a balance again.

The words 'Keep making stuff.' on a white background

And most importantly I keep making stuff.

I’ve found that it’s critical to keep writing, building, creating, just for myself.

The first time my business crashed, in 2011, I built half a dozen websites as money-making experiments, in a kind of weekly contest with my brother. And during the last months of Paperight, on the side I was working on Book Dash, and writing the software that would form the basis of the business I run today. None of those felt very serious, and they weren’t solving my immediate problem of not having any money. They were purely self-indulgent creative projects.

But they helped. They were my investment in myself. And over time, they planted seeds of confidence that would regrow over months and years.

The words 'The very act of being creative is to renew your faith in yourself.' on a white background

The very act of being creative is to renew your faith in yourself. Creativity is how we prove to ourselves that we can put more into the world than we borrow. That we are more than the accumulation of our debts.

And that once those debts are clear, and your luck is back, that you will still be standing there, a full person again with something to lend to others.

And so, in that waiting time, a kind of clarity emerges eventually, and brings my next destination into view.

So, I remind myself that a balanced life takes two things.

I tell myself:

The words 'Don’t get in over your head.' on a white background

Firstly, don’t get in over your head, to one form of debt or another.

The words 'Don’t get in over your head. Have your own creative projects.' on a white background

And secondly, always work on creative projects that are entirely and only yours.

And this means that the balanced life I’m aiming for is not someone else’s idea of a balanced life. There is no universal formula for a balanced life. We each get to decide what debts we’re willing to incur for our balanced life.

I know I’m not going to stop being busy and overcommitted. I love being a busy, creative person. And that means being always in debt to something, and always making new things.

And as long as I am conscious of my debts, and making things for myself, then when I get stuck, the Waiting Places make more sense. Or at least, I know that they will make sense one day, for a reason that I can make up afterwards.

Thank you.


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.

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.


  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.

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.


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.