Category Archives: About Paperight

Marie-Louise starts at Paperight

My introduction to Paperight happened fairly haphazardly, as all fantastic things do. While helping out at a book launch for the Bay Bookshop in the Cape Quarter, I was having a well earned glass of wine and chatting to a librarian from the Cape Town Central Library and a creative writing lecturer from UCT. Both were inquiring about my next career step- as everybody seems to do with young people. Admittedly I had no idea, although I managed to say that I might be interested in finding a job in publishing. Paperight was mentioned as this great new publishing start up and once I did some research, I was sure that I’d found the best place to really test my mettle.

The interviewing process was nerve-racking only because I’d already made up my mind that I wanted to be on this team. Nick and Yazeed made my first interview incredibly welcoming, but sitting in the meeting room in front of 7 people and trying to be the best ‘me’ possible (while balancing precariously on an exercise ball) made me very anxious.

But in the end, I got the job!

My role at Paperight started as a Marketing and PR Intern with my main priorities being to assist Nick and Yazeed with their burgeoning workloads.

I would have to describe my plunge into the deep end as both exhilarating and utterly frightening. The sheer number of programs I needed to download, along with online apps that I suddenly needed to learn to use left me feeling intimidated and wondering if I may have bitten off more than I could chew. However, I coped and eventually learned to type my queries to the team through Skype instead of asking them out loud (a real challenge) and started to wrap my head around what a company wiki is and how to use the back end of sites- among so many other things.

My first assignment was to collate a media list for Paperight to take over their own PR output from Nichole Sochen of Al Dente PR. I started by downloading a .pdf copy of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) media list before copy-pasting useful contact details into a Google Docs spreadsheet while also coming up with a system for housing this kind of information. I also backtracked through the Paperight record of media mentions to gather contact details of journalists and publications who had already featured Paperight’s work – the Paperight fan club, if you will.

The initial brief was to fill five separate categories of media contacts, namely Technology, Entrepreneurship, Education, Books and Literature Pages, and Human and General Interest. After trying to work with these categories for the first 2 months or so, I found them wholly useless and have abandoned using them since. However, I can imagine they would be helpful to those encountering the media list for the first time and not the umpteenth. :)

For every press release, a copy of the master sheet is made and all details of the release are recorded, for example who it is sent to, the date and which emails come back as undelivered. All of this information assists with follow ups and maintenance of the contact list.

From Nick’s side, I took over the responsibility of drafting most of our written output. This included, the weekly newsletter, blog posts, press releases and cover letters. My drafts would then be handed onto Nick for final editing to benefit from his keen journalistic eye and seasoned understanding of Paperight’s distinct brand image.

From Yazeed’s side, I assisted with the on-boarding process of new outlets (welcoming them, advising them on how to use and adding them to the outlet map), follow-ups with and support of old outlets, as well as initiating a small number of new outlet sign-ups.

These responsibilities became regular, weekly tasks over my first three months with the Paperight team. Specific projects during this time have been split into the months they occurred so read on to find out more!

Messaging is a hard, winding journey

Sometimes a strategy emerges without you choosing it, because when you set out you didn’t know you had options. That’s how Paperight’s approach to growth and marketing emerged over the last few years. With hindsight, I can summarise this strategy as:

  • create a web brand (cool domain, slick website, friendly blog and social media, tech coverage) that consumers recognise and seek out.
  • use that brand recognition to attract consumers to Paperight outlets.
  • use that consumer-attraction to sign up more outlets.

To do this, we called Paperight a ‘website that turns any printer into a bookstore’, an ‘online library that copy shops use to print books for customers’, and other phrases that described Paperight as a website with downloadable content.

We kept describing the tool, but not the product. To the consumer, the product is a print-out from a local copy shop. To a copy shop, Paperight is a movement, a network of forward-thinking copy shop owners.

The fatal flaw here was that this required us to build brand recognition among consumers for a product that didn’t exist in their world yet. In other words: how could we get consumers to love Paperight before their local copy shop, which they already recognise, is using it? And worse, how could we attract low-income consumers to a web brand, when they spend no time on the web? To a consumer, Paperight is not a website. Describing Paperight as a website is like describing car repair as a spanner. We kept describing the tool, but not the product. To the consumer, the product is a print-out from a local copy shop. To a copy shop, Paperight is a movement, a network of forward-thinking copy shop owners.

