Wrapping up the Paperight journey

Six years ago, I began work on an experiment: if there are copy shops in every corner of the world, what if they could legally, easily print out books for their customers? We could put every book within walking distance of every home.

I still believe in that idea, but I’m sad that we couldn’t make it viable at scale. This month, we’re closing Paperight. Our particular implementation hasn’t worked out: we just couldn’t sell enough books to keep our doors open.

There are many reasons for that, some we’ll never fully understand. In the months to come I’ll be writing and talking openly about the lessons we learned, in the hope that others will keep working on distributed print-on-demand. We’ve kept an open archive of our team’s plans and discoveries, as our team’s internal story. And if you’d like to run your own Paperight-like website, the code’s all open on GitHub.

Some housekeeping: we’ve begun contacting partner outlets and publishers to finalise accounts. If you want to check in, mail team@paperight.com. The paperight.com service will work till the end of December 2014.

Many people joined me on this journey, and I couldn’t be more grateful to them. In particular, my team at Paperight, the magicians at Realm Digital, the champions who funded our early pilots, my endlessly patient and supportive wife Michelle, and the incredible individuals at the Shuttleworth Foundation, whose generosity opened the road.

I remain dedicated to reimagining publishing for emerging markets. I’ll be focusing on Bettercare, my open-access healthcare publishing, and nurturing the Book Dash children’s book initiative. And my former team are finding new homes in innovative ventures around South Africa and beyond. We’ll bring to them everything we learned at Paperight.

Keep in touch: there is still much we can all do to put every book within walking distance of every home.

One last time, then:

Instant photocopy-licensing: an important step for publishing

This week, we’re adding a new service to Paperight: we want to make it really fast and easy for anyone to make a legal photocopy of a book.

Why is that important?

Every single day, in thousands of institutions worldwide, teachers and students photocopy books. Ask almost any author or publisher, and they’ll tell you it’s terrible, and that photocopying is illegal and shouldn’t happen.

But still it does. All the time. Why?

Photocopying is easier, faster and cheaper than almost any other way to get a book.

Photocopying is easier, faster and cheaper than almost any other way to get a book. It’s easier, faster and cheaper than buying online, phoning or visiting bookstores, and waiting for delivery. Have you ever tried to buy a copy of a slightly obscure book? Or been the last student to get to the campus bookstore? Then you know that the books you need are often nowhere to be found.

Aren’t ebooks supposed to fix this? If you factor in the overheads of ereading (device, data, electricity, credit card), photocopying can even be easier, faster and cheaper than ebooks – and that’s assuming the book you need is available as an ebook in the first place, and that you’d be happy to study from a screen.

The photocopier may be the single biggest distribution mechanism in the world of books.

The photocopier may be the single biggest distribution mechanism in the world of books. It’s almost certainly the most widespread. Photocopying is not going to go away. It’s a big, old elephant in the room.

Collecting agencies

‘So, what if I really want to stay legal,’ I hear you ask, ‘or I really want to pay the author for their work – can’t I just pay someone a fee and make a legal photocopy?’

Sure. But you have to track down its rights manager and ask for permission first. That might take a few days or weeks. At which point they’ll ask you what you’re going to use the copy for. Then they’ll put you in a pre-defined category, tell you how much to pay and send you a contract to sign. So, basically, it’ll take you an indefinite amount of time and effort to pay an unknown amount of money. That’s if anyone replies to your mail.

Right now, many publishers choose not think about this, because it gives them a headache. If you ask a publisher, many will tell you they already have a plan to make legal photocopying possible: collecting agencies. A collecting agency is an organisation that collects licence fees from people making photocopies. They collect the fees then pay them on to publishers (keeping a reasonable commission). In South Africa, our collecting agency is DALRO.

Collecting agencies are ingenious, and run by lovely people. The problem is, collecting agencies have some big problems.

There is almost zero diversity in the way that copying licences are sold. As a result, there is almost zero innovation, and no competition.

