AFKInsider: The concept of a print-on-demand bookshop seems risky in the digital age, where so much of the emphasis is being placed on paperless workspaces. How hard was it to get Paperight started? Were there any loopholes to navigate?
Arthur Attwell: It’s the job of technology companies, especially mobile-phone companies, to tell us that everything is digital now, and paper is redundant. But that doesn’t make it true. When I started EBW in 2006, I thought ebooks had arrived and would replace print within five years. Here we are eight years later and people are saying the same thing. Technology actually moves slowly.
So Paperight’s challenges have not been ebooks – in fact the rise of ebook infrastructure has helped us tremendously. For instance, because of ebooks, publishers have the files and systems we need to carry and catalogue their books.
AFKInsider: Does your experience at Oxford University Press Southern Africa inform your approach to Paperight? What were the creative challenges?
Arthur Attwell: My time at OUP was hugely important, because that’s where I learned how publishing’s numbers work. I had a brilliant mentor then MD Kate McCallum, who was fanatical about teaching her young staff members about the financial nitty gritty of publishing. You can’t innovate if you don’t know how the numbers work traditionally.
AFKInsider: Why is this an essential product for South Africa? Who’s the target audience?
Arthur Attwell: Books are a critical part of education and personal development, but they’re stupidly expensive. They cost not only money to buy, but time and money to find in the first place. Paperight changes that. Our main target audience is university students. By cutting out most of the traditional book supply chain, we can reduce a varsity textbook bill by up to 40 percent — and still pay the publisher their usual gross profit. If starting today we could save every student in South Africa R1000 ($91.50) a year, at current growth and inflation rates, by 2030 we’d have saved them R52 billion ($4.8 billion).
AFKInsider: How does Paperight save money for the consumer? And while we’re on the subject, how does Paperight help publishers make a profit?
Arthur Attwell: When you buy a traditional book from a bookstore, 70 percent of the price goes to the supply chain: printing, shipping, warehousing, wastage, retail. We replace all of that with a copy-shop printout. The biggest potential savings are in university textbooks, where savings to the consumer reach 40 percent in many cases.
Using paperight.com, the copy shop pays the publisher a license fee for each printout. They charge their customer enough to cover the license fee and their normal printing fees. The publisher’s license fee can be as high as their traditional gross profit, even after we’ve taken our commission.
AFKInsider: What other publishing industry innovations are surfacing in South Africa and how are these changes affecting the landscape of media in the country?
Arthur Attwell: There are loads of interesting projects around, but I’m most excited about two in particular, because they’re changing the supply chains fundamentally. One is FunDza, which distributes short stories and short novels on phones using Mxit.
The other is Siyavula, who are completely changing the way textbooks are funded, developed and distributed. Their textbook development is funded with corporate social responsibility money, and then open licensed so that anyone can share and remix them.
AFKInsider: What is the future of publishing in South Africa? Any predictions? How will Paperight play a role?
Arthur Attwell: ‘Publishing’ is the act of gathering and distributing information in crafted packages. Paper books were once the only way to do that. Now there are many ways – traditional books, print-on-demand, websites, apps, posters, email, and more – each with distinct strengths. People will always need these curated packages, but not every publisher around today will get them right. Some will be luckier than others.
Their success will be determined by the quality of small project teams, technical know-how, a deep understanding of people’s needs, and luck. So my job at Paperight is to make sure we have those keys in place: a superb small team, tech smarts and empathy. If we get that right, we may get the luck too and be an important part of the puzzle.
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