Category Archives: Marketing

An overview of the Paperight journey

This article by Arthur Attwell was originally published in Art&Thought magazine, published by the Goethe Institute.

Everyone knows that books are critical to development and education. Everyone knows that bookshops and libraries are vanishingly rare in Africa. Everyone knows that most families have fewer than ten books at home. So why do we still have this problem?

The book business is expensive. It costs a fortune to stock a bookstore. Even a small store needs to carry a few thousand books just to keep customers coming back. What’s more, bookstores need lots of floor space for shelves, and they are highly dependent on foot traffic, so the rent is expensive. So the margins are low, and the risks are high.

And if you want to try to start an online store instead, you need to be ready to lose a lot of money at first. And then, in most of Africa, most people don’t have credit cards, or can’t get online to use them.

A few years ago, the Centre for the Book in South Africa distributed free children’s books to 7000 rural homes. But there was no existing way to get them there. In some places, volunteers used wheelbarrows to carry the books from a post office to homes and schools. If you live any distance from a wealthy city suburb, books are simply not a part of your landscape.

The problem is particularly desperate when books can even save lives. In Tanzania, an NGO called CCBRT treats over 120 000 people with disabilities every year. To train nurses and midwives, they order their course books by post from Cape Town, 5000 kilometres away. A leading neonatologist there said recently that training with these books could save many of the 45000 newborn lives lost in Tanzania every year. But the cost of getting the books there is absurdly high.

By the time a book travels to a printer, and then to a warehouse, gets shipped across countries, stored again, displayed and finally purchased, its cost has risen four times over.

One way to tackle this problem is to put books on mobile phones. The website, the free online version of a textbook for nurses, had 27000 visits last year, about half of those from developing countries. That’s a hundred times the number of printed copies sold. A free novel by Sam Wilson called Kontax, which is read on feature phones, has been read over 63000 times by South African teens from every part of the country. And more and more schoolchildren are reading free Siyavula science and maths textbooks on their phones.

But there are still obstacles: no publisher has figured out how to make these mobile books pay for themselves yet. And to read a book on a phone you need electricity and airtime, and you have to read on a small screen that can’t handle complex images.

Worst of all, Internet access is not as widespread as we like to believe. If you look at a map of 3G internet coverage in South Africa, from a great distance it seems you can get online anywhere. But as you zoom in, and get closer to the ground, you find that coverage actually extends in hundreds of narrow spines from city centres, leaving big gaps in coverage only a short distance from significant towns. In reality, the Internet is not in everyone’s pocket.

Books on phones might be the way of the future, but they don’t work for everyone today. Of course, people are resourceful. Despite these obstacles, they do read. They find a way to get to school and study. Where do they get their books? More than anything, they photocopy.

There are print-and-copy shops in every town in the world, churning out pamphlets, flyers, adverts, CVs, and books. Unlike bookselling, you can get a copy-print shop profitable quickly. For a monthly lease of only a few hundred rand, and just a small space to work in, you can get a copier business selling thousands of sheets a month. As a result, the copier-printer may be the single most common distribution channel for publishing in the developing world.

Copy shops will laboriously scan and print the books their customers find and bring in. And since those customers often have no other way to find or afford a book, they’re performing an important social function. But they have to do it illegally.

By law in most countries, you can’t scan and print a copyrighted book, and you definitely can’t sell that print-out to someone else.

As you can imagine, copy shops terrify publishers. When I was publishing textbooks some years ago, we even tried printing in special inks that we thought wouldn’t photocopy well. (It didn’t work.) And the more our books were copied, the fewer we sold, and the higher we pushed our prices. And the more that happened, the more convinced we became that copy shops could never be trusted, that they didn’t understand our industry, and that they were our sworn enemy.

But copy shops are solving our customer’s problems, and putting books more books in the world, surely we should help them do it better and faster? Surely a partnership would be better for both sides? Imagine if we made their jobs easier, and legal.

What if we let copy shops print and sell from a whole library of books on a simple website? What if we made that website so fast and easy to use that it was more profitable for the copy shop – and more cost-effective for their customer – to pay for the service than to keep copying old books the hard way? Only a local corner store would have to be online for a whole village to have access to books.

And would publishers make money selling books through copy shops?

I decided to find out. I gathered a team and, with investment from the Shuttleworth Foundation, we built a website called Paperight.

On Paperight, anyone with a printer could download books and print them out for customers. Many books were free to download, and for others, the publisher charged a rights fee. Amazingly, publishers could make the same margins from these downloads that they do from their fancy editions, and still the total cost to the customer was usually less than that fancy edition sold in a mall.

Instantly, with only a basic Internet connection, every copy shop would be a bookstore. Even in the most remote village, every school could have access to new study guides. Every hospital with a laser printer could train new nurses and midwives with up-to-date information.

The idea was so promising, and for six years it consumed most of my waking hours. But by December 2014, the journey ended. We couldn’t make it work financially. And its story tells us a lot about publishing and innovation.

What happened to Paperight?

Our aims seemed simple: turn photocopiers into bookstores in every village in Africa, dramatically reduce the cost of tertiary (higher-ed, university college) textbooks, and prove that publishers could make money selling instant licenses (we’d sustain ourselves from commission).

In short, we wanted to offer a more effective way to get textbooks to students. And thanks to the Shuttleworth Foundation, we had time and money to make it happen.

From our site’s launch in May 2012 to Dec 2014 we put over 200 print-shop outlets on our map, signed up over 150 publishers, added over 2100 titles, and distributed 4049 copies of books.