Firstly, they are a monopoly. Most countries have only one collecting agency for books (there are others for creative works like music), and most of those collaborate under the IFFRO banner. The intention is to make things easy: copiers and publishers can all use the same service. The problem is that this has resulted in a licensing monoculture. There is almost zero diversity in the way that copying licences are sold. As a result, there is almost zero innovation, and no competition.

Second, working with them is full of delays: admin, correspondence, contracts, and a fair amount of legalese that slows you down. Almost nothing is instant – and we live in a world of automation where we expect transactions to be instant. These days, by the time we know we need a book, we’re out of time to find it. We need it now. And so the photocopy room is our friend.

Let’s say you know you’re going to be doing a lot of photocopying. You can have an ongoing agreement with DALRO, where every few months you send them a list of everything you’ve photocopied, and they bill you. That’s called a ‘blanket licence’. It involves a long, complicated legal contract and ongoing billing and reporting requirements. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Only big institutions like large universities are really set up to handle it. And then the university has to have lots of internal rules and processes for making sure everyone uses the system correctly. (Anecdotally, we’ve been told that lecturers at local universities often don’t follow these processes when they prescribe photocopied readings.)

On the other hand, let’s say you just want to make one or two photocopies, and your institution doesn’t have a blanket licence. Maybe you’re a teacher at a primary school, and you want to make twenty quick copies of a novella for your grade sevens. You need a ‘transactional licence’: once-off photocopying permission. For that, you have to contact DALRO each time you want to photocopy, and wait for an email back.

…they’ll only give you permission to copy up to 10 per cent of the book

Oh, and there’s this: they’ll only give you permission to copy up to 10 per cent of the book. As DALRO’s website explains, ‘DALRO may not allow the reproduction of whole books, either by a transactional licence or under a blanket licence. It’s unlawful to reproduce a whole book instead of buying it.’  You really need to copy more of the book? Elsewhere on their site, they elaborate: ‘If the book was published by a local publisher, DALRO will contact the publisher and request a licence for the larger portion. If the book was published by a foreign publisher, DALRO cannot process it but puts the licensee in touch with the foreign rights holder.’ That’ll take a while. The 10 per cent restriction is a real pain.


Almost no one knows all this. It’s complicated stuff made worse by its grey areas. Look around online and you’ll struggle to find anything really clear about copyright and photocopying.

For instance, this common FAQ: ‘Am I allowed to photocopy part of a book for my own personal and private use? Copyright [in South Africa] is not infringed by any fair dealing with a literary work for the purposes of the personal or private use of the work by the person making the copy.  What is “fair” in any given situation will always depend on the circumstances of that situation.’

Is it fair that I can’t complete my studies because I can’t find or afford the textbook I’m prescribed?

So who decides about my circumstances? Is it fair that I can’t complete my studies because I can’t find or afford the textbook I’m prescribed? Depends what you mean by ‘fair’. ‘Fair dealing’ is actually a technical legal term whose uncertain meaning differs from country to country, and which laypeople can’t be expected to understand.

Grey areas attract legalese, because no one can really explain in plain language what’s going on. And if something can’t be made plain to laypeople, it will be ignored as if it were never there. If publishers want people to care about copyright, they’ve got to simplify the way people encounter it.

Easy, fast and cheap

Publishers could grasp the massive opportunity that photocopying represents: a huge book-distribution industry that should be generating revenue from licence fees, but doesn’t because licensing is absurdly complicated and slow.

…school teachers, college lecturers, librarians, church secretaries, HR managers, government officials. They and their institutions are legally exposed

I’m not talking about students queuing at the local copy shop, they’re not going to start paying licence fees any time soon (there are other ways to tackle that issue). I’m talking about the people who work at institutions: school teachers, college lecturers, librarians, church secretaries, HR managers, government officials. They and their institutions are legally exposed, and don’t want to get into trouble for breaking the law. Many of them would really like to do the right thing.

The only way forward is to make it easy, fast and cheap for them to make a legal photocopy of an entire book. ‘Fast’ as in ‘instant’ by today’s standards. ‘Easy’ as in:

  • I can be anyone
  • I open a website
  • I pay a fee by card or EFT
  • I print a licence to keep with my photocopy.

If it can’t be done in five minutes, then it’s not fast and it’s not easy.