Our mistaken approach was holding us back, but we didn’t have enough distance from it to realise that we had other options. I was obsessed with focusing on Paperight as a website. But I knew something was wrong, so I was looking for alternatives. Three key moments were Nick’s appearance on Hectic Nine 9, a misleading article in the Daily Dispatch about us, and Ben Maxwell’s sage session at the Nov 2012 Shuttleworth Foundation Gathering.

While preparing for Hectic Nine 9, whose audience is mostly teens, we realised that sending teens to wouldn’t work. We needed to send them to outlets. We did NOT want them arriving at and treating it like an ebook store (the interface doesn’t work as an ebook store, and our print-optimised PDFs make for terrible ebooks). But we weren’t allowed to mention brand names on air, like our major copy shop chain Jetline. So we decided to send the audience to a mobile-optimised, consumer-focused site at The problem was that when Nick got to the recording, the presenter and producer had other ideas. They were only interested in asking Nick about entrepreneurship, insisted on referring to Nick as the founder of Paperight (which is not a big problem, except that it made Nick uncomfortable), and then showed and not on screen during the interview.

The experience highlighted a few things:

  1. We didn’t have a concise, clear enough message that could cut through what the presenter had in mind about Paperight. Our approach was too broad and fuzzy, so the presenter went with what she thought already.
  2. A mobile site at cannot be different in look and functionality from, because (a) consumers will go to by default anyway, and (b) users expect mobile sites to be essentially the same in purpose to their desktop parents.
  3. The whole notion of appealing directly to consumers was flawed because we don’t want them coming to our site. We want them going to our outlets.

Somehow, we had got completely the wrong message to the journalist. We briefly blamed her for being sloppy, but realised soon that it was our fault.

Shortly afterwards, the Daily Dispatch published an article about Paperight that described us explicitly as a site that matrics could use to download exam papers. There was barely a reference to copy shops. To make it worse, the article lightly criticised Paperight for being useful only to matrics who were wealthy enough to have Internet access. Somehow, we had got completely the wrong message to the journalist. We briefly blamed her for being sloppy, but realised soon that it was our fault. We simply weren’t being clear or focused enough in our messaging.

I also realised we (every member of our team) didn’t *love* copy shops enough. If we didn’t truly love them, we wouldn’t be able to create a tribe

We had to put our outlets first in everything. Our messaging, our elevator pitches, our promotional material, and most importantly, our minds. It was after Ben Maxwell emphasised to me the importance of creating in our messaging and on our site a sense of belonging (to a movement) for copy shops that I also realised we (every member of our team) didn’t love copy shops enough. If we didn’t truly love them, we wouldn’t be able to create a tribe, a sense that we were joining them in a grand march of progress.

Importantly, this meant we had to remove all references to our website and to ourselves as an online business or service from our messaging, especially any messaging that consumers might see. What would we replace it with? A movement, a network, a revolution.

Right now, our new messaging is built around the phrase, ‘Paperight is a network of independent print-on-demand bookstores’. If someone asks how we deliver content, we say we do it with a website.

The Daily Dispatch agreed to run a follow-up story with the ‘correct’ information. That story ran a few weeks later (see below, 14 Nov 2012), and is an example of the kind of thing we believe will work much better going forward.

Innovation Prize for Africa submission

We entered for the Innovation Award for Africa. This was our submission.

Innovation description

Everyone needs books to learn, imagine and explore. But in most of Africa, bookshops and libraries are rare and often poorly resourced. Most projects today are focusing on ebooks and mobile devices to solve this problem, but sadly, the ecosystems required to support these devices – and that includes the cost of devices, internet access, and electricity – mean that for most people, ebooks are many years away.

Paperight solves this problem today. Already, in every city and town in Africa, countless copy shops produce printed material for their communities. We empower those same copy shops to use Paperight’s online library to legally print out and sell books. Paperight instantly turns copy shops, schools, churches, and NGOs into print-on-demand bookstores.

Paperight acts as an instant rights marketplace where registered outlets can purchase licenses to print out books, quickly and easily, from a pre-paid account. This fee pays the publisher. The customer pays the copy shop one price, which includes the license fee and the copy shop’s printing cost.