But revenue didn’t climb. I began to realise that, starting from a small base, a trickle of sales can look like traction. A trickle can inspire confidence that is both valuable – to confidence, to our ability to sell – and terribly misleading. It’s a dangerous time for an ambitious team, because both trickle and traction make you think your model is working, and that it’s time to plan for scale. But a trickle that isn’t traction can hide fundamental problems with your model.

In 2.5 years we charged a total R57500 (about US$5750) in licence fees. Of this, R26000 went to publishers, we earned R20000 from books we published ourselves, and we earned R11500 in commission. It was tiny, not even enough to meet one month’s payroll. More importantly, after a year the rate of growth in sales had slowed to almost zero.

So what happened? Our problems were of course, in part, the result of our strategic decisions: out of an infinite number of possible alternatives, some decisions would have been better than others. We probably didn’t have enough sales people on the ground, and perhaps we scaled too fast, and didn’t bed down the model locally before going nationwide. We’ll never know if that would have changed things. But aside from that, we knew we had three major external challenges, ones we would have faced to matter what our strategy had been.

Firstly, and most importantly, while many publishers joined us, almost none let us sell their most popular, high-value titles. They asked us to test with their least popular titles, thinking they were mitigating risk. In reality, they were inadvertently setting us up to fail: we could not sell books that no one wanted. (See the section at the end of this article, ‘Tough truths about selling to publishers’.)

Secondly, most copy shops were not active partners, which is not surprising when we had so few high-value titles for them to promote. Many also gave their customers poor service (we double-checked ourselves by spending hours and days in stores). This meant we weren’t attracting new or returning customers.

And thirdly, our target market – potential readers and students with poor backgrounds – have grown up without books. They don’t attach much value to reading. Certainly not enough to buy books before food and clothing. And South African publishing has done very little in the last twenty years to change that.

Despite our disappointment, though, buried in our revenue stats is a promising story: one small collection of high-value, low-priced titles that we created ourselves sold well: a hundred low-priced collections of past grade-12 exam papers. That one small collection of high-value, low-priced titles made as much as all our other sales combined. And that’s after those past-papers were free for the first seven months.

These sales showed that if we’d had the right content, we might have done well. But it’s almost impossible to build a working experiment relying on commercial publishers’ content when those publishers are too risk averse to let us use popular books. Experimental projects like ours need high-value content to work with.

I had been determined to push for change in publishing by enabling a better way to sell. But I now believe that you cannot create industrial change by enabling its participants. It’s like saying ‘Here’s a tool that will completely change the way you work!’ No one wants a tool that will change the way they work. Work is complicated enough as it is without having to learn about new tools.

Nonetheless, change must be possible. People just need different motivators. I now believe that to change an industry you shouldn’t try to enable organisations to change for the better. You should take those new tools and compete with them. Challenge traditional methods head-on by challenging for market share. If you fail, you can always try something else. And if you succeed, you will either replace the incumbents or force them to change. Both outcomes are good.

South African publishing today

South Africa has been democratic for twenty-one years. It’s a good time to reflect on how far the local book industry has come. Book production values have soared. We have more black authors, more major women writers, and they’re selling well internationally in more popular genres. It’s a very good time to be a wealthy book lover in South Africa.

It’s not a good time to be anyone else. The number of bookstores outside suburban malls has hardly changed. Working from the Publisher’s Association’s most recent industry survey, the number of trade book buyers is probably less than two million, or 4% of the population, if they are spending about R700 ($70) per person, per year at retail value. That’s roughly four paperbacks each. New books are almost all in English and Afrikaans, the home languages of wealthy, white South Africans. Of R312 million ($30 million) in local trade publishing revenue, only R1.7 million, or 0.5%, comes from books in the country’s nine official African languages. In adult fiction, the proportion of African-language revenue is only 0.2%. (In 2008, this figure was 0.6%, so it’s got worse.) Essentially, zero with isolated experiments.

The conventional view is that, outside a narrow cohort, most South Africans don’t like reading. In casual conversation, this view sometimes correlates dangerously with racial stereotypes. For instance, two senior book industry figures have told me that black South African children wouldn’t read Harry Potter in Zulu because it’s “culturally irrelevant.” If this mindset is common among editors, it’s a key reason we’ve made so little progress.

Outside traditional publishing companies, there are bold attempts to sell books to new readers. Projects like FunDza, Bookly and EverEgg focus on mobile phones as a way to grow reading, though none have found a business model that would satisfy traditional publishers. Others, like Megabooks, focus on print-on-demand – though like Paperight did, they struggle without committed buy-in from local publishers who control the most valuable educational content.

So market-based solutions seem unable to get off the ground. Where markets should grow from little pockets of early adopters, there may not be enough pockets to grow from. For most South Africans, books are a luxury they could never afford. New data from the University of Cape Town’s Unilever Institute shows that over 34 million South Africans (70%) survive on an average household income of R3000 ($300) per month. They regularly skip meals and turn off electrical appliances long before payday. In those homes, even the cheapest books would never be prioritized over food and clothing.

For those who’ve made it out of poverty, books remain invisible. When books have never been a part of your life, you are unlikely to seek out and invest in them. At Paperight, even when we solved for price and availability, books remained largely invisible without intense and expensive local marketing.

If as a publishing industry in 1994 we’d taken a twenty-year view, we might have seen that our biggest challenge lay in making books visible to South Africans. We’d have given away millions of free books to children – just as the UK does on National Book Day every year – and seen many of those children blossom into keen book buyers today. Seen this way, the market-based challenge lies not in finding right business model, but in taking a long-term view. Less like Jack’s beanstalk, more like bonsai.

