By Alexander Polzin, Worldreader.org
Last April, UNESCO released its study Reading in the Mobile Era on the subject of mobile reading in emerging markets. The study found that not only were people reading on devices with small screens and limited functionality, but also that they tended to read more. Take note: this signifies a major step from a disconnected public with limited access to print toward an engaged readership reachable on the device they carry in hand.
Last quarter over 360,000 users collectively spent over 725,000 hours reading on Worldreader Mobile, a free mobile phone application that essentially turns a basic, internet-enabled feature phone (think: beat up old Nokia) into a world-class library.
Over 90% of Worldreader Mobile’s readers are from emerging markets in Africa and Asia. Top countries: India, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. These are all countries with historically low literacy rates which makes it all the more worth noting that mobile reading not only amplified positive perceptions of reading but also helped reverse negative associations. In fact, 62% of users reported that they read more in general after reading on Worldreader Mobile.
In countries where book selling is hindered by low literacy levels and the prohibitively high costs of printing and distribution, mobile heralds a potentially massive opportunity for all publishers to increase their readership. Publishers in mature markets like the US or UK would be mistaken to view Africa as an amorphous dumping ground for their books—the expansive reach afforded by mobile connectivity and current trends toward mobile reading warrant closer attention. Our current state of connectivity allows for tremendous sharing and collaboration between creative industries around the world and as mobile increasingly makes geographic borders a thing of fiction, now is the time to embark on getting books to those underserved by the holdups of past generations.
But it is not just that. At the East African Footnote Summit in Nairobi this past September I participated in a panel on “Digital Publishing Solutions for Emerging Markets” with Angela Wachuka, the Executive Director of Kwani Trust, a Kenyan publishing house dedicated to creating and promoting African writing. Wachuka challenged the audience as to why no edition of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s canonical Weep Not, Child had been published to commemorate the 50 years since Kenyan independence. This was an example of a missed opportunity not only within the domestic Kenyan market, but also worldwide. Headlines the last few years hailing the rising economic powers of the continent are indicative of interest in learning more about Africa. Wachuka asked: “Why is no one taking advantage of the international curiosity outside of our borders?”
Addressing this question of both domestic and international demand reveals ample room for improvement as well as for transnational collaboration between publishers. As Simon Stevens and Africasacountry.com recently pointed out, there are still major flaws in how Africa’s diverse literatures are represented: That Chimamanda Adichie “gets the Acacia tree sunset treatment” is depressingly reminiscent of the epithet “orange ghetto” tacked onto Heinemann’s African Writer Series—a series which, by the way, save a few titles, remains bound in print. In a connected world, this doesn’t stand. An African publishing house could and should be the driving force behind such an edition as Wachuka suggests: it has wide appeal and digital distribution affords the publisher the means to deliver to readers via their preferred device.
One of the most interesting takeaways for our team from Worldreader’s early e-reader projects in Kenya was the students’ exposure to Ananse, a mischievous spider figure from Ghanaian folktales. Ananse’s popularity with the Kenyan students hints at the immense value of mobile as a mechanism to promote literatures between different African countries and cultures where a lack of books is often cited as a primary impediment to developing a mainstream reading culture.
It may come as no surprise that the most searched terms on Worldreader Mobile between April and June 2013 were, in decreasing occurrence: Sex, Bible, Biology, Things Fall Apart. Somewhat surprisingly, despite the apparent constraints of the medium, both short- and long-form content are proving popular (though in the case of the latter it tends to help the racier the subject matter). For instance, while shorter content predictably tends to have higher engagement, some of our most routinely completed books are the equivalent of more than 100 print pages. It is worth reiterating here that people are looking to their mobile devices for answers to fundamental questions—and that, at least for our readers, Achebe ranks up there.
Challenges Being Met
Regardless of the myriad possibilities afforded by mobile, one key stumbling block remains: paying for books isn’t yet easy enough. Payment gateways remain fragmented intercontinentally and the revenue-split commanded by telcos works against offering a realistic mass market price. All the same, mobile money has taken off across the continent, with Kenya’s M-Pesa leading the charge globally. Payment gateways and other variables will fall into place and will be accompanied by new business models and innovative ways of providing content. People are demonstrably reading on mobile and where there is an engaged market, content providers need to find a way to reach them.
Even with the low initial sales, I think the big takeaway here is that people are buying books via their phones. Just as Eghosa Imasuen, Managing Director of Kachifo Limited, an independent Nigerian publishing house, explained to me his skepticism toward all the hype about lack of a reading culture around Africa—there are guys out on the street corners hawking secondhand books spread over a rough cloth, often passed down (and across an ocean)—do you think they would be there if no one was buying them? Well, as Reading in the Mobile Era demonstrates, people are reading on their mobile phones and, yes, they’re reading more. Now is the time to look at what they want to read.
Alexander Polzin leads Worldreader’s African content acquisition, digital production and localization projects. Previously he taught English in rural South Korea, worked in print and digital for Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, and co-founded the Detroit-based literary collective writer/type concern.