Unbundling the Publishing Industry – Interview with Arthur Attwell, Founder of Electric Book Works

Paperight will ”turn anyone with a computer, printer and internet connection into a print-on-demand book shop.” In my opinion Paperight is one of the most interesting projects in todays publishing industry – as it wants to unbundle the industry in order to promote education and learning.

Arthur Attwell, Electric Book Works

Unbundling is a piracy strategy. Pirates unbundle products – and unbundle supply chains. Paperight adopts this innovative piracy strategy – like Apples  iTunes store.  So Paperight is not about piracy. The story about Paperight is a story about learning from successful online publishing and distribution strategies – and on the same time acting strictly lawful.

Paperight is a project of Electric Book Works (EBW) in South Africa. I had the chance to meet EBW founder Arthur Attwell at the “Tools of change for Publishing” conference in Frankfurt where he spoke about “Applying Publishing Technology in Low-Income Economies“. He presented just an outline of Paperight there – so I spoke to him to learn some more details:

Christiane Schulzki-Haddouti: How will Paperight work?

Arthur Attwell: As an end-user, think of Paperight as an online bookstore, but instead of buying print books or ebooks, you’re buying the right to print out a copy of a book yourself. Once you’ve paid that rights fee, we provide the book file to print out – usually a PDF. This makes any copy shop or printing department a print-on-demand bookstore. Of course, there won’t only be books on Paperight, we’ll include anything that can be printed out, including posters, flyers, manuals, leaflets, magazines, comics, and so on. There will be lots of free content too, such as public domain and open-licensed books. At first only registered businesses will be able to purchase the paid content, and anyone anywhere can download the free content.

Is Paperight a non-profit project?

No, Paperight is a business — we call it a social enterprise with a triple bottom line: financial, social, and environmental. We measure our success in these three ways, not only in financial profit. In addition to being profitable financially, we must make a social impact by increasing access to information, and an environmental impact by reducing the carbon footprint of shipping printed books. We must keep these three bottom lines in balance.

Is there any financial support for your project?

In the development stage we are working with seed funding from the IDRC. Our seed funding is part of the PALM (Publishing using Alternative Licensing Models) Africa project, which is part of the IDRC’s Acacia initiative. We are looking for funders to take that further until we are self-sustaining. While we will make some of our income from sales of content (rights fees), this is only part of the business model. We will also charge for customised addons to Paperight for businesses and institutions that want to use the system for distributing content internally or externally, such as universities with distance-learning students, or corporations with widely spread branches. We’ll also facilitate an advertising model, where businesses pay to have their advertising printed on the edges of paper that print shops then use to print books. This adds to our income, and lowers the cost of printing for end users by providing subsidised or free paper.

What is your target audience?

At first, we are focusing on universities. Especially in developing countries, higher-education textbooks are often imported, very expensive, and often the local book-supply chain does not order enough copies for all the students in a class.

What do mean with “very expensive”?

An average higher-ed textbook is about US$50. In 2006, average household income in sub-Saharan Africa was $78 - ranging from $28 in Nigeria to $225 in South Africa.  Even in the wealthiest countries, that makes a single textbook more than a fifth of a household’s monthly income.


Based on our preliminary calculations, we believe we can reduce the cost of a textbook by an average of 25% to the end user (and more where rights holders charge average print licensing fees, rather than retail net profit prices, to our rights fees.). Conservatively, that’s at least 5 per cent of the average monthly household income in South Africa.

There is also a desperate need to provide access to academic journals. Paperight should address these needs well. After that, we will expand our marketing to other target audiences. Of course, while we will focus our promotional work on universities in developing countries, we already have anecdotal evidence that Paperight could be useful to many other kinds of users, including universities and businesses in the developed world. It will certainly be available to them as well from the beginning.

Do you expect that the publishers will support Paperight – as some have strong ties with the printing industry?

I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the positive reaction we’ve seen from publishers we’ve spoken to so far. I think any publisher who has begun working with digital distribution sees the value of cutting out printing and shipping from their supply chain, and the value of reaching markets they cannot reach at the moment, neither with printed books nor ebooks.