A new non-profit called Book Dash, which I helped found last year, takes exactly that view. Book Dash focuses on creating and giving away free, high-quality books to needy children. The books are created by volunteers, all creative professionals, who participate in twelve-hour book-making marathons. Some are from book publishing, but most are from other industries: animators, artists, copywriters, journalists and designers. Almost everything is done by these volunteers – to date, my company and a few other donors have covered direct costs worth about R200 000 (US$20000), and Book Dash has crowdfunded R80000 for printing books for children.

Everything the volunteers create is open-licensed (Creative Commons Attribution), so that anyone can translate, print and distribute the books freely. And Book Dash is creating basic HTML versions for mobile-phone initiatives. Already, other organisations have come to the party: the African Storybook Project has funded Book Dash creation days, and they and the Nal’ibali reading campaign have translated Book Dash stories into several African languages. And Book Dash stories are appearing in Nal’ibali’s fold-your-own-book newspaper inserts, where commercial publishers’ stories were used before under proprietary licenses.

The aim is to slash the cost of high-quality children’s books for literacy organizations to the cost of printing alone. When printing as few as 5000 copies, unit costs dip under a dollar for bookshop-quality editions.

Book Dash is very different from Paperight, but it aims to solve essentially the same problems. And if it succeeds, perhaps in ten or twenty years time there will be far more readers, and bolder publishers, and Paperight’s distributed print-on-demand model might have another, better chance.


Sidebar: Tough truths about selling to publishers

This is adapted from a slightly longer version on Arthur Attwell’s blog here.

For every innovative startup in publishing, it’s hard to remain patient while pitching to publishers over and over again. Most of the time these companies seem impervious to change. Here are my five hard truths about pitching to publishers.

1. People love you. Their organisations don’t.

When people buy a product or buy into an idea, it’s emotion that makes them do it. They use logic to justify the emotional decision after they’ve made it. And emotionally, publishers get very excited about social impact. But convincing a person with emotions is very different from convincing an organisation. It takes an untiring champion to get a decision through an organisation’s decision-making process, and this is where innovation stalls.

2. The right person is rarely the right person.

When we pitched Paperight, we were bounced from the rights-and-licensing manager to the sales manager to the digital manager, and none of them were sure they could just sign up their company. In the end, it matters less that you figure out who is responsible and more that you find someone, somewhere who’ll just get on with it.

3. Most people don’t speak XML.

Most publishers don’t understand technical jargon. They have their own vocabulary to describe their needs. When pitching, you have to ask sensible questions till they describe the product they need in their terms. Only then can you explain why what you’re offering solves their problem. This sounds obvious, but it’s really hard to do and takes lots of practice.

4. Anchored numbers are sticky

Here’s a number: 55%. The gross margin that most publishers aim for on each book. In many companies, it’s a sacred number. The rule is: “Do not propose publishing a book that does not hit this number.” Sacred numbers are very useful if you want people to produce the same kind of product over and over again to sustain an established business. But when you want to innovate, sacred numbers are big obstacles. When the decisions a company’s staff can make are circumscribed by specific numbers, the numbers define how the company thinks. Sacred numbers define a company’s culture.

In psychology, these sacred numbers also cause what’s called anchoring. When a number is an anchor, we use it to evaluate any other number by comparison. In the case of a 55% margin, or a standard print run or a common price point, publishers compare any number you give them to these anchors. If you pitch a project that will make a million sales at a gross margin of 10%, they’re going to have trouble believing in it. Their anchors make it hard to fit new numbers into their company culture. Every innovative publishing service or startup is trying to offer publishers a new set of numbers. But company values are big rocks to move.

Moreover, the staff must actually know how their company’s numbers interrelate. Often, publishers I speak to don’t know the real costs and margins on their products, especially warehousing, wastage and other provisions that don’t appear on their standard costings spreadsheets. As a result, they simply aren’t empowered to make the kinds of decisions that innovations require.

5. Risk and regret loom large.

People fear losing much more than they desire a corresponding gain. When you’re pitching a service to a publisher, they fear regretting their decision much, much more than they want your product. Even if they want your product a lot.

As a result, publishers felt safer giving us low-value, low-selling content, thinking this would reduce their risk of failure. Ironically, this had the opposite effect: by putting low-selling content on our site, they actually increased their risk of failure, because this low-value content did not sell at all. To make an innovation work, you have to maximise your chances of success by using it for the best content you have.

Project 17 A and B: Marketing operations: Closing report

We planned two marketing campaigns to increase sales of our top products. These campaigns were planned in detail on the principle of seven-touches: a person needs to hear about us, on average, seven times before they will act on our message. We wanted to drive customers to our outlets, in the hope they’d become return customers.

General report-back

This marketing campaign was thoroughly planned and executed, led by our marketing manager Louise. We were helped a lot by pro bono workshop with Zoom Advertising (see Marie’s post here about it). In addition to ongoing day-to-day support of outlets, it included:

We couldn’t have worked harder on it, and I’m extremely proud of what Marie and the team produced. So our poor results in terms of sales (see objectives below) were very disappointing.

Objectives achieved and not achieved


Original objectives Result
Increase sales of specific titles through targeted campaigns We did not increase sales of the products we promoted most.
Increase sales overall Transactions dropped, but profitability increased due to a more profitable product mix. So we made marginally more gross profit in the period during the marketing project. More details below.
Improve sales experience in outlets for Paperight customers While we are happy with improvement in some bright-spot outlets, at some copy shops that we targeted (such as Top Copy and Jetline Stellenbosch) the managers gate-kept fiercely and we could not make an impact.
Increase awareness of Paperight (availability/price/convenience) We certainly increased awareness of Paperight.