A Paperight edition of a book is usually around 20% cheaper than a traditional print copy. So, Paperight helps to make books more accessible to customers, while also boosting the business of small entrepreneurs and publishing houses.

Most importantly, they are easier to find. Outside of wealthy suburbs, readers must travel long distances to bookshops to find books – and then those books may not even be in stock. With Paperight, any business could be a bookstore, only a short walk from home.

Level of advancement

Paperight is well into its start-up phase, and entering market phase. Early research and prototypes have been built and tested since 2009, and in May 2012 we launched our fully operative site. Within our first year we signed up over 200 outlets around South Africa, and have made our first revenue.

We are now looking to grow South African usage and then expand into other African countries.

In early 2012, Paperight (Pty) Ltd became a registered company based in South Africa. It is owned by Arthur Attwell (70%) and SF Isle of Man (the Shuttleworth Foundation, a Non-Profit Organisation, 30%).

How our innovation meets the IPA requirements

  • Paperight enables other entrepreneurs to grow their businesses (by acting as bookstores copy shops increase printing turnover; and authors and publishers can reach new readers). These entrepreneurs and business owners can be reached through franchise associations, franchise head offices, copier dealers and paper suppliers, and they can be identified in standard consumer-facing directories. We provide promotional material to these copy shops to attract customers.
  • More importantly, as soon as a consumer hears that their books and other documents can be easily acquired from any copy-shop business, the consumers themselves become our ambassadors.
  • Paperight is also making revenue, and is actively building a business model around offerings its platform to institutions to replace postage with Paperight: where end-users collect documents from their nearest Paperight outlet rather than relying on the post to receive those documents (e.g. a distance-learning student could get customised study materials this way, rather than relying on the post).
  • Paperight is the first instant-delivery rights-marketplace like this for books. Similar concepts have been tried by specific companies in other sectors (NewspaperDirect for newspapers, and National Geographic Map Machine for US tourism agents), but these focus on wealthy markets. Paperight meets a need for affordable, offline content on a continent where most people still struggle to find or afford Internet access, data and electricity.
  • We also believe wholeheartedly in the value of openness: transparency and sharing is built into our team’s DNA. This openness many benefits: we waste no resources trying to keep secrets; we are forced to confront our failures bravely; and others share with us and trust us.

Since any organisation can register for free to use Paperight anywhere – copy shops, churches, schools, NGOs, Internet cafes and more – the system is massively scalable. From the ground up it is built to work in any country in any currency.

Social Impact
  • As a social enterprise, Paperight Creates entrepreneurial opportunities for printing businesses and local authors, increases revenue and growth opportunities for existing businesses, increases access to educational material and boosts literacy, increases access to legal and healthcare information, provides a legal and affordable alternative to photocopy piracy, and reduces the carbon footprint associated with shipping books.
  • The Paperight Young Writers’ Anthology uncovers and celebrates new writing talent in South Africa’s high schools in English, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and Afrikaans.

  • Our adopt a school campaign has also facilitated a number of sponsorships and partnerships between schools and Paperight outlets, allowing entire matric classes to affordably or freely get hold of Paperight exam packs and other educational resources on our system. These partnerships resulted in increased turnover for the copy shop entrepreneurs, and increased and more affordable access to matric learning resources for struggling schools.

Utility/technical aspects
  • The Paperight system protects publishers by offering copy shops a practical, legal alternative to piracy, while making books accessible to anyone with any printer and a basic Internet connection. No special hardware or skills are required.
  • has been designed to be fast and easy to use, so that it’s simpler than photocopying books manually. The site is built using only open-source software libraries.

Paperight’s primary users

Target market segment
  • Paperight’s primary users are copy shops in low-income areas in Africa, who can then offer a valuable bookselling service within their local communities. Copy shops are ubiquitous in Africa: existing in nearly every town and village. Imagine we turned every one of them into a bookstore. Our service caters for everyone; and the more economically distressed and remote the community, the more they benefit from Paperight.
  • Paperight’s clients include several publishing companies and over 200 outlets, most of which are copy shops in South Africa (see The publishers among these include Oxford University Press, Random House Struik, Jacana Media, and Modjaji Books.
  • We began Paperight because most people in the world – perhaps six or seven billion – cannot afford to buy books. Many South Africans live their entire lives without owning a book. We founded Paperight specifically to address that problem, with the vision of bringing every book within walking distance of every home.
  • Paperight has been built to scale. This means that it works in any country, and with any currency. In order for Paperight to have real efficacy around the world, however, we felt that we needed to build a strong foundation. We decided to focus on South Africa, creating a solid base from which to work. Outlets in the Paperight network stretch over the whole of South Africa, with loci around Cape Town, KwaZulu-Natal, and Gauteng.
  • We have been endorsed by Parliament and our footprint in South Africa is growing rapidly. We have plans to also focus on other areas in the future including Kenya and Ghana.

