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A publisher’s journey to tech and back

17 June 2014

From Arthur Atwell:

I used to be a textbook publisher for two multinational companies. And when you’re a book publisher you realise pretty quickly that you either make books for rich people, or you sell cookie-cutter textbooks to government. Most people in the world – perhaps six or seven billion – could never buy the books you make.

Most South Africans, we can be fairly sure, live their entire lives without owning a book.

A 2006 study showed that “80% of South African children were not yet reading with comprehension after five years of schooling.”

. . . .

Well, all traditional publishing works like this:

  1. The publisher develops a finished product, based on their best guess of market needs.
  2. Then manufactures it.
  3. Stores it.
  4. Ships it.
  5. Then a retailer displays it.
  6. Sells a few copies.
  7. And returns or destroys the copies not sold.

This is very expensive: not only are there multiple links in the supply chain adding costs and very little value, but the risk of getting the initial product design wrong is high. Many publishers will tell you that only one in ten books makes money. So, as a result, the industry’s customers must be wealthy to pay for all this, and its retailers must be located close to those wealthy consumers. This is as true online as it is in bricks.

. . . .

Only a disruptive innovation could solve this problem, an innovation that fundamentally changes the way that books are made and distributed.

. . . .

Importantly, none of these innovations really spurred more reading among those who hadn’t bought books before. Maybe 45 million South Africans, ninety per cent of us. We were just making more products for the wealthy, and leaving everyone else behind.

Meanwhile, the digital divide, between the Internet haves and have-nots, kept getting worse as the lure of technology drew in more and more institutions, leading them to provide digital products for the wealthy, and to stop providing paper products that the poor once shared in.

. . . .

It took several years for me to realise that the innovation we needed in South Africa would not come from a new, first-world technology. Adopting new technologies requires disposable income and the space and time to learn new things, and human beings are stingy and don’t change quickly.

. . . .

Given the ecosystem of devices, data, support and credit cards that they require, ebooks are just as exclusive as traditional books. Their overheads are just easier to take for granted when you’re rich.

. . . .

So I realised we wouldn’t solve the problem in South Africa by throwing ereaders at schoolchildren, or asking everyone to read their textbooks on tiny feature phone screens. I’m glad some of my closest friends are working on that stuff, it’s important for the future, but right now we need something really simple to bandage our reading crisis. Something that requires no new infrastructure or technology.

Link to the rest at Arthur Atwell and thanks to Alicia for the tip.

Disruptive Innovation, Ebooks, Non-US

2 Comments to “A publisher’s journey to tech and back”

  1. Customers take a long time to grow. If a person doesn’t learn to read an love books as a child, it isn’t very likely it will happen as an adult.

    Result: Another generation of customers lost.

  2. Suburbanbanshee

    1. Yes, kids should have books. But 100? In a hut or a shanty? Where? Is the kid going to sleep on the books? Are mice going to eat them and snakes nest in them? I didn’t have 100 books as a kid myself, and we were a book-loving family.

    And if you have every kid own 100 books, doesn’t that militate against the child’s natural love of repetition, and the way that helps you learn to associate weird shapes with words composed of mouth sounds?

    2. Obviously translation is important, but native speakers probably write good stories too. Or they can dictate them. You don’t usually start with Harry Potter; you start with a book of the same fairy tales that everybody around you knows. Or nursery rhymes and songs, or stories about normal life at home.

    3. Paper self-publishing is pretty cheap too; but an awful lot of remote villages have cellphones. I don’t know about in Africa, but many developing countries have cheap phones galore.

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