Measures of success


Have we increased sales of target products? Achieved at a very low rate. Sales have increased, but very modestly. We were targeting university prescribed books, and have made a few sales in single digits monthly. We have seen greater growth in sales of matric study guides, which we were not promoting as much. This shows that people are finding us for their needs, rather than us reaching them with our favourite offering. This has a lot to do with the fact that our catalogue is still very weak in university texts.
Have we improved the experience of purchasing Paperight titles in outlets? (Measured qualitatively from conversation with outlets and customer feedback where available.) Achieved with modest success. Where outlet managers have been very receptive to us, we have been able to work with them to improve service with fast support and promotional items. The shining example is Saggitarius Print Works in Paietermaritzburg, where owner Shahana Maharaj does a lot of promotional work at local schools. At several other key outlets that we wanted to help grow (such as Top Copy in Claremont and Jetline Stellenbosch), owners/managers have passively or actively blocked our attempts to help or train staff.
Do 1 in 3 students at UCT and Stellenbosch know about Paperight, when surveyed around the departments we’re focusing on (e.g. English/Arts)? We will run these surveys when the universities reopen in late July. We suspect that we did not reach this target.
We expect to see:

  • an increase in sales (in proportion to our existing revenue goals)
  • a growing return customer base (measured as repeats of end-user customer names as captured by outlets)
Not achieved, at least not in this timeframe. Comparing the previous six months with this project timeframe:

  • the number of sales transactions actually dropped from 525 to 222.
  • Sales quantity (number of copies) dropped slightly from 1656 to 1595.
  • Sales value in USD increased from $2156.45 to $2486.74.

So we sold fewer of more valuable products, a sales-mix issue.

Return customers: We have not been able to create return customers. Returners actually dropped slightly.

Mar–Aug 2013 = 24 return customers

Sep 2013–Feb 2014 = 19 return customers

Mar–Jun 2014 = 6 return customers.

We would like to see:

  • outlets in addition to our strategic partners in target areas (around UCT and Stellenbosch) taking part in marketing activities (e.g. distributing flyers, displaying posters, sharing on Facebook)
Other outlets did join in, but not in our focus geographical areas around UCT and Stellenbosch. For instance outlets at UJ,  Wits, Free State and NMMU requested #textbookrevolution marketing packs. This was very encouraging. It did not lead to many sales, though, since we have very few university textbooks, and the #textbookrevolution campaign was more about awareness than sales.
We would love to see:

  • our sales revenue exceed target
  • sales at outlets other than our strategic partners showing higher sales than strategic outlets (it would show that we aren’t needed and that outlets can get it done on their own!)
We did not meet our sales targets.

We did see sales growing at outlets we hadn’t selected. In fact, there is no meaningful difference between sales at our selected strategic outlets and at other outlets. This does suggest that our marketing has very little impact on buyer behaviour, and that the outlets’ marketing work (e.g. flyers at local schools, posters in store) is the most important factor by far.



Note: This project was divided into parts A and B for funding-pool reasons: part A was funded from my first fellowship year and part B from my second. Operationally, they are the same project.

Part A:

Original budget: R395683
Actual spend: R395683
Returned to pool: R0 (see notes in table)

Item Budget Actual Return to pool Comments
Contract extension: Nick Mulgrew 90000 72991.91 17008.09 Nick worked part-time for this period, so we saved.
Contract extension: Yazeed Peters 90000 120000 -30000 See note below on overspending during notice periods.
Contract extension: Oscar Masinyane 84000 107545.45 -23545.45 See note below on overspending during notice periods.
New sales manager position: probation contract 30000 25417.50 4582.5 We did not hire a new sales manager . We took on two interns Andi Donald and Shawn Swingler. We also used this money to pay Philippa and Marie on a freelance basis in May and June for #textbookrevolution textbook database research..
New sales manager position: salary increase 42000 42000 We did not hire a sales manager. We did interview several people but could not find a suitable person.
Monthly marketing expenses 30000 47358.86 -17358.86 Over Parts A and B were ultimately over budget by R3837.34. We underestimated how much marketing material we’d need for this project.
Marketing travel and sales expenses 29683 22369.28 7313.72 All local travel expenses
TOTAL R395683 395683 0 For Part A of the project budget, we have balanced overspending with underspending. Further costs move into Part B.


Part B:

Original budget: R191010
Actual spend: R116094.05
Returned to pool: R74915.95


Item Budget Actual Return to pool Comments
Contract extension: Marie-Louise Rouget 60000 80000 -20000 See note below on overspending during notice periods.
Monthly marketing expenses 30000 16478.48 13521.52 Over Parts A and B were ultimately over budget by R3837.34. We underestimated how much marketing material we’d need for this project.
Marketing travel and sales expenses 101010 19615.57 81394.43 International travel was less than expected (only London Book Fair).
TOTAL 191010 116094.05 74915.95


Contract extensions during notice periods

We overspent on salaries in this project by up to two months (case by case). Towards the end of the project period, I knew we’d be letting most of our team go, even though their contracts were in place for several months to come. Rather than creating a new, separate project to cover their notice periods, we used our underspending in other areas to offset the overspending here.

Outputs and deliverables


IP Author Owner
Marketing materials including catalogue, posters, flyers, coasters, social media conversations Various paperight team members Paperight
Video Shaun Swingler for Paperight Paperight
Website at Arthur Attwell Paperight



It’s impossible to know for sure what we could have done differently, and we realise that we had to try all this to find out that this kind of marketing doesn’t work for a startup still trying to get its product working on a local scale: a good copy shop with the right books with the right customers.

