Citizen journalist Suzi Linquist interviewed me recently for Supernews. News stories can’t ever carry a whole interview, even a brief one like this. So here’s the whole thing.
SL: First, can you tell me a bit about yourself? Schooling, what you did before Paperight?
After a degree in literature at UCT, I got my first job as a copy editor at Oxford University Press Southern Africa. Back then, OUPSA was often called the local publishing industry’s training academy, largely because the MD Kate McCallum poured so much energy into training her staff, particularly in the business of publishing, the financial side of things. I don’t think I’d ever have developed Paperight without that grounding, because when you’re aiming to change the way an industry makes money, you have to know how the numbers work.
I went on to work for other large educational publishers before starting Electric Book Works, where the idea for Paperight was born. EBW is a digital-publishing consulting company. I developed and tested publishing technology that worked for emerging markets.
SL: Where did you get the idea for Paperight?
The idea came in two ways. First, the more I worked in ebooks, the more dissatisfied I was. Ebooks weren’t truly improving access to information as fast as I wanted them to. Among the wealthy, tech moves extremely fast, catalysed by credit card payments and our ability to buy fancy new devices for fun. Among the poor, tech moves much more slowly.
Then we did a couple of studies on print-on-demand in 2008, and it just became so obvious that print-on-demand is already a reality in Africa. It’s just small, run by copy shops, and usually done illegally. But it’s incredibly effective. I knew we could make it even more effective, and legal, by offering printable books on a simple website.
SL: Has the process been successful so far? How many Paperight “shops” are there, how many books do you have that can be printed?
Only three months since we launched, we have over 150 Paperight outlets signed up, and more registering every day. Our library includes about 850 items, including books, past-paper packs, and sheet music, and we have hundreds more in pre-production.
SL: How much money can be saved for students? Are they using the resources (like the matric exams)?
Past matric exam papers are by far our most popular product, they’re being printed for students all over South Africa. Where you might spend R100 on a single year’s past exams in a conventional bookstore, from many of our outlets the same exams will cost you less than R50.
SL: What is the impact on lower-income areas? Are they using the technology? Do they know about the technology?
We spend most of our time and marketing money on low-income areas, so most of our sales are there, too. We work with local outlets to put up posters, distribute flyers, and place radio advertising.
SL: For education, has the company done anything, especially in those places that have been affected, to help schools get textbooks or reading materials for less? If not, are you planning on it?
We’ve focused on the Western Cape for the first few months, and we have had a dedicated team member visiting schools. Right now, our outlet team is working directly with schools and their local copy shops to get past papers to matrics, visiting classrooms and taking orders from students and teachers.
Every year in South Africa we bemoan our poor matric results, and yet no one’s made a concerted effort to flood schools with past papers for studying. Any successful student will tell you that past papers are a critical part of their preparation. So we’re working hard to help make them more accessible, and are always keen to work with other organisations who’d like to join us.