Why our project is innovative and might lead to breakthroughs

  • Paperight is the first instant-delivery rights-marketplace for books. On a continent where access to information – and books in particular – is severely lacking, Paperight revolutionises the way books can be traded. This is especially important in places where Internet access, data, and electricity are expensive or hard to come by.
  • Traditionally, publishers and copy shops have been mutually distrusting. Paperight allows them to work together, in a simple manner, with a single purpose, for the first time. Never before have copy shops and publishers been able to enter into a legal licence agreement at the click of a button.
  • The potential impact is immense. By turning copy shops into book shops, we’re making books available and affordable in places they’ve never been before, boosting literacy and education, and powering entrepreneurial printing businesses.
  • Within a year of launching in 2012, over 200 copy shops and bookstores joined our network as outlets. And over 100 publishers from around the world are distributing books with us, including leading US firm O’Reilly Media, and the South African branches of Pearson, Oxford University Press, Pan Macmillan, and Random House Struik.
  • Our member outlets have delivered thousands of books, many in places where no bookstores exist, like Peddie in the rural Eastern Cape, and the CBDs of Khayelitsha. It is difficult to gauge how many jobs these Paperight outlet sign-ups have created directly, although we have had a number of entrepreneurs base their businesses fully or partially on Paperight’s services. We will soon spend time on completing a full quantitative survey on the jobs created by Paperight in our outlets.
  • Our model has been built with the view in mind of being able to expand its services in the future to ticket sales, 3D printing and similar initiatives.

Long term effects/impacts of your innovation on the primary users

  • Boosting literacy and education by making books genuinely accessible
  • Creating simple and low cost entrepreneurial opportunities for individuals.
  • Boosting existing printing and publishing businesses, while still earning the same licence fees.
  • Reducing the environmental impact of transporting, shipping books and documents, and the wastage caused by unnecessary printing and returns.
  • Saving the costs of travel and risk of stock shortages.
  • Bringing the world of books to anyone’s doorstep: rich or poor, rural or urban.
  • Selling print-outs which are on average cheaper than traditional books.
  • Reducing delays in textbook and student material delivery.
  • Protecting the publishers, individuals by reducing illegal copying.
  • Increasing business opportunities for existing copy shops throughout Southern Africa.
  • Promoting past matric exam papers and additional study material to students.
  • Sustaining the marketplace for publishers and authors.
  • Opening the market to international copy shops and book stores.
  • Assisting educational institutions and distance learners in South Africa and internationally to receive study material.

Collaboration partnerships and ownership

  • Paperight (Pty) Ltd: Independent company registered in South Africa.
  • The Shuttleworth Foundation: Currently funds the development of Paperight through Arthur Attwell’s Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship.
  • Electric Book Works (Pty) Ltd: Paperight began as a project of EBW’s. EBW is a digital-publishing consultancy founded and owned by Arthur Attwell.
  • Realm Digital: A software development company contracted by Paperight to build much of the Paperight software.
  • Paperight (Pty) Ltd is owned by Arthur Attwell (70%) and SF Isle of Man (30%), the Shuttleworth Foundation is the primary funding entity.

Paperight sites:

A selection of articles about Paperight:

Video links

Link to relevant photos


New stuff we’ve made

On 9 May 2012 we saw Paperight 1.0 go live, a site I began designing almost two years ago. I’m incredibly proud of the way it turned out. See it live at (It changed a fair bit over time, here’s a video showing an early interface design.) We wrote up a technical explanation of how we built it from open-source tools on the Paperight blog.

For content, our team created over 150 packs of past matric exam papers. It was a mammoth undertaking that now represents the single biggest library of exam packs in the country, that (depending on your local copy shop) is the best-value way to buy them anywhere. Team member Nick Mulgrew wrote up the arduous story on our blog. The team also produced our impressive Outlet User Manual (PDF download), which we’re now converting into a support website.