We suspect that we tried to run before we could walk, and that local, hand-held, in-person sales might have been more effective. However, had we done that instead, we would have felt that we were not aiming high enough and were missing opportunities.

Concretely, we learned a lot about creating and executing marketing plans. In short: there cannot be too much detail or forethought.


This project did not have the impact on our sales and sustainability that we hoped for. As a result, we let go most team members and are revisiting our core business model.


The outcomes of this project were disappointing, considering that we executed it pretty much exactly as we hoped we could. The silver linings are that we learned a lot about how to run a marketing campaign, and that for a startup like ours, a more humble, less sexy approach to telling people about your service may be more effective. We’ll try that in future.

Next steps

We’re revisiting our business model, focusing on photocopy licensing. Our marketing approach there will be very different: much more focused on local, in-person interactions with institutional partners.


So long and thanks for all the fish

My last official day at Paperight was the 15th of April 2014, but after a glorious week in Tankwa Town, I returned to do some freelance jobs that Arthur needed to be done.


I was most happy to be able to be part of choosing and announcing the Cover Art Competition winners, finally. The winners are:

1st place: Neill Kropman (21) of Red & Yellow School of Magic for Robinson Crusoe, Huckleberry Finn and Heart of Darkness
2nd place: Lucelle de Villiers (21) of Stellenbosch University for To the Lighthouse
3rd place: Ivan de Villiers (21) of Stellenbosch University for Walden

We’ve Tweeted, posted on Facebook and released a blog post about the results here.

Then I put together a press release to send out to local media. Most media outlets have been chomping at the bit for WDCCT stories so the story has gained some extra interest. The World Design Capital marketing team has also circulated the news. They were particularly impressed by the quality of the designs. As if we would have chosen duds though, really?

I have also had the opportunity to work on the Textbook Database. A new project for Paperight, but by no means a great change of tack, the Textbook Database will be a complete list of prescribed books for all courses across all major South African universities. Tedious though the data capturing may be, this kind of comprehensive list doesn’t exist and will have extraordinary value. This list adds to Paperight’s goal of inclusivity within the book trade and increased access to books. It also falls neatly under the banner of the #textbookrevolution.


If I could say one thing that I have learned during my time with this dynamic team, it’s that start-ups are not for sissies.

In other news, I am emigrating to France on the 17th of June so my time at Paperight is drawing to a close for good. If I could say one thing that I have learned during my time with this dynamic team, it’s that start-ups are not for sissies. I am immensely grateful for the chance to test myself and learn from an impressive group of young people who have already proved themselves in a tough industry.

And to think that major industry players are reluctant to hire young people, even though the quality of young professionals in South Africa is mostly untapped, for whatever reason. I found Paperight after being told by three major publishing houses in South Africa that they did not offer internships for graduates (paid or unpaid) and that as a rule they do not hire young people because the book trade, in their words, is a dying industry. Well, with that attitude, they’ve struck the last nail in their own coffin.

One day I hope they will see the mistakes that they’ve already made and realise that books will never really go out of fashion. With approximately 48 million people who don’t buy books in South Africa, there is still a lot of work to be done to make sure that everyone has equal access to such a simple resource.

I am very proud to have been part of a project that has already gained incredible traction in changing perceptions about the culture and benefits of reading. Paperight has also served to expose the negative attitudes and influences that exist within the book industry, as well as highlighted certain shady practices that perpetuate a system of exclusion.

Everybody should join the Paperight party. They always have cake. Ciao for now.

Staying ahead with Google

We were quite diligent in keeping our digital fingerprint up to date and making sure that our SEO was as effective as possible without incurring additional costs.

Some of the ways that we did this was by frequently updating our book metadata fields on our website with additional content, and making sure that we had regular blogs being posted on our sites. We also kept up with Facebook and Twitter.

The fact that we won so many awards and were in so many media releases also made a difference to our presence on the web.

Our strategy was to keep blogging on key focus areas, including key words that we would mention in our media, such as exams, or back-to-school, and then be consistent about how we use them.

We have been very satisfied with the results.

World Design Capital Cape Town 2014 and the Paperight Cover Art Competition

Great news for creative folks everywhere: Cape Town has been chosen as the World Design Capital for 2014. Arguably even better than this news is that Paperight has been chosen as an official WDCCT project. Along with this honour, we’ve been featured in their promotional output for this momentous year and we’ve been given access to various media channels through the project for pertinent news from our camp.

In the spirit of the project, Tarryn had the brilliant idea to launch a cover art design competition. We selected a shortlist of thirty-three classic literature novels, available through Paperight, for creative types to play around with. These covers have been done hundreds of times already and we thought the challenge to come up with something new would be particularly appealing.

The competition is still open for entries until the 25th of April 2014. Once we’ve received everything, we’ll select our favourite designs – hopefully one for each book title requested. The successful entrants will then be honoured by having their names appear on the imprint page, as the cover design artist of that book. Our top three favourite designers will be awarded a Paperight edition of the book featuring their design, in addition to having their name featured in all copies of the book. We wish we could give more, but as a small start up, we simply don’t have the resources.

