Shuttleworth Fellow Arthur Attwell is on a mission to supply South Africa with cheaper, more convenient access to books – and he doesn’t believe that e-books are a solution for the time being. His social enterprise, Paperight, enables regular photocopy shops to print perfectly legal copies of books for customers, at a far lower price than they’d pay in a traditional bookshop. REBECCA DAVIS finds out how.
The world’s most famous schoolboy wizard helped Arthur Attwell understand that something was very amiss in the way that the publishing industry operates. It was 2007, and Attwell – at that stage running a publishing consultancy called Electric Bookworks – wanted to procure the translation rights to publish Harry Potter in isiZulu, since JK Rowling’s Hogwarts series was available only in English and Afrikaans in South Africa.
Electric Bookworks was too small-fry to pull this off on its own, so Attwell asked the bigger local publishers to lend their brand to the endeavour. It won’t work, he was told, because Harry Potter is “culturally irrelevant” here.
Recounting the story, Attwell shakes his head. “There are rural Chinese kids who translate Harry Potter a day after publication,” he said. “It’s this myth that poor people don’t read. And in South Africa, since poverty is correlated with race, it’s the myth that black people don’t read.”
Electric Bookworks, which at that stage had concentrated on helping book publishers use technology more effectively, wanted to find a better way.
“I was always uneasy that traditional book publishing means you primarily make books, and e-books, for rich people,” Attwell says. “We started trying to find better, cheaper, ways to publish.”
In 2008, Electric Bookworks began looking into print-on-demand services, researching South African factories which would print small runs of books. The smaller the book run, the smaller the factory they tried to find. Then Attwell had his eye-opening moment.
“A copy shop is the smallest possible book factory that you can find,” he explains. “There are many of them, they’re located close to customers, and the economics of the business allow you to print books and make money.”
But copy shops are sometimes considered the enemy of publishers, since some of them knowingly allow customers to infringe copyright. Others adhere strictly to copyright law: some copy shops have big signs on display warning students, for instance, that they won’t photocopy textbooks. Often there’s confusion over what’s allowed. Type “How much of a textbook can you legally photocopy” into Google, and you’ll get around 500 million results, with the websites of most university libraries trying to shed some light on the matter.
The website of South Africa’s Dalro – the Dramatic, Artistic and Literary Rights Organisation – makes it clear exactly how ambiguous the regulations are when it comes to copyright. The South African Copyright Act allows for “fair dealing”, which means that user can copy, “for their own study or research or private use, as much of the work as they need to meet their reasonable needs, without seeking permission from the copyright owner or paying compensation”. The Act does not specify how much you are allowed to copy, however; it’s largely circumstance-dependent. “If you were to copy a large portion of a book or journal, and were charged with infringing copyright, it would be up to you to convince the court that your actions were fair,” Dalro warns.
“It’s a total grey area as to when it starts becoming infringement,” Attwell agrees, and often it falls to copy shops to try to figure out what the legal position is when a student walks in with a textbook.
Attwell realised, however, that there was a perfectly legal way for copy shops to provide customers with a copy of a book. They wouldn’t photocopy the work – they’d print it.
In 2011, Attwell became a Fellow of the Shuttleworth Foundation. It was with the funding of the foundation that he was able to work on making his copy shop plan a reality. The Shuttleworth Foundation matches the investment of its fellows in entrepreneurial start-ups 10 times over: if you sink almost R200,000 into the project, as Attwell did, the foundation will follow up with R2 million. In May 2012, Attwell launched Paperight.
Paperight works as follows. It enters into agreements with publishers to provide copy shops with a license to publish a particular work. Copy shops sign up with Paperight, and every time they print a copy of a book, they pay the license fees. Paperight makes its money by keeping 20% of the fee; the rest is passed back to the publisher. Paperight prepares the book into a print-optimal format, and supplies the copy shop with a PDF ready for printing watermarked with the customer’s name.
For customers, the result is a product which is much cheaper than buying conventional books from a bookshop. Paperight has almost 200 copy shops signed up so far, but its biggest partner is the Jetline chain, which has more than 40 stores nationwide. At Jetline, they can print a double-sided A4 sheet for 50c. A 300-page book, including binding and the license fee charge, would cost a customer only about R95 there.
But doesn’t this represent a major loss of revenue to the publishers? Not at all, says Attwell. He points out that bookshops, which often have to cover the costs of expensive store space in malls, can take around a 40% cut of a book’s price. There are also big costs involved in moving the physical product of a book around: printing, shipping, warehousing. Add distributors’ fees and authors’ royalties, and there’s not a huge amount left over. “Some small publishers make about 5% at the end of the day,” Attwell says.
The Paperight model, by contrast, allows the publisher to set the license fee, and dispense with all printing and shipping costs. “I can make a financial case to a publisher, in terms of the fact they can reach a bigger market this way,” Attwell says. “I can make an environmental case, because they can do away with printing and moving books around. I can also make a social impact case – it’s the right thing to do. In my experience, the social impact case has the biggest impact on publishers.”
The obvious advantage of copy shops is that communities which may lack a bookshop in an air-conditioned shopping centre are more likely to have a copy shop closer by. “We want to put every book within walking distance of every home,” Attwell said. “I would rather Paperight failed trying to get books into low-income areas than succeeded in rich ones.”
Paperight has secured the rights to 1,600 books so far. Its most popular product to date is an anthology of past matric exam papers, which Paperight spent four months sourcing, buying and downloading in order to combine into one document. It does not have the rights to a lot of textbooks yet, Attwell admits, because publishers remain wary. At Rhodes University in Grahamstown, however, Paperight has an agreement with the English department whereby students are offered the option of either purchasing classic set works from an academic bookshop in the town, or visiting a copy shop two doors’ down to pursue the Paperight option.
“In the most extreme case, they can buy Paradise Lost for R300 from the bookshop or print it for R100 at the copy shop,” Attwell says.
He doesn’t think that the Paperight model could currently be a full solution to the textbook delivery problems currently bedeviling the South African education system, however. “The structural changes would have to be massive,” he says. “There’s so much money in the textbook industry, stakes are so high, and using Paperight would cut out a lot of middle-men.” But he says that the Paperight model could be useful for “filling in gaps if the textbooks don’t arrive”.
Attwell says that, to his knowledge, there are no similar ventures currently doing what Paperight is doing with books internationally. There is a device called the Espresso Book Machine which can be used to print, collate, cover and bind a book in a few minutes, which was hailed as the future of publishing around 2007. But Attwell says its use currently isn’t practical in South Africa. “They cost about a million rand to install and the engineers to fix them aren’t generally available, so if they break, you’re in trouble.” There are less than 100 Espresso Book Machines in use worldwide, most of which are in the US.
Paperight hopes to expand into Africa, and is targeting Kenya and Ghana later this year. To people who argue that the future of publishing must surely be in e-books rather than the physical product, Attwell has a simple response. “The US is the wealthiest book-buying market in the world, and after six years of e-readers, 80% of US book-buying is still in print,” he says. “E-books are the future, but I differ about when that future is. For most people in Africa – and indeed the world – I’d say we’re looking at 10 to 15 years at least.” DM
Photo: Shuttleworth Fellow Arthur Attwell, founder of e-book alternative Paperight.