Is Worldreader.org’s Gift of E-readers to Africans the Right Precedent?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

Is the dependence on expensive devices a Western solution to an African problem?

By Edward Nawotka

Today’s feature story considers the challenges of digital publishing in sub-Saharan Africa. Amongst the key obstacles preventing further proliferation of digital reading across the continent is a lack of cash, political will…and electricity. Innovative programs such as Worldreader.org, which has distributed some 500 Kindles to communities in Ghana and Kenya, cannot help but be viewed in a positive light. The┬ánot-for-profit was founded by, among others, David Risher, a former senior vice president of product and platform development at Amazon.com. It has support from Amazon.com, has solicited donations of e-books from Random House, and is active in helping to digitize African titles — around 40 are now available online at the Kindle store. It is drawing interest from the World Bank; several notable authors have also signed on to help as well.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhAuD65WYnk

One author who has made his work available for free to Worldreader.org is Cory Doctorow, a pioneer in the free-to-read e-book market. He told Publishers Weekly last month that participating in WorldReader.org was a “no brainer”:

“It’s the first inkling of the real promise of electronic publishing, the realization of the ancient and noble drive to deliver universal access to all human knowledge…” it’s “a situation in which a writer can do good at no cost to himself, no cost to his publisher.”

Worldreader.org is a role model. But is the focus on e-readers — devices which will be largely out of the price range of the vast majority of Africans — a Western solution to what is an endemic African problem? Or is it the answer? As noted in our feature story, finding a reliable source of electricity can be a problem for many Africans and the general consensus on the continent is that the distribution of PDF files is still the cheapest solution, one that allows greatest access to the material to the widest range of people. Many people also believe that focusing on formatting work for cell phones — particularly on those modest feature phones that run Java — might help publisher reach a broader range of readers.

Let us know what you think in the comments.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

Edward Nawotka is the Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. A former foreign correspondent, he has covered the book business exclusively since 2000, serving as daily news editor for Publishers Weekly and columnist for Bloomberg News.