I also crafted (and in a sense this took years) the Paperight story that will be my template ten-minute pitch presentation for Paperight. It’s had a dry run or two at small events, and gets it real debut at TEDxCapeTown on 21 July. It’s amazing to see a big, complicated idea finally distilled to a simple story.

Less glamorous, I made an office and a team (here are the outlet guys) and a long list of lessons learned in the last nine months.

Our roadmap, third quarter 2012

Our aims for the next three months:

  • Continue and learn from our promotional campaign in Khayelitsha working with Silulo copy shops.
  • Build our outlet footprint in Gauteng, KZN, and Eastern Cape (we’re working on collaboration with the three major copy-shop chains in South Africa).
  • Another phase of software development, primarily to automate document preparation and boost exponentially the speed with which we can add content to the site.
  • Build media interest in and coverage of Paperight through articles, interviews and speaking events.

Lessons learned so far

Nine months into our Shuttleworth Foundation funding, I’m proud and pleased with where we are in large part because, in getting there, we’ve had to learn fast from mistakes and successes. Some of the lessons we’ve learned:

  • The human story is more powerful than the financial one. I thought initially that publishers and copy shops would sign up because we offered them a new revenue stream. However, at first glance no one really believes it when someone promises them a ‘new revenue stream’. They really make their buying decision – which is always an emotional decision – because they connect with our social-impact vision. Then, they go on to justify that decision to themselves by calculating potential revenue, or by citing a need to look for new opportunities in tough times. Similarly, I’ve seen that when individuals don’t connect with our social-impact vision, they use the financial numbers to justify not participating. So most of our Paperight pitches now emphasise the human story – books are the key to upliftment, they save lives, we all have a responsibility to spread education – and then when necessary we move onto the numbers. This was a crucial lesson that took months of trial and error to learn.
  • Perhaps the hardest lesson was realising that three months approaching big publishing companies early on was not a good use of my time. Paperight is a classic disruptive innovation: a simple, relatively low-margin product for a new market. No matter how well run they are, established companies cannot justify putting resources into a disruptive innovation very early on. They can only follow smaller, more nimble players for whom new, early-stage markets are attractive. (I wish I’d read The Innovator’s Dilemma sooner; it makes this so clear.) Now that we have a growing stable of publishers and outlet footprint, it’s easier for larger publishers to justify joining us.
  • When pitching Paperight to outlets, it’s good to focus on the word ‘legal’. I initially emphasised concepts like ‘easy’, ‘more customers’ and ‘broader product offering’, thinking that the fact that Paperight is the first ever legal way to print books out was obvious and beside the point. While those features are important, we’ve also realised that ‘legal’ is a key feature: copy shops know they are often asked to copy books illegally, and this creates anxiety for managers. Our pitch then speaks to that emotion.
  • Building good software requires patience and impatience simultaneously: planning and designing Paperight 1.0 (the current site) took much longer than expected. We had to very patiently thrash a great deal early on, and this paid off in a very smooth build process that resulted in a great site. But none of this would have been possible without the impatiently built Paperight 0.5, a duct-tape solution on which we impatiently registered our first users and delivered our first documents. Even though we had to use 0.5 for two more months than expected, we learned from it right to the end. The lessons included refining terminology, online agreements, book metadata and taxonomies, customer expectations around document quality, marketing strategies (customers love free credit more than books priced at free, even though they’re effectively the same thing), and search and browsing behaviour.
  • My initial strategy was to create a large catalogue early on so that users could ‘walk into an outlet and ask for anything’. This was flawed – and not just because it’s very hard to build a large catalogue fast. The flaw is that with a new service, too much choice is paralysing. To gain new outlet sign-ups, we had to focus on one product: past exam papers for grade-12 learners. We have since got much better traction among outlets, who can visualise marketing that to their customers. We learned this lesson while distributing our first Paperight catalogue poster, and watching how outlets engaged with it. (That said, it’s important to note that many users want to browse a range of books not to buy but to evaluate the service before signing up.)
  • Unique, tailor-made content is hard work but incredibly valuable. Creating packs of past grade-12 papers involved a serious investment of time and energy. (Nick Mulgrew tells the story on our blog.) Essentially, we’re creating this content from disparate sources (no one organ or government can provide all matric past papers; we’ve had to visit various offices, numerous websites, and beg favours of officials). It is possible that the creation of Paperight-specific content may form a key part of our content strategy over time – potentially more important for growing our customer base than simply gathering others’ content. This is something I’m keeping an eye on.
  • A key future revenue model is selling integration with institutions’ user systems to deliver documents to specific people in remote places – for example, distance-learning students picking up their personalised printed course materials from a copy shop, using a code or student number plugged into Paperight, rather than relying on the post. However, to get in the door of large institutions – universities in particular – the outlet footprint has to be in place first. The first question I get is always ‘Where are your outlets?’. It’s a market where vaporware doesn’t cut it. In our first six months, this was a setback that wasted time. Now that our footprint is growing, we can begin making these pitches again.
  • Copy shops don’t want to be selling advertising. We had reserved advertising space on the pages of our documents for copy shops to sell to local businesses. It seemed like a good idea. But, for a copy shop, the cost of acquiring advertising is much greater than the likely advertising revenue. We’ve discovered, however, that publishers are interested in using this ad space to cross-sell books. So I’m looking into this ad space as a potential revenue stream for Paperight instead, potentially using it to offset rights fees.

