New publishing models from the South: the case of Paperight

30/04/2012 / Octavio Kulesz

A new service developed in South Africa is aiming to change the way books are distributed in developing countries. Paperight is a web-based system that claims to “turn any business with any printer into a print-on-demand bookstore.” Any business can register at to get book-content to print for walk-in customers. Paperight was developed at Electric Book Works by digital-publishing expert Arthur Attwell, and is now funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation. We spoke to Arthur about the service.

1) What does Paperight do?

Copy shops are already de facto book-distributors. They meet massive customer demand for books worldwide – but they have to do so informally, and often illegally, by photocopying. We’re bringing them into the formal industry, by making their jobs both legal and easy. They’ll do more printing business, and publishers will earn rights revenue from it. Our website provides a growing catalogue of books that our outlets can licence and print for customers at the click of a button. Publishers earn revenue from each licence.

2) How do the prices compare to traditional books?

In South Africa, Paperight printouts will generally be about 20% below the retail price of books. In each country, rights fees and the economics of book publishing and printing will differ. Where we can’t beat the retail price of conventional books, we emphasise the accessibility of Paperight outlets: since anyone can be an outlet anywhere, we lower the total cost of buying a book – which might include travelling to a store, the risk of it being out of stock, waiting for a delivery, or buying Internet time or borrowing a credit card for ordering.

3) How much do publishers earn compared to traditional books?

That’s up to the publishers, who set their own rights fees. We see this two ways. On the one hand, this is a reprint-licence agreement, and such agreements historically have involved a 5–10% royalty. So we’d love to see publishers setting rights fees at 5–10% of traditional book prices. On the other hand, where Paperight will definitely sell to the publisher’s conventional markets, the publisher needs to earn the same as they would from a conventional edition. After the bookseller’s cut, printing, shipping, warehousing and returns wastage (things Paperight cuts out), publishers retain often about 25–30% of retail price. So a rights fee of 25–30% of retail is fine, too.

4) What if outlets make extra copies without paying for licenses?

We know this will happen, just as it does with photocopying conventional books. The real question is how to reduce it and learn from it. So our approach is twofold: first, make sure the outlets know that unlicensed copying is illegal. In many cases, the first problem is ignorance. Second, create a mechanism for tracking a sample of the copies produced. We watermark every page with the details of the licence transaction, and include a unique short URL. When someone visits the URL, we track that, mapping ‘sightings’ of specific documents and detecting potential over-copying problems. We can work with publishers to create valuable web destinations for those short URLs so that customers want to visit them.

Of course, we’ll suspend outlets that we know are abusing the service.

5) How do you control the quality of the print-outs?

We don’t. The quality of a print-out is up to the outlet and the customer to figure out, depending on cost and capability. What matters is: are we delivering the content when someone needs it?

6) What books do you have on Paperight?

We have started with over 1000 publications that are mostly public-domain and open-licensed books. We’ve been very careful about our selections, focusing on high-quality educational, health and self-help material. On our blog, we’ve posted a very open report about our selection. We’re currently working with several commercial publishers on adding their content during 2012, and we’re approaching more publishers every day.

7) Surely ebooks are replacing the need for print?

It’s very seductive to think that. In wealthy markets, it’s absolutely the case. But in remote areas, or for people who don’t have devices or an Internet connection at home, ebooks don’t solve the accessibility problem. And while mobile phones are great for some content, you can’t study mechanical engineering or architecture on a mobile phone screen. Even as the cost of computing plummets, there will always be people who need a print-out.

8) How do people know what books are on Paperight?

Until our mobile-phone catalogue is ready later this year, we work with outlets and educational institutions to tell customers about specific books we carry. We provide a big, printed poster advertising fifty top books to outlets that want one. For instance, we tell schools we have past national exam papers, and we tell universities about the many classic setworks we carry.

9) How do people find Paperight outlets?

We’re working on a map that we’ll add to our site soon. On the street, look for the Paperight poster or logo – this is mostly in Cape Town where we’re promoting most heavily now. We’re also relying on tips from customers who want to get Paperight books from their local store. Tell us about the store, and we’ll contact them to pitch Paperight, anywhere in the world.

10) Are there other companies doing the same thing?

Not that we know of. We’d love to have a competitor, it would help educate people about the concept.

11) How did you come up with the whole Paperight idea?

At Electric Book Works, in 2008, we did two research projects on the print-on-demand industry and its potential impact in Africa. In short, we found that POD as publishers were using it was not going to solve the most pressing problems of African book distribution. The printers were big, centralised companies in cities, and while impressive the Espresso Book Machine was too expensive to set up and run for most businesses. We needed a solution that used existing infrastructure: regular laser printers, low-bandwidth Internet, and ebook-distribution mechanisms that publishers were building anyway. As an ebook-production consultancy, we were well placed to turn this into a business model.

12) I am curious about some facts related to South Africa. To begin with, some recent studies claimed that mobile bandwidth speed in SA is considerably high, even compared to the US. How is that?

There are many opinions on this, but these high speeds are essentially driven by the demand for data. Like many developing countries, mobile far outstrips fixed-line telephony here. And along with the demand for voice comes demand for data. To keep their market share, mobile operators work hard to keep their speeds close to those of Telkom, the fixed-line monopoly. That said, this only applies to wealthy, urban South Africa, perhaps a quarter of the population.

13) In SA we could find a number of initiatives – such as M4LitFundza and Bozza – aimed at promoting e-reading. In general, are those projects being “exported” to the rest of the continent? What about Paperight in this respect?

Not that I know of, though I might be missing something, and I’m sure there are many people trying. Readership is often highly localised, and reading packages – list of bestsellers, book clubs, book-marketing campaigns – are difficult to transplant wholesale from one region to another. More importantly, though, there is no way to pay online or by mobile phone across borders among most African countries. So pan-African business models are hard to set up.

Hard doesn’t mean impossible. At Paperight, we’re absolutely committed to building an international marketplace that works everywhere in Africa. For instance, in some cases we’re arranging money transfers via Western Union, despite the hassle and fees, just to be able to trade with outlets in other African countries.

14) In the last years, you have travelled across the globe and must have been in touch with dozens of big companies. In fact, as a digital expert, you could be working in New York, London and many other places where tech infrastructure is highly developed. Why do you think you have decided to stay in Cape Town and bet heavily on a project based on low tech?

I love working in Africa because there is unending potential and very little competition in this space. But what drives me is that it’s deeply wrong that billions of people have no access to books because the total cost of acquiring them is so high. As publishers, we’ve created an industry that turns human knowledge into an expensive, inaccessible product, and that needs to change.

Octavio Kulesz

About the author

Octavio Kulesz is an Argentinian digital publisher and philosopher. In 2007 he founded Teseo, one of the first e-book publishing houses in Latin America. He is the author of the report “Digital Publishing in Developing Countries” (commissioned in 2011 by the Prince Claus Fund and the International Alliance of Independent Publishers), and a Unesco expert on the 2005 Convention.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Fields marked * are required.