Solving Africa’s books crisis, one copy shop at a time

In much of Africa, books are both expensive and hard to find — but almost every small town has a copy shop.

July 23, 2012

In much of Africa, books are both expensive and hard to find — but almost every small town has a copy shop. Digital distribution start-up Paperight aims to bridge the gap, using copy shops to get affordable books to where they are needed, while protecting the rights of authors and publishers.

“Paperight is essentially a rights clearing house,” says founder Arthur Attwell, a former publisher who developed the business as a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow. “We negotiate printing rights with copyright owners and offer a payment mechanism that allows any copy shop, NGO, school or library with a printer/copier to distribute legal copies of books.”

Paperight partnered with Realmdigital, a leading developer of large-scale content distribution platforms, to develop the web-based system. The site now hosts hosts a growing library of text books, study material, fiction and other content that bypasses the production, distribution and retail cost associated with print publishing.

Attwell says Paperight books could be 20-30% cheaper than their conventionally distributed counterparts.”Publishers can choose their own rights fees and Realmdigital has built a platform that makes it easy for printers to include this cost, and Paperight’s fee, into the final cost of printing a book for a customer.”

Murray Gough, Paperight’s account manager at Realmdigital, says the first version of the site, which went live in May, was developed in just two months. “We’ve tried to make it as easy to use as possible for everyone involved,” he says. “Printers can buy prepaid Paperight credits, then search for and download books for their customers on request. The content is converted to PDF and printed right there, and the printer’s prepaid account is debited.”

To discourage illegal copying, each book is watermarked with the name of the buyer and the print shop, along with a unique URL for a web site where readers can find additional content.

Attwell says he’s often asked why he’s pushing paper when digital formats are the future: “I’ve worked in digital for five years and I truly believe it is the future. But I’ve concluded that we need a solution that works for everyone today. Paperight is that solution.”

For his part, Realmdigital CEO Wesley Lynch says he believes Paperight “promises to be one of the great developmental technologies coming out of Africa, with global potential. I hope the publishing industry gives it the support it deserves.”