Paperight and beyond

That’s what we’ve built: buying a once-off photocopy licence on paperight.com is genuinely fast and easy.

We don’t have many books listed yet: that will be up to publishers. We’re talking to them, and we hope they’ll list their books with us very soon. It’s simple for them to do, and takes almost no effort. (Existing contracts with authors allow reprographic rights deals – the same ones they make with DALRO – and collecting agencies don’t require exclusivity.) It’s also the best way to give out-of-print books a new lease on life, especially at colleges and universities that want to prescribe them.

So is this really just a long pitch for your business? Yes and no. I’d love for everyone to use Paperight for photocopy licensing (and for print-on-demand, our original service).

Competition would raise the bar. And to prove we’re serious, we’ve made the entire paperight.com website engine open-source.

But I’d love even more to have competitors offering the same thing. Competition would raise the bar. And to prove we’re serious, we’ve made the entire paperight.com website engine open-source. That means that if anyone else wants to run their own version of paperight.com under their own brand name, they can go ahead. (Grab the code here. It doesn’t include the books we list, we’re not allowed to share those.) And for anyone who wants to bring Paperight to their country, we’ll split revenue equally, so that we can grow this initiative together.

200 top South African books hit Paperight

The+Shining+GirlsWhen I set out to build Paperight, I imagined having best-selling, new South African fiction and non-fiction in our library, so that South Africans everywhere could get their hands on it.

Even though it took several years to get there, I’m ecstatic that we’ve just released over 200 books from leading publisher Random House Struik, including showstoppers like The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human, and Of Cops and Robbers by Mike Nicol. There’s loads more, have a look here.

As I write this, I’m sitting at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, a highlight of the South African literary year. An underlying – and often openly expressed – anxiety at the festival is our industry’s dependence on perhaps two million wealthy book buyers, who buy their books from glitzy stores in suburban malls. By working with Paperight, the team at Random House Struik have taken an important step towards real change. We sincerely hope others will follow in their footsteps.

Talented, young designers showcased in our cover art competition

As this year’s World Design Capital, Cape Town has been painted yellow. Designers and creatives around the city have been showcasing their transformative design work. As a WDC-aligned project, we wanted to inspire talented young creators around the city to try their hand as book cover designers. We launched a Cover Art Competition, and were not disappointed. The winner’s covers will be used as the official cover art for the Paperight editions of classic literature books, with the designers’ names appearing on the imprint pages. These will be available for sale from over 200 Paperight registered copy shops across South Africa. CAC_NeillKropman_3bookcovers_reduced_20140404 Neill Kropman’s gorgeous water-themed cover set came in 1st Place. He hails from Red and Yellow School of Logic and Magic, and submitted three cover designs that work together as a conceptual triptych. According to Neill, his concept stemmed from the following: “Each story tells a tale of travelling via water. I chose to connect all three books by this idea. A river flows from the first book (Huckleberry Finn) through the series, into Heart of Darkness and finally resolving into Robinson Crusoe.” The runner-ups are: 2nd Place: Lucelle van der Linde (Stellenbosch University) for To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf 3rd Place: Ivan de Villiers (Stellenbosch University) for Walden by Henry David Thoreau Congratulations to you all! We will be in contact with you soon about your prizes. For more images, scroll down. huckleberry-finn_kropman_cover_20140513 heart-of-darkness_kropman_cover_20140513 robinson-crusoe_kropman_cover_20140513to-the-lighthouse_lucelleVDL_full-wrap-cover_20140513 (1) walden_Ivandevilliers_full-wrap-cover_20140513 walden_devilliers_cover_20140513 to-the-lighthouse_lucelleVDL_cover_20140513

It’s time for a #textbookrevolution

This week we kick off the #textbookrevolution, a movement to end the high cost of textbooks. Here is the #textbookrevolution manifesto in 75 seconds.

