ITWeb interviews Arthur Attwell about Paperight

In the wake of our win at the London Book Fair this week, Christine Greyvenstein interviewed me for an article on ITWeb. Here’s the full text of that interview, where I talk about how we’re changing the way people buy books in South Africa, and where we’re going in the future.

CG: What exactly does Paperight do and how did the website start off?

AA: In short: Paperight enables any photocopy shop to print out and sell books legally. Photocopy chops are ubiquitous in Africa; they’re little hubs of economic activity. But till now they’ve never been used as legal, print-on-demand bookstores. By making this happen, we’ve put bookstores in places where books have literally never been sold before (like rural Peddie or Khayelitsha’s CBDs), accessible to people who can’t get to bookstores and can’t get online themselves to read or buy books.

The website is just our tool: copy shops have a pre-paid account on paperight.com, and use the site to instantly download books for printing as walk-in customers ask for them. We deduct small licence fees from the shop’s account for each print-out, and pay that to the publishers – less 20% for us.

After three years of research and prototyping, we launched our official site in May 2012. Investment from the Shuttleworth Foundation made that possible.

CG: What benefits does the Paperight service offer?

AA: For copy shops, they get to offer a whole new service to their communities. Already copy shops around the country have earned tens of thousands of rands in extra turnover by using Paperight. For their walk-in customers, the benefits are lower-cost books (on average 20% less than traditional editions) and more importantly, much-reduced accessibility costs: we cut out the travel, delay and frustration of trying to find a book at traditional bookstores, which are often poorly stocked.

For publishers, we offer a new market. People who buy from Paperight outlets are not the same people who buy from Exclusive Books, for instance. We’re creating new readers that will sustain the book industry in the long run. Right now, it’s been estimated that less than two million people buy books regularly in South Africa (excluding school textbooks bought directly by government), and that number isn’t growing fast enough to sustain local bookstores. Our Paperight outlets could reach another 40 million, and that’s just in South Africa.

CG: This is not the first award that Paperight has won, what are some of the others and what are your feelings on the success of the website?

AA: Last year we won a seed grant from the SAB Foundation Innovation Awards, and earlier this year we won ‘Most Entrepreneurial Startup‘ at the prestigious Tools of Change for Publishing conference in New York. This week’s Innovation Award at the London Book Fair is a further endorsement of what we’re doing from the international publishing industry.

To be honest, getting there wasn’t easy: I’ve been pitching Paperight to publishers since it was a prototype in 2009, so it’s been a four-year journey to get this recognition. I think, over those years, publishers have become more adventurous, and more aware of their social responsibility to spread the knowledge they curate. And the website we launched last year has made a big difference, too: it’s fast and clear, and we’re improving it all the time.

CG: What are some of the challenges start-ups face in the beginning?

AA: Oh, there are so many and they’re different for everyone. First, it’s hard to literally survive while you’re getting going. Your priorities as founders are very simple: put food on your table, and get sales. Both are hard. It’s lonely making hundreds of decisions every day without any idea of what will and won’t work. Paul Graham has simple advice to startups: “If you can just avoid dying, you get rich. That sounds like a joke, but it’s actually a pretty good description of what happens in a typical startup.” I live by that. We’re not even close to getting rich, but we’re still here, and after all this time the momentum is finally growing.

CG: What are some of Paperight’s plans for the future, building on an already successful concept?

AA: Our first priority is just to get better at what we do, right here in South Africa. We can make a real difference to the delivery and affordability of school and university books, so we’re working with publishers and copy shops on making that happen. And we hope to grow in Kenya and Ghana in particular in the next year.

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