Tag Archives: #textbookrevolution

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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

Onwards and upwards

Though our speculated pivot meeting had been set for the end of April, following the close of the #textbookrevolution campaign, by the start of March we’d already made significant decisions about what was going to happen.

One thing was clear though: the team would be downsized. This was where the value of openness came to the fore

While we were still ultimately deciding on the actual pivot we would make with Paperight, we had several options on the table. One thing was clear though: the team would be downsized. This was where the value of openness came to the fore, as the team could see this coming, and understood, and supported the necessity of this move. The result was that, while morale was perhaps not at it’s highest, there was no resentment among team members. We decided that in moving on it was important to wrap up the first chapter of Paperight. To this end we each began writing up our individual histories (an endeavour that lead to the creation of this site). I coordinated the team in the creation of a consolidated wrap-up list to prioritise tasks to be completed before leaving.

Despite our various wrap-up tasks and activities, we were still in the final phase of the #textbookrevolution campaign. We hosted two #textbookrevolution Twitter debates along with Kelsey Wiens and Eve Grey. You can read more about how those went here.

Publisher registrations

  • Blood Moon Press (15/3/2014)
  • Gamal Lydian Marketing (17/3/2014)

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.

The #textbookrevolution and tough times

February 2014 saw the launch of the #textbookrevolution. We donned our Paperight #textbookrevolution t-shirts and made our way to Stellenbosch University. Once there the team split up: Arthur and Dez stayed at Jetline Stellenbosch to assist in store, Oscar and Yazeed trekked around campus to put up posters, and Philippa, Nick, Marie and I spent our time handing out coasters and getting students to sign the #textbookrevolution petition. Students loved our More Money For Beer campaign slogan, and were very receptive to the idea of Paperight. Mostly though, they bemoaned the high costs of textbooks and the lack of availability of alternatives.

We had the same experience later in the month on UCT campus. Again, we handed out coasters, chatted to students and explained what drives up the price of books. While students were enthusiastic, we soon realised that there were two key gaps that we had not been able to fill. The first was a content gap. We knew that we’d have this, and we’d structured our campaign around it, but the result was that while we had a lot of queries, we were not able to leverage publishers to make this content available (the same problem we’d been experiencing for months).

Additionally, and perhaps more worryingly, we realised that service in copy shops was not what we had assumed it would be. While the majority of registered outlets were very enthusiastic about the Paperight service, and had topped up their accounts, there was often only one person in the outlet who knew how to use the site, despite multiple training sessions with other outlet employees. If this person was not around to field customer orders, or if the customer encountered an employee who did not know of, or who had forgotten about Paperight, the customer was being turned away. More and more frequently we were receiving calls from customers who were going to outlets only to be told that these did not offer the service.

At this point Arthur and I started actively looking into potential pivots. We considered merging Paperight with other companies working in the educational sector, and to this end, valuated Paperight’s assets.

We were struggling to maintain enthusiasm as a team for the #textbookrevolution, and working on publisher follow-ups, reformatting, and uploads seemed futile given an imminent pivot.

Things became very difficult here. We were struggling to maintain enthusiasm as a team for the #textbookrevolution, and working on publisher follow-ups, reformatting, and uploads seemed futile given an imminent pivot. Yet, at the same time, we hadn’t decided on a pivot, so we couldn’t realign our priorities. The result was that we started to flounder a bit. While we continued on, the morale in the office dropped.

Publisher registrations

  • Cambridge Scholars Publishing Limited (12/2/2014)
  • Methodist Church of South Africa (25/2/2014)

The #textbookrevolution and hints of a pivot ahead

In our shift to focus on universities, we created and launched our #textbookrevolution campaign. This meant creating detailed messaging and plans: one liners, elevator pitches, detailed back stories, a manifesto, a petition, outlet advertising posters and marketing briefs, novelty coasters, and videos; campaign website (http://textbookrevolution.co.za); doing lots of PR work (emailing journalists and stakeholders personally); and organising a Twitter debate on the high price of textbooks. This was the main focus of Nov, Dec and Feb.

Much of this was written up elsewhere:

On the technical side, we finalised much better automation of book preparation prep (mainly tools to use online PDF layout tool DocRaptor to create better-looking books). And in finances, completed our audit with a clean bill of health.

Travelling

I went to Johannesburg for pitching meetings with publishers (Pearson, Van Schaik, UNISA Press), UNISA, and PostNet, and our outlets manager Yazeed attended the ActivateSA event in Joburg, a conference of young leaders, to talk about Paperight and the #textbookrevolution.

Speaking out

I’ve had a bit to say, too:

  • 22 Jan 2014: A post by me on Medium, “Not Yet for Profit”, arguing that well-funded, as-yet-unprofitable startups represent an whole new industry, much of it in social impact, and that’s a good thing.
  • 24 Jan 2014: Interview on Paperight’s story with AFKInsider, a US website on African business.

Mainly I’ve been telling the #textbookrevolution story over and over again in meetings (with publishers, university administrators and journalists). E.g. interviews during Jan and Feb on SAFM, Rhodes Music Radio, UJfm (University of Joburg) and Jozi Today.