The #textbookrevolution manifesto

At South African universities, less than half of students buy textbooks.
They are too often expensive, out of stock, hard to find, and longer than necessary.
This must change.
The culprit? The supply chain: printing + shipping + warehousing + wastage + retail = 70% of the price.
That’s crazy. There is a better way.
Textbooks can be printed on demand in any copy shop quickly and legally.
Legal copy-shop printouts cut textbook prices by up to 40%.
And publishers and authors still get paid the same.
This could save R1000 for every student in South Africa.
That’s a billion rand every year to spend on more important things, like food and housing.
It’s time for a #textbookrevolution.
Lecturers and authors: Insist that publishers put textbooks on Paperight.
Universities: scrap monopolies for campus bookstores.
Students: spread the word.


The thinking behind the #textbookrevolution

There are a million university students in South Africa. Their textbooks are very expensive, because the supply chain for textbooks is bloated: it accounts for 70% of the retail price of most paper textbooks. (I include printing in the supply chain, since a publisher’s primary output is a print-ready PDF: everything after that is the supply chain.)

In theory, ebooks would solve this problem, but ebooks present many challenges of their own, including high setup costs, poor reader software, clumsy DRM, the need to buy with a credit card, and device and data costs. Many students simply prefer paper.

Paperight shortens the supply chain by replacing traditional retail, printing, shipping, warehousing and wastage with a simple copy-shop print-out. This could save most students up to 40% off their textbook bill – that’s thousands of rands every year per student.

Here’s an example using an 800-page crown-format textbook that normally sells for R500. Traditionally:

  • The retailer, printer, shipping companies, warehousing, and wastage provisions eat up about R350.
  • The traditional supply chain pays the publisher about R150, which covers all their costs and the author’s royalties.

On Paperight:

  • The copy shop pays a licence fee of, say, R200. The publisher earns R160 after Paperight’s 20% commission.
  • The copy shop prints out and ring-binds the book, shrunk imperceptibly and placed two-up on 200 double-sided sheets, for R120.
  • The copy shop charges the student the total, R320, saving them R180 (36%).

There are never stock shortages, these ring-bound books lie flat while studying, and they’re often easier to mark up with notes and highlights.

In the end, our message is simple: it’s time for a #textbookrevolution: textbooks don’t need a bloated supply chain – they can and should be cheaper. That revolution starts with Paperight.

What are some real student examples?

Yazeed Peters works full-time and is studying part-time through UNISA. He’s studying economics, accounting, customer service and marketing. He needs six textbooks that together cost at least R2240. If they were available from Paperight outlets, he’d pay only R1310, and save R930 – a saving of over 40%.

Tshegofatso Masha is studying first-year civil engineering at UCT. He’ll do twenty courses this year, for which he needs to buy 7 textbooks. In a store, he’d pay about R7175 for these. If they were available on Paperight, he’d pay R5126, saving R2049 – 29%. And that includes the cost of printing out a 1000-page, full-colour, A4 textbook. With Paperight, he’d only have to print what he needed from it, saving even more money.

Philippa Dewey is studying final-year law at UCT. The seven books she’s prescribed would cost R4300 normally. From Paperight outlets they would cost her only R2500. She’d save R1800, 42% of her textbook bill.

In every case here, the publisher still earns the equivalent of 30% of the retail price of the traditional book, which for many publishers matches current gross margins including equivalent royalties in rand terms.

How does Paperight work in stores?

A student walks into a copy shop, asks for a textbook, and the copy shop prints and ring-binds it within hours or even minutes. Every page includes the names of the student, copy shop, and publisher, and the date of purchase.

How is this possible? We work with publishers to provide an online library of books that copy shops can legally print out. For each print-out, they pay a licence fee from a pre-paid account. The copy shop makes money from the printing.

Publishers can set their licence fees to make the same gross margin they’ve always made (about 30% of the retail price for most publishers). Paperight gets a 20% commission on the licence fees.

So, by replacing traditional printing, warehousing, shipping, wastage and retail with a simple copy-shop print-out, we can reduce final cost of a textbook by 40%, with no loss to the publisher.

This is nothing short of a revolution in textbook delivery, dramatically reducing the overall cost of tertiary education.

If, starting today, we could save every university student in South Africa R1000 a year, then at current inflation and enrolment-growth rates, by 2030 we’d have saved them a total of R52 billion.

