by Kevin Anderson, on February 19, 2013
In the discussion of the digital transition, there are hopes for new opportunities but also fears. Apart from the worry about business disruption, there is also a fear of creating a digital divide between one world of wealthy, well-informed tablet-toting news consumers and another, not only poorer in terms of wealth, but also in terms of information.
I come from Cape Town, South Africa, and my background’s in educational publishing and e-book production. South Africa is like two different countries: about 2 million wealthy people who support the publishing industry (excluding schools publishing, where the state is the largest client by far), and about 48 million people who could never afford an e-reader, don’t have credit cards to buy things online, or can’t afford to physically travel to a bookstore. So to make it possible for most people to read books, we need to totally rethink how we sell books.
While Attwell was very aware of the challenge, he also saw an opportunity. Although technology can create divides, it can also bridge them. He had seen books distributed via Mxit, a mobile social network with 10 m users in South Africa, but he felt that he needed a lower tech solution because 65 percent of South Africans do not have access to the internet, according to recent census data. In the South Africa media and technology site Ventureburn, Attwell said:
African countries have very few bookstores and ebooks are spreading very slowly. Photocopy shops, however, are everywhere, and in most places in Africa, they provide an important social function by photocopying books that people need, but can’t find or can’t afford to buy. Paperight was started to help legalise that process.
Copy shops may not be the sexy end of technology. They are very much 20th Century technology rather than the shiny, cutting edge technology of smartphones, smart TVs and tablets. Instead of trying to convert potential readers to new habits, Attwell decided to tap into existing habits.
The idea also has a hook for publishers. Before Paperight, publishers would see the copy shop activity as piracy and lost sales. Paperight delivered a way for them to convert illegal activity into legal sales. With this compelling case, Paperight has already signed up 40 publishers and offers 1400 titles, including text books, study materials, literary classics, magazines and even sheet music. The start-up first approached copy shop chains to grow their distribution network as quickly as possible. The barrier to become a Paperight outlet is low. Copy shops only need to go to Paperight.com and register their shop. Paperight is now available in 145 outlets in South Africa.
To purchase materials from Paperight, all a customer needs to do is to go to a participating copy shop where they can search Paperight’s catalogue of materials to see if they have the book or other material he or she wants. In addition to the cost of the licence for the material, the copy shop also includes their own costs to download and print it out in the price. The buyer pays the copy shop, and then the shop pays the publisher.
Ubiquitous copy shops are not just a South African phenomenon, and Attwell told Publishers Weekly, “We designed Paperight to be an international business.”
Print and digital delivery for long-form journalism
Paperight was just named a winner at the O’Reilly Tools of Change Startup Showcase, and while the company’s primary focus is to make books legally available via nearly ubiquitous copy shops across South Africa, long-form journalism groups are already seeing opportunities with print-on-demand services like Paperight. For news publishers, the easiest way to think about this is that it is much like news groups selling long-form journalism on Amazon’s Kindle e-reader packaged as Kindle Singles.
South African non-fiction publisher Mampoer Shorts publishes non-fiction pieces for e-readers, tablets and print out. It describes the content as “shorter than a book (but) richer than an article”. It describes its mission as:
We proudly bring long-form journalism to South Africa. Our unique and novel reading experience will change the way your read for ever. Read the best journalism on any device, and see how South African writers and journalists can blow your socks off!
The shorts are available on a number of tablets and e-reading platforms as well as print-out. It shows how multi-platform digital and print delivery can deliver your content to your audiences regardless of how they want to consume it. The key issue here is making the process cost effective for you, but Paperight shows that services are developing to meet this need and allow you to tap into existing consumer behaviour.