The paper revolution
The complexities of extending networks of any description across a country the size of South Africa, or a continent as vast as Africa, have occupied the minds of conquerors, colonisers, businesses and governments for centuries.
The sheer distances involved, plus the geographical and other barriers, have made rolling out infrastructure in Africa somewhat expensive, and it's limited as a result. This lack of road and telecommunications networks means a lack of other facilities - like bookstores - in rural areas.
Lack of retailers aside, books themselves are expensive, and unless they have mainstream appeal, they can be hard to find outside major centres.
Local startup Paperight has married old and new technology to come up with an innovative solution to the problem - copy shops. Copy shops, from larger Postnet and Jetline stores to the 'general dealer with a copier in the back', exist all over the country, often squirrelled away in unexpected places. And if those places are reachable by internet connection, you can send a book there to be printed out on the nearest copier.
Paperight founder and CEO Arthur Attwell used to work in the educational book publishing sector. He left to start a digital publishing consulting company in 2005, realising the demand among publishers for new ways to take advantage of modern technologies to conduct mainly manual processes and tasks. What he discovered is that publishers don't like to spend money on consultants, and that he needed to find something else to do.
A Canadian research project he did in 2010 on the potential for on-demand print facilities started the cognitive wheels turning in the direction of what would become Paperight.
"Printing on demand in huge factories is amazing for publishers, as they don't need to keep stock," Attwell says. "But the customer still needs to go to a bookstore. So we started researching the idea of using smaller factories."
This line of thinking led them closer and closer to the smallest possible factory.
"Then I had a moment of realisation," he says. "There was a hair salon next door to us, with a copier, and students were coming in and out most days copying textbooks. And I realised that that's the smallest possible book factory. And I thought, `If they can afford to photocopy the books, the copying can't be that expensive.' And then I wondered if we could pay the publishers out of that."
As it turns out, Attwell discovered he could.
The legal route
Attwell spent three years sorting out the technical wizardry behind Paperight, helped considerably by a Fellowship he was awarded by the Shuttleworth Foundation in 2011.
Rather than invest in startups, or ideas, the Foundation prefers to invest in people. Each year, it awards Fellowships to individuals, and multiplies the money that each puts into his or her projects by a factor of ten or more. This frees up the person's time, and makes sure they invest both 'skin' and money in their projects. The Shuttleworth Foundation also provides admin, technical, legal and financial backing for its Fellows.
We're focussing on SA for now. Our plan is to get the distance learning institutions to use Paperight rather than printing and posting textbooks.
The Paperight website is the front-end tool for the system. Paperight has agreements in place with some 200 publishers around the world to download and copy their books at any of the 140 copy shops that have joined the Paperight network.
And by copy shops, Attwell says, he means any business with a copier that signs up. "We have a copy shop in rural Pedi run by a guy who sells computers and has a copier."
Copy shops register on the site for free, set up a prepaid account to pay rights fees (via EFT or Paypal), and when a customer arrives wanting to download a book, the owner can look up the book, download it, and print it out.
The copy shop gets the cost of the printout, the publisher gets the rights fee and Paperight gets its cut out of that.
The system works for people and publishers because the books are available to consumers more cheaply than they are in traditional print format, and the publishers can still make sufficient margin out of the deal.
The fee per page varies from shop to shop and the cost per book varies from publisher to publisher.
"Most shops charge R1 for a double-sided A4 printed page. At four pages per A4 page, you can print a 300-page novel for R75. Publisher charges vary from 50 US cents to $9. We take 20 percent of the publisher's fee. Some have signed up on the basis of making as little margin as possible and others set their fee at $5, which allows them to make their normal margin," says Attwell.
"Take a novel that would sell at Exclusive Books for R150. The bookstore takes 45 percent, so around R70. That leaves R80 for the publisher to pay overheads like royalties, marketing, printing, warehousing and distribution. Most also include an amount of wastage. We say to the publishers, 'Set your fee at $5, so you'll make your R40, but as you're not paying for printing, warehousing and distribution, you won't lose any money'."
Attwell's concept has been so well received, it was one of three winners at the O'Reilly Tools of Change Startup Showcase, announced in New York in February. The Showcase gives `young companies in the publishing space a chance to get their company in front of a global community of leaders in the publishing and technology industries, as well as potential investors', the competition's website states.
For Paperight, says Attwell, the win gives the company credibility with the publishing industry. "It's a stamp of approval. We're not some dodgy startup from Africa copying books. And we've had several publishers express interest since the conference and it has greased the wheels with others with whom we're in negotiations."
Paperight has around 450 books on its system, as well as coveted packs of Matric exam papers from 2008 to 2011, with 2012 coming online now.
"Right now, most of our copy shops are in South Africa," says Attwell. "So the question is which country to go to next. But we're focussing on SA for now. Our plan is to get the distance learning institutions to use Paperight rather than printing and posting textbooks. Students often can't get online to find out what textbooks they need, and tutors have no way of knowing if students have received books. We want a system that allows you to see exactly what books a student needs by punching in their student number."
The other big step is to become self-sustaining, he comments, noting that the Shuttleworth Foundation grant funding is still very important for the moment.