What are our challenges?

To make this saving a reality, we are up against four key challenges.

Publishers mistrust copy shops after years of rampant piracy. Even though Paperight distribution is logically better than having your books photocopied anonymously, publishers struggle to overcome their long-standing unease. As a result, they are reluctant to put core textbooks on Paperight.

Copy shops have to learn new tricks, especially how to promote books. They also have to train their staff members on how to use paperight.com. We do broad PR and provide promotional materials and support, but ultimately they have to do the local legwork.

University bookshops have exclusivity on campus. Usually, only one retailer is allowed to sell textbooks on campus – potentially preventing copy shops on campus from selling Paperight print-outs. In theory, this secured market should help bookstores give better service to students. In practice, it creates a sheltered monopoly with no competition effects.

Lecturers don’t enjoy changing the books they prescribe. But to make textbooks much cheaper for their students – to improve purchase rates and student performance – they need to choose books that are on Paperight, or pressure publishers into putting their books on Paperight. Lecturers are the most powerful customers in the textbook industry.

What are we asking of people?

Each player in the textbook ecosystem has a part to play in the #textbookrevolution.

Lecturers who prescribe books are the most influential people in publishing – they have tremendous power to change things for the better. We want them to ask publishers to sell their prescribed books through Paperight, too.

Students are at the heart of the #textbookrevolution, it matters to them more than anyone. So we’re asking them to spread the word that there’s a better way.

University administrators can grease the wheels by getting campus copy shops and book shops to join Paperight; they can distribute tutorials through our network; and use their mailing lists to tell people about the #textbookrevolution.

Authors want more people to read their books for less (while still earning royalties). We want them to ask you, as publishers, to sell their books through Paperight, too. (We also offer publishers and published authors telephonic advice on structuring royalties for Paperight sales.)

The big picture

The #textbookrevolution is bigger than Paperight: there are many other ways that publishing can reduce its bloated supply chain to cut the cost of tertiary education. That’s why we’re not calling this the #paperightrevolution. We just want to play our part, alongside others, in getting more students through university well-educated.

We’re deeply grateful to the publishers and copy shops that have already joined the #textbookrevolution, even though many have only taken baby steps so far.

We need many, many more allies to make this a reality. Please spread the word: it’s time for a #textbookrevolution.

Paperight schools taste matric success

Last week saw the release of matric results for 2013 in the Western Cape. Two schools in the Western Cape that used Paperight’s past matric exam papers as part of their teaching this year saw huge improvements in their pass rates and the quality of their passes.

Pelican Park High School’s principal, Mr. Cader Tregonning, made it his mission to pull his school’s socks up. When he heard about Paperight matric exam past papers, he encouraged all students to buy them at the beginning of the school year. It was clear to see that those that had bought them were sailing ahead in marks and confidence by the middle of the year. Pelican Park High School ultimately achieved a pass rate of 93.5% (up from 80% in 2012), and had 5 subjects with a 100% pass rate: English, Afrikaans, History, Life Orientation, Mathematical Literacy.

Silverstream Secondary School had the unfortunate distinction of being the school in the Western Cape with the lowest pass rate in 2012. Minuteman Press Cape Town stepped in to help them out by donating Paperight materials to their students. Despite enormous adversity – including gangsterism in the surrounding areas – the staff and students worked hard in 2013 and their hard work shows in their final results. Silverstream Secondary School achieved a pass rate of 69.1% (up from 34.2% in 2012). That means that their pass rate almost doubled. Even better, the number of students who achieved Diploma passes went from 9.2% to 38.2%, meaning that more matriculants from the school can look forward to tertiary education.

So there we have it! Proof that Paperight materials are essential in the classroom. At such affordable rates, we can make sure that more classrooms are better equipped to ensure that their students have the best possible chance of success. Why not head down to your local high school/s and introduce yourself with a copy of Paperight’s catalogue? You’ll find a copy here for download.

If you would like to get involved by sponsoring a school by supplying them with much-needed educational supplements, or would just like to find out more about our programme and what it takes, please contact us at team@paperight.com or 021 671 1278.