The competition has been open to all South Africans, but we’ve chosen to promote it mainly in Cape Town and specifically to design colleges and universities across the mother city to give young artists an opportunity to test their mettle. This competition has also served as another opportunity to reach students about what Paperight does and particularly, as an opening to discover the #textbookrevolution by association.

cover-art-competition_uct-poster_20131125We put posters up on UCT and Stellenbosch University campuses, and emailed digital copies to fifteen art/design/advertising colleges and university departments around Cape Town. Our most impressive response has been that both Red and Yellow School of Magic and the Visual Arts department at Stellenbosch University chose to include the competition in their curriculum for the first semester.

The competition posters were designed by Nick and we made six variations to highlight different Cape Town based Paperight registered copy shops. We chose not to agonise over the competition Terms and Conditions simply because we didn’t want to end up confusing anyone. Complicated Ts&Cs can put people off from entering altogether – what’s the point of that?

Once we’ve deliberated on the entries and chosen winners, I will write an updated post about the results. We’ve already received some wonderful stuff and it may be difficult to choose in the end.

The #textbookrevolution Campaign: hold on to your seats for this one!

The #textbookrevolution has been our most ambitious campaign thus far, mostly in terms of scale and coordination. It was formulated as a means to get Paperight onto university campuses and to ultimately increase Paperight’s available catalogue to suit students’ needs. By invoking the call for a revolution, we hoped to get students involved in applying pressure to publishers to work with Paperight, or to at least get publishers to commit to making arrangements for students to get their essential textbooks timeously and at an affordable cost.

The #textbookrevolution campaign involved the following elements:

  • a #textbookrevolution petition in physical petition forms, as well as online on
  • placing #textbookrevolution drinks coasters in bars around Stellenbosch University and at popular bars to UCT students
  • campus presence at Stellenbosch University and UCT orchestrated by Paperight team members (handing out #textbookrevolution drinks coasters, handing out #textbookrevolution t-shirts, putting up posters and getting #textbookrevolution petition signatures)
  • arranging Paperight outlet advertising in store and on campus for 8 further universities, namely:
  • NWU Potchefstroom (Jetline Potchefstroom and Ivyline Technologies)
  • NWU Mafikeng (Jetline Mafikeng)
  • NWU Vaal Triangle (Minuteman Press Vanderbijlpark)
  • Vaal University of Technology (Minuteman Press Vanderbijlpark)
  • WITS (Jetline WITS)
  • UJ (Postnet UJ)
  • University of the Free State (Easy Copy)
  • Rhodes University (Aloe X and ABM Office National)
  • launching a Cover Art Competition, as part of World design Capital Cape Town 2014 of which Paperight is a featured project (#WDC227)
  • reaching out via email to university lecturers, VCs, SRCs and a variety of student unions detailing ways for them to get involved with the campaign
  • hosting two Twitter debates to engage with interested parties on the issues around buying university textbooks
  • a Facebook conversation plan
  • paid advertisements in student magazines with the help of Jetline Stellenbosch (Akkerjol 2014) and Top Copy (UCT Rag 2014)
  • contacting university media outlets to encourage them to run pieces about or host discussions on the campaign
  • launching a #textbookrevolution website with a video manifesto and all requisite campaign details
  • creating a #textbookrevolution campus campaign video featuring the reactions of the students to the campaign

In all of our communications, there were two important messages to spread among students:

1) Textbooks are cheaper through Paperight outlets.
This was our less important sales message that was aimed at specific departments that we had prescribed or related books for.

2) Hate overpriced textbooks? Speak up to join the #textbookrevolution.
This required students to speak out about using a service like Paperight to increase access to affordable textbooks. This was meant to put pressure on publishers to make more of their core textbooks available on Paperight.

Overall, this has been the most successful sustained marketing effort in the history of Paperight. We demonstrated our rebellious and youthful brand image and we have been overwhelmed by the reactions it brought back. We can safely say that we are known by scores more South African varsity students, lecturers and administrative staff than we were before and we have planted the significant seed of change. We now have a comprehensive contact list for individuals to approach to take this campaign further and meetings will be made easier by the increased knowledge of what we’re about.

We did not intend for sales of current titles to be our main message simply because of our limited catalogue for varsity students. That being said, our paid adverts in student magazines highlighted products that students might need, as well as products that would be of interest to the broader community to whom the magazines are sold.

We were only able to offer books prescribed to English Literature and Nursing students. We also advertised our teaching guides and O’Reilly IT manuals to the relevant departments. Of the books that were advertised, we did not make a noticeable increase in sales for those titles specifically. However, we have seen a rise in sales of other books which can attributed to a combination of:

a) increased engagement from outlets to push sales (with the use of Paperight marketing materials, i.e. campaign and product posters, catalogues, etc.)
b) increased Paperight visibility in the media/on Facebook/on Twitter, and
c) the return of customers from the previous year (as well as their referrals to friends).

We had three positive responses from student media outlets. Both Rhodes Music Radio and UJfm scheduled interviews with Arthur to discuss the campaign. Then Perdeby, the Tuks student newspaper, promoted the #textbookrevolution and our second live Twitter debate through their Twitter account which led to a lively, healthy discussion. Recently, we have also been featured by the Varsity newspaper (UCT) in an opinion piece. Despite being a lazy, inaccurate description of the campaign, it has raised the visibility of the campaign on campus even further and we will be sending out a response to the article to set the record straight. Sometimes, even bad press is good press.

vula_splash-page_20140212One of our most successful partnerships has been with UCT’s student run organisation, SHAWCO. Julia Norrish, their President, has become a Paperight fan and has championed our cause on campus. In addition to allowing us to include SHAWCO’s logo on our campaign website in the supporters’ bar, Julia also consented to place a splash page on Vula, the UCT online student portal, that would explicitly show SHAWCO’s support for the campaign. The splash page went up for 6 weeks from mid-February 2014. Julia also showed her support by calling out the recent inaccuracies in the Varsity newspaper article.

