On Literature

    Publishing in Africa
    Alternative Ways and Dead Ends

    What alternative possibilities exist for publishing in an extremely difficult book market, such as Africa? The South African publisher Arthur Attwell writes here about his ideas and experiences of producing and distributing books in areas with poor infrastructure, and considering the widespread poverty in the region. Reading, however, is not just a pleasant way of passing the time: often, it’s a question of survival.

    Everyone knows that books are critical for development and education. Everyone knows that bookshops and libraries are vanishingly rare in Africa. Everyone knows that most families have fewer than ten books at home. So why do we still have this problem?

    The book business is expensive. It costs a fortune to stock a bookstore. Even a small store needs to carry a few thousand books just to keep customers coming back. What’s more, bookstores need lots of floor space for shelves, and they are highly dependent on foot traffic, so the rent is expensive. So the margins are low, and the risks are high. And if you want to try to start an online store instead, you need to be prepared to lose a lot of money at first. And then, in most of Africa, most people don’t have credit cards, or can’t get online to use them.

    A few years ago, the Centre for the Book in South Africa distributed free children’s books to 7,000 rural homes. But there was no existing way to get them there. In some places, volunteers used wheelbarrows to carry the books from a post office to homes and schools. If you live any distance from a wealthy city suburb, books are simply not a part of your landscape.

    The problem is particularly desperate when books can even save lives. In Tanzania, an NGO called CCBRT treats more than 120,000 people with disabilities every year. To train nurses and midwives, they order their course books by post from Cape Town, 5,000 kilometres away. A leading neonatologist there said recently that training with these books could save many of the 45,000 newborn lives lost in Tanzania every year. But the cost of getting the books there is absurdly high. By the time a book has travelled to a printer, and then to a warehouse, been shipped across countries, stored again, displayed, and finally purchased, its cost has risen four times over.

    One way to tackle this problem is to put books on mobile phones. The website childhealthcare.co.za, the free online version of a textbook for nurses, had 27,000 visits last year, about half of them from developing countries. That’s a hundred times the number of printed copies sold. A free novel by Sam Wilson called Kontax, which is read on feature phones, has been read more than 63,000 times by South African teens from every part of the country. And more and more schoolchildren are reading free Siyavula science and maths textbooks on their phones.

    But there are still obstacles: no publisher has figured out how to make these mobile books pay for themselves yet. And to read a book on a phone you need electricity and airtime, and you have to read on a small screen that can’t handle complex images. Worst of all, Internet access is not as widespread as we like to believe. If you look at a map of 3G Internet coverage in South Africa, from a great distance it seems you can get online anywhere. But as you zoom in and get closer to the ground, you find that coverage actually extends in hundreds of narrow spines from city centres, leaving big gaps in coverage only a short distance from significant towns. In reality, the Internet is not in everyone’s pocket.

    Books on phones might be the way of the future, but they don’t work for everyone today. Of course, people are resourceful. Despite these obstacles, they do read. They find a way to get to school and study. Where do they get their books? More than anything, they photocopy. There are print-and-copy shops in every town in the world, churning out pamphlets, flyers, adverts, CVs, and books. Unlike bookselling, you can quickly get a copy-print shop to turn a profit. For a monthly lease of only a few hundred rand, and just a small workspace, you can have a copier business selling thousands of sheets a month. As a result, the copier-printer may be the single most common distribution channel for publishing in the developing world.

    Copy shops will laboriously scan and print the books their customers find and bring in. And since those customers often have no other way to find or afford a book, they’re performing an important social function. But they have to do it illegally. By law, in most countries, you can’t scan and print a copyrighted book, and you definitely can’t sell that printout to someone else.

    As you can imagine, copy shops terrify publishers. When I was publishing textbooks some years ago, we even tried printing in special inks that we thought wouldn’t photocopy well. (It didn’t work.) And the more our books were copied, the fewer we sold, and the higher we pushed our prices. And the more that happened, the more convinced we became that copy shops could never be trusted, that they didn’t understand our industry, and that they were our sworn enemy. But if copy shops are solving our customers’ problems, and putting more books in the world, surely we should help them do it better and faster? Surely a partnership would be better for both sides? Imagine if we made their job easier, and legal.

    What if we let copy shops print and sell from a whole library of books on a simple website? What if we made that website so fast and easy to use that it was more profitable for the copy shop – and more cost-effective for the customer – to pay for the service than to keep copying old books the hard way? All you would need is for a local corner store to be online for a whole village to have access to books. And would publishers make money selling books through copy shops? I decided to find out. I gathered a team and, with investment from the Shuttleworth Foundation, we built a website called Paperight.

