Why I Publish Ebooks on Paper for South Africans

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Editorial Arthur Attwell, Founder, Paperight

CAPE TOWN: At Paperight, we’re putting ebooks back on paper, because for most people in South Africa, paper is just easier and cheaper. We do this by printing them out, on demand, in regular photocopy shops.


Arthur Attwell

The irony of the digital revolution is this: as it democratizes publishing, it widens the gap between those with Internet access and those without. For instance, take Wikipedia: this is perhaps the most useful collection of human knowledge ever created. And it’s wonderfully democratic. But where a few years ago you could read a relatively up-to-date paper encyclopedia in your local library, today you can’t — because of Wikipedia. Up-to-date encyclopedic knowledge now exists only online, and if you don’t have Internet access, too bad. The gap between the Internet-haves and the Internet-have-nots is getting wider.

That gap in turn will translate into an education gap, an economic gap, and a healthcare gap.

Wikipedia is a microcosm of the book industry. Hundreds of thousands of books are produced every year, by more and more people, at lower and lower costs, and increasingly unavailable to anyone without Internet access to buy or read them.

I founded Paperight specifically to address that problem: how do we get books to people with no Internet access? Traditional bookstores won’t do it: they can’t spread, because the setup and running costs of bricks-and-mortar bookstores are too high, and getting higher. We need another way.

Selection of titles available through Paperight.

Selection of titles available through Paperight.

What we do have already, in every town and village throughout the world, are copy shops. Small businesses with copy-printers that can print out a book in minutes. So we just provide the file and the licence to print it legally, in minutes.

Since launching in May last year, we’ve signed up over 150 active outlets around South Africa, and a few abroad. They’re in big cities and tiny villages, in big stores and back rooms of entrepreneurs’ homes. That makes Paperight already the largest network of print-on-demand bookstores in the world. And over 45 publishers have joined the movement, including O’Reilly Media, Random House Struik, and Oxford University Press Southern Africa, putting their books in places they’ve never been sold before.

They’re joining because Paperight is a simple way to tackle a complex problem, a model the Parliament of South Africa recently described as “[An] ingenious solution to widespread book shortages in the developing world.”

Arthur Attwell is is the founder of Paperight. He lives and works in Cape Town.

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