Interview: Arthur in The Citizen

I enjoyed chatting on email to Genevieve Vieira of The Citizen recently for her story about Paperight. Here’s the full text of the interview.

How and when did you first come up with the concept for Paperight?

At Electric Book Works (my other company), we’d been trying to use ebooks to make reading easier and more affordable for people. But it wasn’t working, there are too many barriers to online access for most people. During a research project into print-on-demand, I realised that the smallest book-printing factory is a copy shop – and copy shops were everywhere, run by ambitious entrepreneurs across Africa. It was suddenly so obvious that they should be bookstores!

Has something similar been attempted in the past?

Nothing on this scale. There have been attempts to print newspapers and maps and sometimes books on-demand in stores, but they’ve always required very expensive machines. Our solution works on any old printer, so any printing business can participate, and we can reach far more people.

Was it challenging to set up an agreement with publishers in this regard?

For most publishers, yes. There have been shining exceptions: publishers who understand immediately that their role in society is to spread knowledge, and Paperight is a viable way to do that properly. But others have struggled to get over their mistrust of copy shops, to realise that copy-shop entrepreneurs want to be their allies and business partners. We’re getting there, though: after a long journey, more and more publishers are getting excited about the possibility of putting every book within walking distance of every home.

Do authors understand the necessity of something like Paperight?

Every author wants more than anything for their books to be read. The old book distribution system just doesn’t encourage that: less than 2 million South Africans buy books regularly. Authors feel that and it saddens them. Every author I’ve spoken to loves the idea that we can make their books available on every street corner.

Will publishers be losing out on profit?

Not at all. That’s the real beauty of Paperight: publishers can often make the same gross margins from Paperight sales as they do from conventional bookstores. Plus, they reach far more people: if they then sell more copies than before, they can lower their prices over time. They can finally break out of this tiny, suburban market they’ve been selling to for all these years.

Why do you think Paperight is so worthwhile in a country like SA?

Like many countries, South Africa is big. We can’t afford to ship regular books everywhere. And most South Africans don’t have Internet access. By turning any copier-printer into a book factory, every copy shop into a book shop, we can solve a problem today that would take years to fix any other way. Schools could get their books today. Hospitals can train nurses today. Small entrepreneurs can get helpful business books today.

Can you explain in a few sentences exactly on Paperight works?

Any copy shop can join the Paperight network by signing up for free on They then put a small amount of money (say, R50) in their pre-paid Paperight account. Then they’re ready to print for customers. We provide promotional posters they can print for their shop advertising the service. When a customer asks for a Paperight book, they use to download and print it out on the spot. The make their usual printing fee, and we pay the publisher from the copy shop’s pre-paid account.

How many different countries has Paperight been implemented in?

We have a few outlets abroad, in Ghana, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the US – but the vast majority are in South Africa, where we focus our efforts right now. We hope to expand to Kenya and Ghana over the next year.

What will this mean for the future of public libraries for instance?

Libraries are so important for growing reading. So we’re very excited to work with libraries. We’re already talking to library groups about their using Paperight both to stock their own shelves and also to be able to sell patrons books right from the library counter. When you borrow a great book from a library, why shouldn’t you also be able to get your own copy right there to keep?

Do you have a list of outlets that are involved?

The best place to find our 150 outlets is on our site at We’re very proud that the entire Jetline chain of copy shops are Paperight members.


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, 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.

Paperight in Parliament

Coat of arms of the Parliament of South AfricaWe’re over the moon and deeply honoured to have been congratulated by the South African National Assembly – Parliament – for our recent win in New York. Even more special than the congratulations was Parliament’s support and encouragement, and their appeal to all publishers to join us to make books more accessible to all.

Here’s what was said and agreed to in the Minutes of the National Assembly on 28 February 2013:

8. The Chief Whip of the Opposition moved without notice: That the House –

(1) notes that Paperight, a Cape Town based print-on-demand company received the O’Reilly Tools of Change Start-Up Showcase’s award for Most Entrepreneurial Publishing Start-Up in New York City on 14 February 2013;

(2) further notes that Paperight, a company funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation, received this award for its ingenious solution to widespread book shortages in the developing world through a service that allows photocopy shops to legally print books, consisting of more than 200 registered independent outlets in South Africa;

(3) recognises that Paperight was one of 10 finalists, the only company nominated outside the United States of America and Europe and the first ever to come from South Africa;

(4) acknowledges the difficulty that millions in South Africa face in accessing published works;

(5) further acknowledges the importance of making published works easily accessible to millions of people throughout Africa; and

(6) congratulates Paperight and encourages publishers to register with Paperight in making their works accessible to all.

Agreed to.

Thank you, South Africa! We’ll be sure to live up to your expectations.

Hey, CNBC! How nice of you to visit!


Yesterday, Thomas Maree and Lungile Tom from CNBC Africa came to our offices to do a short piece on us for their Eye on Western Cape programme, in light of our win at the Tools of Change Startup Showcase. Notwithstanding the fact that CNBC Africa is the go-to channel for businesspeople in Africa, Paperight has only featured on TV once before, so this was tremendously exciting for us.


After a short interview with Arthur, we decided to take Thomas and Lungile along to our 3@1 Cavendish outlet for a practical look at how a Paperight book is printed on demand.


What followed was ten minutes of Lungile pointing the camera at a computer screen, then at a photocopier, then at a binder. Photocopy shops might not be the most glitzy and glamourous thing in the world, but they’re the frontline in our bid to make books more available throughout South Africa and beyond. In the end, this is Paperight’s end product.