    On Paperight, anyone with a printer could download books and print them out for customers. Many books were free to download, while for others the publisher charged a rights fee. Amazingly, publishers could make the same margins from these downloads that they did from their fancy editions, and still the total cost to the customer was usually less than that fancy edition sold in a mall.

    Instantly, with only a basic Internet connection, every copy shop would be a bookstore. Even in the remotest village, every school could have access to new study guides. Every hospital with a laser printer could train new nurses and midwives with up-to-date information. The idea was so promising, and for six years it consumed most of my waking hours. But by December 2014 the journey ended. We couldn’t make it work financially. And its story tells us a lot about publishing and innovation.

    What happened to Paperight?

    Our aims seemed simple: turn photocopiers into bookstores in every village in Africa, dramatically reduce the cost of tertiary (higher-ed, university college) textbooks, and prove that publishers could make money selling instant licenses (we’d sustain ourselves from commission). In short, we wanted to offer a more effective way to get textbooks to students. And thanks to the Shuttleworth Foundation, we had the time and money to make it happen.

    Between the launch of our site in May 2012 and December 2014 we put more than 200 print-shop outlets on our map, signed up more than 150 publishers, added more than 2,100 titles, and distributed 4,049 copies of books. But revenue didn’t climb. I began to realise that when you’re starting from a small base, a trickle of sales can look like traction. A trickle can inspire confidence that is both valuable – to confidence, to our ability to sell – and terribly misleading. It’s a dangerous time for an ambitious team, because both trickle and traction make you think your model is working, and that it’s time to plan for scale. But a trickle that isn’t traction can hide fundamental problems with your model.

    In two and a half years we charged a total of R57,500 (about US $5,750) in licence fees. Of this, R26,000 went to publishers, we earned R20,000 from books we published ourselves, and we earned R11,500 in commission. It was tiny: not even enough to cover one month’s payroll. More importantly, after a year the rate of growth in sales had slowed to almost zero.

    So what happened? Our problems were of course, partly the result of our strategic decisions: out of an infinite number of possible alternatives, some decisions would have been better than others. We probably didn’t have enough sales people on the ground, and perhaps we scaled up too fast, didn’t bed the model down locally before going nationwide. We’ll never know whether that would have changed things. But aside from that, we knew we’d had three major external challenges, ones we would have faced no matter what our strategy had been.

    Firstly, and most importantly, while many publishers joined us, almost none let us sell their most popular, high-value titles. They asked us to test with their least popular titles, thinking they were mitigating risk. In reality, they were inadvertently setting us up to fail: we couldn’t sell books that no one wanted.

    Secondly, most copy shops were not active partners, which is not surprising when we had so few high-value titles for them to promote. Many also gave their customers poor service (we double-checked ourselves by spending hours and days in stores). This meant we weren’t attracting new or returning customers.

    And thirdly, our target market – potential readers and students with poor backgrounds – have grown up without books. They don’t attach much value to reading. Certainly not enough to buy books before food and clothing. And South African publishing has done very little in the last twenty years to change that.

    Despite our disappointment, though, buried in our revenue stats is a promising story. One small range of high-value, low-priced titles that we created ourselves sold well: a hundred collections of past grade-12 exam papers. That one small group 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.These sales showed that if we’d had the right content, we might have done well. But it’s almost impossible to build a working experiment that relies on commercial publishers’ content when those publishers are too risk-averse to let us use popular books. Experimental projects like ours need high-value content to work with.

    I had been determined to push for change in publishing by enabling a better way to sell. But I now believe that you cannot create industrial change by enabling its participants. It’s like saying, ‘Here’s a tool that will completely change the way you work!’ No one wants a tool that will change the way they work. Work is complicated enough as it is without having to learn about new tools.

    Nonetheless, change must be possible. People just need different motivators. I now believe that to change an industry you shouldn’t try to enable organisations to change for the better. You should take those new tools and compete with them. Challenge traditional methods head-on by competing for market share. If you fail, you can always try something else. And if you succeed, you will either replace the incumbents or force them to change. Both outcomes are good.

    South African publishing today

    South Africa has been democratic for twenty-one years. It’s a good time to reflect on how far the local book industry has come. Book production values have soared. We have more black authors, more major women writers, and they’re selling well internationally in more popular genres. It’s a very good time to be a wealthy book-lover in South Africa.

