The advent of e-texts and e-readers in the last half a decade or so has entirely revolutionized the publishing industry. A vast portion of the world’s literature is now available to anyone with an internet connection at the click of a button. But let’s examine that sentence again: the keywords here are “anyone with an internet connection”. This is a serious problem in the developing world, even in NICs (Newly Industrialized Countries) like India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa where internet penetration varies between 0-40%. And it is the rural areas which are especially hard hit by this lack. Developing countries are also characterized by a wealth gap which means that the greatest amount of resources is divided among the smallest demographic, in other words, the rich. For most people living in these nations, access to a computer alone is an unrealized dream, gadgets like e-readers being completely out of the question. So how do people there get access to books? Print editions are prohibitively expensive and therefore, not a sustainable proposition. The answer is: the tiny neighborhood photocopy shops.
Copyright issues are taken very seriously in the West, but in poor countries with little infrastructure, one of the few ways to acquire and share knowledge is by photocopying entire books. As an undergrad in India, I would see a constant spill of people in and outside the tiny photocopy shops across campus, everyone with an armful of books from the library, all waiting to get them photocopied. When your resources are limited, and there is only one copy of a popular textbook in the library because even they can’t afford to buy several, photocopying the text is the only way out. The other alternative is to just give up on your studies – in other words, not really an alternative because when you live in a developing nation, education is of paramount importance and you try and get it anyway you can.
For most South Africans, reading e-books is a pipe dream
South African entrepreneur Arthur Attwell used to work in the educational publishing industry where he learned the ropes of the trade. In 2005, right at the beginning of the digital publishing boom, he left to start his own electronic publishing consulting company, helping publishers bring out e-books and publishing them himself as well.
One of the projects he worked on involved nursing textbooks; the idea was to get trainee nurses to read them on their phones and computers, and earn certificates online. A few months into the project, everything came to a dead halt when he realized that most nurses in South Africa didn’t even have email addresses, let alone internet access, even when they worked at top hospitals. Attwell took a closer look around him and realized that for most South Africans, reading e-books was just a pipe dream – a print solution was what was required, otherwise a huge portion of the nation’s population would get left behind as knowledge increasingly shifted to the online domain. People in developed nations think nothing of buying e-books, but it’s only when you are in a poor part of Africa, for instance, that you come to realize the infrastructure required behind the process – data, electricity, a device, enough education to use it, and often a credit card too. Working on a Canada-based research project in 2010 on on-demand printing set Attwell’s mental wheels in motion.
The smallest book factory is a photocopy shop
Print on Demand (POD) technologies enable the printing of books based on individual orders, which means that books can be printed one at a time, depending on customer requirements. At first, Attwell considered big POD factories like Lightning Source, and then smaller ones, nearer to South African cities. The more he looked, the closer he came to his final realization: the smallest book factory is a photocopy shop. “They are everywhere, and often already printing books, just doing so illegally,” he says. “I only had to make it legal and easy.” He spent the next three years smoothening out the nitty gritties of his business proposition, convincing publishers that photocopy shops could be a viable means of revenue from a multitude of tiny rights sales, and getting them on board. Publishers, on the whole, are ever mistrustful of photocopy shops and see them as a threat, so convincing them of the brilliance of his idea was not an easy task. However, Attwell received help on the way in the form of a fellowship from the Shuttleworth Foundation in 2011, a non-profit organization which invests in people with ideas that could potentially bring major changes. That is the year Paperight was born.
20% cheaper than traditional editions
Paperight works on a business model which is much more cost effective than the traditional publishing framework. Copy shops register on Paperight for free and set up a prepaid account through EFT or Paypal in order to pay rights fees. Customers coming into the shops give them the title of the book they need, the shop owner then looks it up on Paperight’s catalogue, and if it’s available, prints it out. The shop makes money from the cost of the printout, the publisher gets a fixed rate cut (which they have the freedom to set, and can vary between 50 cents to $9) from every copy printed, and Paperight gets 20% of the publisher’s fee. There are no printing, warehousing, distribution (and thus, wastage) overheads for the publisher, so even with a small fee, they stand to make a profit. On average, it works out 20% cheaper than traditional editions in South Africa, but the actual per-book saving varies greatly depending on the book and the store.
Where the South African government failed its people, Paperight is succeeding
When they first launched, most of their books were open-licensed or in the public domain, such as the works of Dickens or Joyce, but over the last year, increasing numbers of commercial publishers have partnered with them. So far, they have 80 affiliated publishers, 1700 titles and their network of copy shops numbers 200 across different parts of South Africa. There are also 5 copy shops in Ghana, Thailand, the USA, and Dominica which collaborate with them, even though Paperight never advertised outside their home country – it happened organically. Their catalogue has a wide variety of books, ranging from children’s literature, to books on socialism, to murder mysteries. However, they are currently focusing on areas that people have an urgent demand for; an example is the 12th grade revision papers they carry. When it comes to adequate distribution of educational materials, the South African government is failing its people, especially those in poor rural areas. When Paperight conducted an investigation into this, they discovered that the education ministry’s poorly designed, monolingual, and mostly indecipherable website was filled with missing or incorrectly linked exam papers, memorandums and other documents, leading any student in search of information to a dead end. This is one of the reasons why their revision paper compendiums have gained such traction. They have even developed a couple of their own resources for students – a guide to distance learning at the University of South Africa (which has over 300,000 students), and a collection of writing from South African high school students called the Paperight Young Writers’ Anthology. They also want to work more with individual authors, although, as Attwell says, they get more books in batches when they work with publishers. Their next target is to get lecturers to sell their notes on Paperight – hoping to benefit from word of mouth advertising while students get quality material for a low cost, and the lecturers themselves benefit from the publicity and of course, the money.
“We’re not some dodgy startup from Africa copying books”
Paperight is helping bring about big changes in the poorest areas of South Africa – for instance, the small town of Peddie in the Eastern Cape, one of the most impoverished areas in the region, now boasts of its own local entrepreneur. Zakes Ncanywa, a copy shop owner and refurbished computer dealer, has joined hands with Paperight to distribute cheap textbooks to the town’s ill-equipped schools. In a region where it takes 20 minutes to load Google on a USB connection, this is a game changer.
Paperight is making education accessible in remote regions like Peddie where people will no longer have to travel all the way to a bookstore in a big city just to get hold of books. The startup has in fact been doing so well that they were one of the three winners of the O’Reilly Tools of Change Startup Showcase in NYC this February. Winning the competition gave Paperight an international exposure and credibility, as well as an official congratulatory announcement by the South African National Assembly – Parliament . “It’s a stamp of approval. We’re not some dodgy startup from Africa copying books,” Attwell remarks in an interview with ITWeb. With Paperight bringing about widespread change in South Africa, we can only hope that the rest of the globe will soon follow., and economically impoverished people in poor nations be no longer barred from gaining access to education. Unless, as Attwell wryly quips, “the store runs out of paper.”