Hopefully Thomas and Lungile can parse together a thrilling 5-minute segment on us for their show. Either way, catch Paperight on CNBC’s Eye on Western Cape on Saturday 2 March 2013 at 15h30 and get an insight into how we work, what we work on, and why we’re doing it!

Paperight wins at the O’Reilly Tools of Change Startup Showcase!

winner-badgeGreat news! Paperight has been named as one of two judges’ picks at the O’Reilly Tools of Change Startup Showcase, held in New York City on Wednesday the 13th.

We were fortunate enough to be chosen as the “Most Entrepreneurial” startup out of the ten competing finalists this year. We were the only startup from outside of North America and Europe participating in the finals of this year’s event, and it feels wonderful to win in a competition chock-full with cutting-edge innovators and innovations. It’s made our year – and that year has only just begun.

We would also love to extend our congratulations to the other two winners from the showcase were real-time visualisation developers CartoDB (“Most Commercial” winners) and children’s publishers Borne Digital (audience’s choice), both from the United States. Keep it up – you do amazing work!

If you’d like to find out more about the competition, held in the middle of what’s probably the world’s most influential publishing technology conference, Tools of Change, you can see our pre-competiton interview with Kat Meyer on the TOC blog here.

So, to the judges, our fellow finalists, and everybody who helps us keep on helping us bring every book within walking distance of every home – thank you, thank you, thank you.

Our new outlet agreement

When we launched the new in May last year, our terms for outlets were very, very short and sweet. Essentially, they explained briefly how Paperight works, and the two golden rules for outlets:

  • One fee = one print-out  (for each copy of a document that you print out, you pay a separate licence fee)
  • Customer’s full name, every time (provide the customer’s full name each time you buy a licence.)

It worked because it was simple and clear. Since then, over two hundred people have registered as Paperight outlets, and we’ve received loads of feedback and questions about the way we work. And we realised that we needed to be clearer and more thorough in our outlet terms.

So this week we’ve implemented a new outlet agreement that now applies to all outlets. It doesn’t change anything about the way outlets or we work (so don’t worry, no surprises at all), it only explains things more clearly and thoroughly.

Click here to see the latest outlet agreement.

If you work at an outlet, please take a minute to read through it. It’s still quite short as contracts go, and we’ve kept the language as easy to read as possible (we hate difficult legal language). So it won’t take long at all.

And if you’re a publisher or author, you might be interested in reading it, too, so that you know how our network of outlets will be selling your books.

If you want to chat to us about the agreement, we’re always keen to chat and answer questions, just drop us a line.

Paperight is a Tools of Change Startup Showcase Finalist!

What a cracking start to 2013.

We’re proud to announce that Paperight has been named – thanks to a combination of public vote and a panel of publishing industry judges – as one of ten O’Reilly Tools of Change Startup Showcase Finalists.

Startup Showcase will give a selection of groundbreaking startups a chance to exhibit their work at one of the publishing world’s most exciting and influential conferences. Highlighting the startup ecosystem’s creativity and variety, the Showcase will give young companies in the publishing space a chance to get their company in front of a global community of leaders in the publishing and technology industries, as well as potential investors.

We look forward to heading to New York on February 12 to show off the Paperight website and the work that we’re doing around South Africa to make sure nobody in our country has to go without books or learning resources ever again.

Find more info about the TOC Startup Showcase – including info about the nine other great finalists – at the TOC website here.

Arnie’s Printing gets a new Paperight sign!

Arnie owns a copy shop. A very busy copy shop. It’s called Arnie’s Printing, is in Retreat, Cape Town, and does a lot of good business. He prints a lot of flyers, does a lot of copying, and is excited to use Paperight more in partnership with local schools.

You wouldn’t know it was there, though. Unless you’re eagle-eyed, you might drive right past it. This was the only sign for Arnie’s business: a small advert outside his house-cum-copy-shop. It’s comprehensive, sure, but a copy shop with big plans to serve its community needs something a bit more imposing and a bit more attention-grabbing.

So we made Arnie this, the first ever Paperight-branded copy shop sign. It was put up a couple weeks ago and we went to go see it in the flesh (or, er, metal) today. It looks great, and Arnie says that it’s already bringing his shop more attention.

Outlet Development Manager Yazeed completed the hand-over. We’re thrilled to have this sign up and to use our resources to help out one of our outlets. Who knows – hopefully this can spark a wave of Paperight-branded signs and advertising for fledgling copy shops throughout South Africa!

Thanks for having us, Arnie, and we hope the new sign brings in plenty new business for you.

Want a Paperight-branded sign and advertising for your copy shop? We might be able to make that happen for you! Mail us at, and we can chat.

Introducing: Oscar Masinyana!

Oscar Masinyana

Meet Oscar, our latest recruit at Paperight. He’ll be working on the content team working on various projects of text compilation, metadata refinement, translation and other content-related tasks.

Oscar is a wildly-accomplished MA Linguistics student, currently busy rounding off a thesis on the role of the discourse marker “ke” in written and spoken Xhosa from the 1800s to 2010. In other words, he’s pretty great.

Welcome, Oscar!

Paperight in your pocket

Paperight MobileThe Internet in Africa is all about mobile phones, so it’s important that Paperight customers be able to find our outlets – and find out about great books – on a website that works really well those phones.

We’re going to have to learn over time what about Paperight works best for phones. And to start that learning process, we’ve launched a mobile Paperight site that will work on any web-enabled phone; not just smartphones. It includes an easy way to search for outlets in your city, and short articles on books we think you really should know about.

To see the site, visit

Over time, we’ll make this mobile site better and have it do more stuff. If you have ideas or suggestions, let us know in the comments here, or mail us.