    It’s not a good time to be anyone else. The number of bookstores outside suburban malls has hardly changed. Working from the Publisher’s Association’s most recent industry survey, the number of trade book buyers is probably less than two million, or 4% of the population, if they are spending about R700 ($70) per person per year at retail value. That’s roughly four paperbacks each. New books are almost all in English and Afrikaans, the home languages of wealthy, white South Africans. Of R312 million ($30 million) in local trade publishing revenue, only R1.7 million, or 0.5%, comes from books in the country’s nine official African languages. In adult fiction, the proportion of African-language revenue is only 0.2%. (In 2008 this figure was 0.6%, so it’s got worse.) Essentially: zero, with isolated experiments.

    The conventional view is that, outside a narrow cohort, most South Africans don’t like reading. In casual conversation, this view sometimes correlates dangerously with racial stereotypes. For instance, two senior book industry figures have told me that black South African children wouldn’t read Harry Potter in Zulu because it’s ‘culturally irrelevant’. If this mindset is common among editors, it’s a key reason we’ve made so little progress.

    Outside traditional publishing companies, there are bold attempts to sell books to new readers. Projects like FunDza, Bookly and EverEgg focus on mobile phones as a way to grow reading, though none have found a business model that would satisfy traditional publishers. Others, like Megabooks, focus on print-on-demand – though, like Paperight did, they struggle without committed buy-in from local publishers, who control the most valuable educational content.

    So market-based solutions seem unable to get off the ground. Where markets should grow from little pockets of early adopters, there may not be enough pockets to grow from. For most South Africans, books are a luxury they could never afford. New data from the University of Cape Town’s Unilever Institute shows that more than 34 million South Africans (70%) survive on an average household income of R3,000 ($300) per month. They regularly skip meals and turn off electrical appliances long before payday. In those homes, even the cheapest books would never be prioritised over food and clothing.

    For those who’ve made it out of poverty, books remain invisible. When books have never been a part of your life, you are unlikely to seek them out and invest in them. At Paperight, even when we solved the problems of price and availability, books remained largely invisible without intense and expensive local marketing.

    If, as a publishing industry, we had taken a twenty-year view in 1994, we might have seen that our biggest challenge lay in making books visible to South Africans. We’d have given away millions of free books to children – just as the UK does on National Book Day every year – and seen many of those children blossom into keen book-buyers today. Seen this way, the market-based challenge lies not in finding the right business model, but in taking a long-term view. Less like Jack’s beanstalk, more like bonsai.

    A new non-profit organisation called Book Dash, which I helped found last year, takes exactly that view. Book Dash focuses on creating and giving away free, high-quality books to needy children. The books are created by volunteers, all creative professionals, who participate in twelve-hour book-making marathons. Some are from book publishing, but most are from other industries: animators, artists, copywriters, journalists and designers. Almost everything is done by these volunteers. To date, my company and a few other donors have covered direct costs worth about R200,000 (US $20,000), and Book Dash has crowdfunded R80,000 for printing books for children.

    Everything the volunteers create is open-licensed (Creative Commons Attribution), so that anyone can translate, print and distribute the books freely. And Book Dash is creating basic HTML versions for mobile-phone initiatives. Already, other organisations have come to the party: the African Storybook Project has funded Book Dash creation days, and they and the Nal’ibali reading campaign have translated Book Dash stories into several African languages. And Book Dash stories are appearing in Nal’ibali’s fold-your-own-book newspaper inserts, where previously commercial publishers’ stories were used under proprietary licenses.

    The aim is to slash the cost to literacy organisations of high-quality children’s books to the cost of printing alone. When printing as few as 5,000 copies, unit costs dip under a dollar for bookshop-quality editions. Book Dash is very different from Paperight, but it aims to solve essentially the same problems. And if it succeeds, perhaps in ten or twenty years’ time there will be far more readers, and bolder publishers, and Paperight’s distributed print-on-demand model might have another, better chance.
    Arthur Attwell is co-founder and director of Electric Book Works, which develops new and better ways to publish in emerging markets. He is also the founder of Paperight, an award-winning network of print-on-demand bookstores, co-founder of Bettercare, which publishes innovative course books for nurses and midwives, and co-founder of Book Dash, which creates children’s books anyone can freely translate, print and distribute. He is a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow.

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2015
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