Could you sign any treaties yet?

At this stage, we are only asking publishers for in-principle agreements to provide content, and we have a few of those already. We should be ready to sign deals early next year.

Do you expect stopping piracy with your model – or is it still too expensive for students?

We do expect to reduce piracy with our model. It’s obvious that it would have a small impact: in many places there is currently no alternative to piracy simply because there are not enough copies of books available, even before you start to factor in the price of those books. We are providing exactly what pirate-photocopying provides, except we’ll make it easier, quicker, and legal, for a reasonable price. Some people will choose to pay for that convenience. Some will choose to work within a legal space once it is available. And our plans include ways to incentivise users to pressure other users to work legally. As for costs, we believe we can get the rights fees low enough to seriously compete with pirated versions of books, though this will depend to some extent on how publishers price their licences.

It may be just as important that we will have (and will share with publishers) information on where books are being purchased and by who. This helps publishers identify promising markets, so that they can consider establishing a more formal presence there, which would reduce the playing field for piracy there and encourage anti-piracy enforcement by local agencies.

How costly will it be for the copy shops involved to join Paperight?

It will be free for copy shops to register and use Paperight. (A copy shop can be any business or institution, including schools, businesses, universities, libraries and NGOs.)

How common is the creative commons model in South Africa? To which extent can you rely on it for Paperight?

Creative Commons is well known among researchers and universities in South Africa. Where rights holders have used a non-commercial CC licence, we will need their permission to include their content on Paperight, since a strict interpretation of non-commercial precludes copy shops from selling print outs of that material. However, for Paperight, Creative Commons is only one way for us to get content, it’s not a crucial element of our model.

What about orphan works or works on the backlist which are not printed any more?

We have not decided at this stage how we’ll deal with orphan works available to us through digitisation projects. Luckily for us, we can afford to wait a little longer to see what happens in the Google Book Settlement regarding orphan works.

Do you expect to get cheaper licences here?

As for out-of-print works, we don’t assume prices will be any different for out-of-print titles – largely because digitisation, especially through projects like Google Editions, will effectively eliminate the concept of out-of-print, which may encourage publishers to standardise licence fees broadly across old and new titles.

What would you do if those works are not digitised yet? Would you provide a scanning service as Google books does?

We will not offer scanning services – there are many companies that can do that, not least Google. So for works that are not yet digitised, we will simply recommend to the rights holders that they have them digitised, not only for Paperight, but for all kinds of potential uses.

Do you plan to use the Google books registry to clear rights? As far as I understood the proposed system Google wants to provide an open API for other providers as well.

We’re watching Google closely, and will certainly be using any available Google Books-related APIs to source content and, hopefully, to clear rights. Paperight is just one of many projects that will come out of the growth of large-scale licensing efforts, the proliferation of APIs for book content (we have a long list of APIs to incorporate), and the development of open standards like BookServer/OPDS.

What are the main obstacles now for you to overcome?

My immediate focus is on securing sufficient funding to build Paperight the way we want to build it. Once we’ve done that, our next critical step is completing the automated rights-clearance system that will enable us to work with many publishers at once, and keep rights fees low, by getting single-copy print licences en masse. If Paperight cannot handle large numbers of books in large quantities, it will not be as useful as it should be. Automated licensing is at the heart of Paperight’s effectiveness.

Do you want to export Paperight to Europe?

Paperight will be rolled out in a beta version in early 2010. It will be available worldwide from the start, even though some parts of our catalogue may be restricted by territory (so that we can accommodate publishers’ territorial rights). However, we may not promote the service actively in Europe for some time, while we focus our efforts on universities in developing countries.

Arthur, thank you very much.

See also my article on Paperight in Futurezone in German

About Christiane Schulzki-Haddouti

Freie IT- und Medienjournalistin. Hat dieses Blog 2007 im Rahmen der KoopTech-Analyse eingerichtet. Seit Beendigung des Projekts führt sie es als Multi-Autorenblog weiter. Sie führt ein persönliches Blog auf ihrer Homepage.
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