Our Vula splash page and campaign t-shirt design both featured the ubiquitous face of Che Guevara. Far from invoking his politics or attitudes, we simply settled on an image that is easily recognisable to carry the sentiment of revolution. In the office, this was hotly debated and I will admit that we settled on Che mostly due to lack of a better alternative. However, Stellenbosch University students reacted strongly positively to the image and we had many requests for free t-shirts from the students we encountered.

Overall, Rhodes has been the most receptive university to the need for a #textbookrevolution in terms of their responses and engagement with the campaign. Their Dean of Students has Tweeted about the campaign, their registrar passed on a message to lecturers informing them of the #textbookrevolution, their SRC hooked up with ABM Office National (a brand new Paperight registered outlet) to advertise on campus, and Arthur was interviewed on RMR. I believe this may be because Rhodes is more keenly aware of the difficulties students suffer due to their location in the Eastern Cape and a chronic lack of resources.

Shaun Swingler joined us once again on our visits to local Western Cape varsities in order to pull together a campaign video. The resultant video is very indicative of the reactions we’ve had so far.

We took the #textbookrevolution petition to UCT and Stellenbosch University to give students a tangible way of showing their support. They were asked to provide their email addresses along with details of books they have struggled to afford or find. This will help us to prioritise our discussions with textbook publishers and enable us to contact the students in future when we have their books on Paperight. We gathered more support in physical form (over 1000 signatures) than we have online (81 signatures). I believe this is due to the effect that the face-to-face promotion had on students. It is difficult to fire up enthusiasm over yet another online petition.

1557396_586826434731570_637186294_oThe reactions to our Paperight drinks coasters have been very positive, especially when handed directly to students on our campus days. Our tagline “Cheaper Textbooks. More Beer” caught their attention and made for great conversation starters. Their effect in local bars is far more difficult to gauge. Most bar managers and bartenders have been helpful so far as placing the coasters around the bar and replacing damaged/missing coasters. However, bars are very busy places and ultimately, our coasters are not their biggest priority so it is difficult to gather feedback about how they were received by students. Regardless, when they were originally placed, we saw students pocketing them to take home which is exactly what we wanted. If we do this again in future, I would suggest printing less and limiting their use to direct handouts to students.

An unexpected, yet welcome effect of the #textbookrevolution campaign has been that the team has grown closer and our mission to increase access to all kinds of books has gathered further focus. Refer to Philippa’s article about the Blaze of Glory for context about where this campaign fits into the grand scheme of things.

I would say that the future of the #textbookrevolution is positive. Although currently in hibernation, the groundwork has been set for future, interdisciplinary collaborations between publishers, universities and copy shops. This is not the end of the #textbookrevolution.

Note: The Twitter debates and the Paperight Cover Art Competition 2014 have been elaborated on in their own article.

Designing the #textbookrevolution

The bulk of my time at Paperight during 2014 was taken up by the #textbookrevolution campaign. This was by far the most well-planned, well-executed and successful campaign we did to date. For the first time, we agreed upon our messaging, plan of attack and the scope of materials that we needed far in advance of starting work on putting the campaign together – a ridiculous thing to say in retrospect, but meticulous marketing planning was something we only learned late into the game, mostly due to the fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants approach the entire company sometimes had for most of the time I was here.

The bulk of my work for the #textbookrevolution focused upon executing everything we had learned up until this point:

  • focusing on outlets that we could trust
  • defining areas in which our advertising could be focused
  • creating easily customisable materials
  • curating compact and effective product lists
  • synchronising our messaging and launching our campaign on online platforms as well as with physical materials
  • focusing on cheapness and availablility as our main selling points

As such, the material designing process was by far the easiest out of all the campaigns that I worked on.

To make the campaign seem more coherent, all materials and official posts made by us made mention of the hashtag #textbookrevolution. This was a successful idea – it made it easy for us, for example, to construct and conduct conversations focusing on campaign-related topics on social media, as well as being an innate call-to-action for social media commentary on the topic.

A fun project that we worked on was the creation of a series of beer coasters that had games and quizzes on them, along with Paperight advertising, including taglines with variations on “Cheaper Textbooks. More Beer”. I created six designs – three games and three quizzes – that were printed in quantities of hundreds and passed out at university campuses and student bars in Stellenbosch and Cape Town. It’s difficult to gauge exactly how well these coasters increased engagement, but we did find numerous mentions of them on social media, often along with the #textbookrevolution hashtag.

The weak link with this campaign, again, was some outlets’ reluctance to reciprocate the amount of effort we put into advertising their businesses with some semblance of preparation for or engagement with the campaign on their part. Again, potential customers were turned away from outlets that we had informed of the campaign, or had bad service from them. This was probably, I might speculate, because management had not passed on word on the campaign to their front desk staff. In some cases, outlets were mentioned specifically on posters, and had agreed to be mentioned on those posters, but turned away or offered customers lacklustre service when they came in.

This has been the most major flaw in the workflow of the Paperight model as it exists now. The success of the model depends on too many variables outside of our own control. Although that’s the nature of our business, it does not work as well for outlets as we would like it to, as we essentially outsource the bulk of our end-user customer experience. In other words, a customer’s experience with us is only as good as it is at the outlet.

And, another thought, for every one customer that was turned away and told us of their experience, how many were turned away and stayed privately dissatisfied?