Manual orders and the last days of Paperight 0.5

Everything Maths Grade 10I was on leave for much of April, but spent the majority of my time in the office creating packs of matric exams. We also uploaded Siyavula creative commons textbooks to the site, though this took some time as there were compatibility issues with their images in InDesign.

From November 2011 until April 2012, we had to fill orders that came in to Paperight manually. Throughout April, while the new and improved Paperight 1.0 was being developed, Nick and I continued to manually fill the orders that were coming in. This entailed prepping books, and then filling in licensing information and exporting PDFs with licensing information . We’d then email these directly to the outlet for printing out. April 2012 was the last month we had to fulfill orders manually, as Paperight 1 .0 was launched the following month, in May.

Publishers approached

  • Macmillan
  • Other Press
  • Peter Lang
  • Night Shade
  • Subterranean Press
  • Cover2Cover/Fundza

Collating matric exam packs and starting to measure metrics

Michal’s internship finished in March 2012, and Nick began an internship as his replacement.

Our first priority was preparing packs of past matric exam papers. We’d started to source these as part of our initial content list creation, and these were already listed on the site, but the packs themselves had not been prepared. We needed to have them ready in case any orders came in. The primary challenge was creating complete sets of exam papers. The DBE website and WCED didn’t have all of the papers, and their online resources were often buggy or incorrect. We started by creating a list of outstanding exam PDFs, which we then used to individually source as many missing papers as we could (we called and emailed, and bought CD compilations of exams to try to fill the gaps). At the same time we started prepping the packs for those subjects which we had complete sets for.

Nick and I attended some ‘Open Education’ workshops at UCT, in the hopes that this would generate some leads for more content. We found, however, that we already knew much of what the workshops covered (but it was edifying to know we were on the right track).

The aim was that interns or new staff members could jump right in on tasks with a little training, and begin to develop skills themselves. Over the years this has worked incredibly well for the content team. It means that when we do in-person training in those first weeks, it can be much more in-depth (and is thus more valuable) than if we were to do general introductory training sessions.

I began creating and improving upon a series of wiki posts to govern things like document creation and document uploading. The aim was that interns or new staff members could jump right in on tasks with a little training, and begin to develop skills themselves. Over the years this has worked incredibly well for the content team. It means that when we do in-person training in those first weeks, it can be much more in-depth (and is thus more valuable) than if we were to do general introductory training sessions. Ops style posts that give detailed explanations of how to do tasks means that new and old team members alike have something to come back to for reference, and ensures uniformity (which is important when it comes to file naming conventions for version control).

We also began to track metrics for the first time. Our initial focus was on measuring publisher registrations, outlet registrations, and top-ups (i.e. the purchasing of credits in advance). This process of tracking metrics was one that we improved upon over time. It’s interesting how much insight our focus on these three metrics gives to our business goals at the time. We were focused on creating an outlet base, and increasing our content bank, rather than on growing our customer base. And we were more focused on the potential for sales than on sales themselves. The failure here was in assuming that these three metrics were a proxy for other things. We assumed that a wide outlet base represented more potential customers, that increased publisher registrations meant more content (and that more content increased the likelihood of valuable content), that top-ups were a signifier of outlet buy-in, and would ‘naturally’ lead to sales. The reality was that we ended up measuring the potential for success, rather than measuring success itself. It was a lesson we would learn later on.