Paperight learns how to start Twitter Debates

In March 2014, we were approached by Kelsey Wiens of DevelopOA, and Eve Gray of the Centre for Educational Technology at UCT, about setting up a live Twitter debate to discuss issues around open access, limited textbook availability and high book prices.  What we’ve referred to as a Twitter debate is also known as a ‘Twitter Town Hall‘.

Having never been involved in something like this before, naturally we were curious and the timing was perfect for the #textbookrevolution campaign. We all agreed to use the hashtag #textbookrevolution to keep the comments and participants together. We then arranged a rough starting point, although the intention was that those who participated would be able to take the conversation in any direction they chose.

In preparation, each of the hosts reached out to contacts that might be interested  in taking part. We scheduled the debate for 1–2pm, hoping that this time would be easiest to work around. I focused mainly on contacting SRCs, student media contacts and university vice chancellors, and the responses we had were all positive. Our preparation paid off and our first debate led to a second, even more successful debate that resulted in our hashtag trending in South Africa. It appears we have a knack for this kind of thing!

To read more about how each debate went, take a look at our blog post about them.

Here are a few highlights taken from the debates. For more, click on the hashtag #textbookrevolution in the tweets below.

First Twitter Debate

Second Twitter Debate

The Blaze of Glory begins

I went away over Christmas time and came back to the office a couple of weeks later recharged and ready to start the Blaze of Glory. Our funding was due to run out at the end of August so this was the last main spike in the academic book buying cycle available to us and we needed to make it count. By this time our focus had shifted from the high school market to the university market as we had realised that Paperight could make the biggest price reduction in this area. My part in BOG was to hack away at the reformatting of all A4 documents on the site, and then to reformat all Paperight novels, prioritising those on the University Prescriptions list.

The look of the Paperight PDF saw a few improvements over the years, first reducing the ad-space that had seemed like a good idea at the time but was never used, and then by removing the lines above and below the watermarking. The final product looked so much better after these improvements were made. But once the changes had been made on the site I needed to update the PDFs that had already been created using the old format. To do this I used the new PDF-PDF converter tool on the Paperight server. This tool had been in the pipelines for a long time and took quite a bit of testing and bug reporting to get it working properly, but when it was ready to go it worked like a dream. I simply had to select the PDF I wanted to convert, click convert, and wait.

I feel really lucky to have worked in such a sharing environment and to have had so much training.

I then moved on to the reformatting of the university setworks. In fact, I was reformatting some, but also adding many books that were not yet on the site. The list was 157 titles long. First I needed to learn how to use the HTML-to-PDF converter which had also just become operational. I was excited to learn how to prepare books from HTML using this shiny and much awaited tool. Tarryn, the fearless trainer, taught me how to scrub HTML, a process that at first sounded exotic and turn out to be a little less than. Before I arrived at Paperight I hardly knew what HTML was and I certainly didn’t know what CSS was, nevermind how they related to one another. But Arthur has such a great philosophy of training his staff on all aspects the company and I gained skills beyond what were necessary for my day to day job. I feel really lucky to have worked in such a sharing environment and to have had so much training.

I began scrubbing those books prescribed at the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University as we were carrying out targeting marketing campaigns at these institutions, and I found that I quite enjoyed it as long as I wasn’t scrubbing Tristram Shandy or The Tragedie of Mariam. And I was able to listen to podcasts while I worked so I listened to a lot of ThisAmericanLife. (I mean like a whole lot.)

It struck me that these students were Paperight’s target market, but this was the first time we had really spent any time with them, on their turf.

This task, interspersed with our #textbookrevolution outings to Stellenbosch University and UCT, has been my ongoing task to date. Our outings to the Universities were fantastic and challenging. We handed out specially designed beer coasters to students and asked them to sign our petitions for cheaper textbooks (see Marie-Louise’s blog post for more on this). It struck me that these students were Paperight’s target market, but this was the first time we had really spent any time with them, on their turf. It was tiring approaching groups of students and getting them excited enough about the idea to sign the petition, but it was incredibly rewarding when they ‘got it’ and were genuinely enthusiastic about it.

Lessons learned from Now What?

now-what_together-we-pass-paperight_cover_low-res_20130228One of our better-sounding early marketing ideas was to break into the Unisa market – and thus get Unisa’s attention – by creating a book that would appeal to students struggling with Unisa’s bureaucracy and merciless stinginess. In early 2013, we teamed up with Together We Pass, a Unisa-specific study-aid service, to produce the book.

I wasn’t directly involved with the commissioning process of content, etc., but I did design the book and headed the marketing for it. Although the experience of designing the book was something I really needed to further my skills, and appreciated it as such, the editing and layout phases were both quite frustrating. This was chiefly because the content I had to work with was changed at inopportune times. The result was a product that, although I thought was useful and could potentially sell very well, I didn’t completely feel great about. In the end it didn’t sell fantastically, for a number of reasons:

  1. Together We Pass gave away the book for free to all of their subscribers, in other words, the few thousand people most likely to buy the book. Even though we thought we might potentially get exposure from this move, it was not a beneficial decision for Paperight in the slightest, especially as we took the bulk of production costs. A lesson we learned could be, in other words: never try to sell something that someone else is giving away for free.
  2. The cover and the messaging for the book weren’t as strong as they could have been, probably because we were trying to be nice to Unisa, in the hope that they would more readily partner with us. It probably should have been more provocative – in retrospect we did a lot of things with kid gloves when we really should have tried to grab people’s attention by any means necessary.

All in all, Now What? was an interesting experiment and an amazing learning experience, but a very frustrating selling experience. The book ate up way too much of my time that I should have been spending on marketing Paperight books to university students.