Publishers approached

  • WITS
  • Hamilton Wende

Publisher registrations

  • Cingela (13/3/2012)

My fellowship newly underway

So, I’m three months in to my Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship, which is three months into building Paperight full-time. If you don’t know, Paperight is a website that turns any business with any printer into a print-on-demand bookstore. So, what have I been doing with that time?

The first thing has been to get a working demo, or prototype site, up and running, so that we can show the service to others, test some ideas, and develop our vocabulary and sign-up documents in a live environment. So I knocked that together in WordPress during September, along with a bunch of back-room workflow tests and documentation. It’s been hugely valuable.

With that done, it was time to start talking seriously to rightsholders, licensing agencies and content aggregators. So in October I headed off to the Frankfurt Book Fair and London to speak to a wide range of people. And the response was, almost entirely, overwhelmingly positive.

Two years ago, when I first asked publishers about the Paperight concept, they were cautiously optimistic, but many were worried about how their books would look, and how much they would cost to consumers. Luckily for us, since then Amazon Kindle has shown that most readers just want stories and info, and that easy, affordable distribution is often more important than high-end production values when you’re growing a market. Suddenly a book printed out on A4 paper seems just fine. Especially if it’s on every street corner in countries you’ve never sold in before.

So there were far fewer concerns from publishers about Paperight in 2011 than in 2009. Where there were concerns, they have been really helpful in tailoring our message. I certainly have a much better idea of what makes publishers interested in using Paperight. One key issue – which I discussed recently on the Paperight blog – is that Paperight can compete with piracy on accessibility, convenience, and often in total cost (energy, time, money).

Rightsholder agreement

Our messaging is captured largely in our rightsholder agreement, which is really short, and in plain language. It took a lot of time and effort to get it that way. This is really important to us, because Paperight is built on the idea that the once arcane world of rights and licensing can actually be managed simply, and anyone can participate in it. I went through the distribution contracts of a bunch of other businesses, took the most important concepts, and boiled them down to simple sentences and paragraphs. The input of Foundation alumnus Andrew Rens was really valuable here, too. It’s something we’ll constantly evolve, but I’m pleased with the way we’ve started.


Another important area of our messaging is pricing. Most people find it hard to believe it can be cheaper to print a book out than to buy a copy that the publisher printed in its thousands. But now we can show in most cases that that isn’t true. In the video that goes with this post, I give a concrete example of how a publisher can earn as much from a Paperight sale as from a conventional book sale, and yet save the consumer more than 25% on the retail price of the conventional edition.


My conversations with rightsholders and others have also led to discussions about putting a range of non-book content on Paperight, including newspapers, exams, sheet music, classifieds and administrative documents.

The process of prioritising and prepping this content will fall to our content manager.Tarryn-Anne Anderson joined us in November to work on this. Over the next couple of months, she’ll also be putting together a print catalogue of books and documents we think people will like, and we’ll put that catalogue in copy shops around the country. It’ll include textbooks, novels, past matric exam papers, how-to guides and more. And from that we hope to learn more about what print-shop customers are likely to find most valuable.

The website

last-screenshot-live_20120509_10-43pm_cropMeanwhile, all along I’ve been working on a redesigned site that will replace the working prototype in the first half of next year. It’s simpler and will be much faster. And it’ll give us the ability to distribute certain documents in certain regions, which is crucial to publishers who want to reach new markets without competing, for now, with their conventional editions in their home markets.

This means long hours studying and developing user interface and user experience best practice, and chatting to print-shop managers about how their stores work, and how the Paperight site can best work at their point of sale.

Here’s an early mockup of a product page, prepared long before I built the prototype.


The Shuttleworth Foundation

Working with the Foundation has been fantastic. I get to share ideas with and learn from a group of seriously amazing people, who’re working in mobile technology, user-created publishing, biocultural communities, open knowledge and educational resources, peer education, open data, citizen cyberscience, new approaches to IP, and more. And the Foundation staff work tirelessly to support our work and help us focus on making an impact. They all make the Paperight team much bigger than it seems on paper.