The focus of the #textbookrevolution campaign is to (a) highlight the fact that 70% of the cost of a textbook is the supply chain (printing, shipping, warehousing, wastage and retail), and that (b) print-on-demand on university campuses could save students and South Africa as much as a billion rand a year. See our blog post for the detail, and the #textbookrevolution site for the manifesto, video, petition and supporters.

Joining our thinking

SHAWCO (UCT’s acclaimed social-welfare organisation) and Boundless (open textbooks) are official supporters of the #textbookrevolution. See all the supporters here.

We’ve also had ongoing discussions about closer collaboration with RISO (copier manufacturer), Mega Digital (SA’s biggest short-run book printer) and Loot (online retailer).

We’ve counted 21 media mentions that we know about, of which the highlights are:

Big wins

We had a great response from students at Stellenbosch and UCT where we collected over 1000 signatures on our #textbookrevolution petition. In addition to the paper petition, students have left great comments on our online petition.

we’ve long underestimated the importance of putting people on the ground talking to potential customers

Students are highly sensitised to the issue of high textbook prices. Also, we probably reached more students in the 20 hours we spent on campuses than we would have in months online. A big lesson was that we’ve long underestimated the importance of putting people on the ground talking to potential customers (even if we don’t have the books they need yet).

We’ve also had big losses. More about that in this separate post.

Preparing for the #textbookrevolution

We hit the ground running in January with preparations to support the launch of the #textbookrevolution in February. We reformatted all A4 one-up documents – I created the detailed list of documents for Philippa to work through, and assisted by adjusting crop marks of these for easy conversion. I also supported Philippa’s uploading and document processing efforts by sourcing pricing and metadata information. I finalised the DocRaptor compatible CSS, and bug fixes, and we went live with the DocRaptor adjustment.

Other activities included a call with Louise from Bookstorm, a meeting with Hetta from UNISA Press to finalise contracts, and finishing uploading of the backlogged documents.

The disappointing news for the month was from Harlequin: they declined a partnership with us, saying that they were unable to pursue this opportunity for the time being.

Publisher registrations

  • Pearson SA (8/1/2014)
  • TIE, LCC (15/1/2014)
  • Mkuki na Nyota Publishers (23/1/2014)
  • Neosmart (Pty) Ltd (26/1/2014)
  • Bookstorm (28/1/2014)

 

Frankfurt Book Fair and CONTEC Startup Showcase win

October saw us participating in the CONTEC Startup Showcase in Frankfurt. The showcase formed part of the CONTEC Conference which was attended by industry leaders in digital publishing, and focused on the connection between content and technology. Paperight was expected to offer a 3-minute pitch, against five other innovative start-ups in digital publishing. We were selected as the winner of the showcase by a panel of judges.

As was the case after our London Book Fair win, the discussions had after the award announcement, and in the tea breaks just before, were very productive, with a lot of excitement about our project and aims. In particular, the Brazilian publishers in attendance (Brazil was to be the market-focus for the book fair that year) were very enthusiastic about the possibilities for Paperight in the Brazilian and wider South American market.

My focus for the fair was on publishers who could provide content that was in line with our current marketing focus. Namely, early childhood development materials (for children) and research (for teachers/caregivers), core textbooks and study materials for grades 10, 11 and 12 learners, core reading material for first and second year university level students, and trade fiction for young adults.

I had many productive conversations, and furthered negotiations with several big publishers (including Elsevier, Harlequin, and Bloomsbury). While I was optimistic about the possibility for Bloomsbury signing on with us, and while they were very receptive in our meetings, they later decides to hold off until after their South African distributors, Jonathan Ball, had had a chance to pilot the system.

We continually found that it was imperative to follow up on marketing material like this, be it with outlets, or schools, as often things would fall through the cracks otherwise.

While I was away, Philippa held the fort, and continued the process of uploading documents in the backlog queue, and Marie completed content tagging. Following my return from the fair, I completed the usual feedback reports, and followed up on the posters we’d distributed to schools (to make sure these had been put up and the flyers handed-out). We continually found that it was imperative to follow up on marketing material like this, be it with outlets, or schools, as often things would fall through the cracks otherwise. Dez and I also completed the Gifted Citizen Award Application on Arthur’s behalf.

Given the difficulties in getting content timeously, specifically as a result of the long lead time when signing publishers, we revisited the discussions (recurring over the last year) of creating our own content. It was around this time that we had been talking to Pearson about making their backlist (some of which included important African literature titles) on Paperight, only to find that this would not be possible due to the fact that font-licensing issues meant that these would have to be re-typeset, and the cost of this was just not a viable option. In our in house discussions about increasing the pool of books published/available in African languages, we began to envision a translation project for popular international YA titles into isiZulu and isiXhosa. This lead to my applying for rights to translate Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games (a project that is still on going). Another of our projects for content creation revolved around matric exams, and the fact that the changes in curriculum meant that past exam papers would no longer be as relevant for students. We contacted Siyavula about a collaborative project to develop a bank of open CAPS-aligned maths questions for grades 11 and 12, but while supportive of the endeavour, their current commitments precluded any involvement on their part. Instead, we looked into hiring an intern to assist us in the creation of a question bank.

We’d increasingly been concerned that we were not close enough to reaching sustainability, and we’d ultimately need to shrink the team in order to extend the funding runway.

October was also the month in which we decided to plan for and prioritise a university marketing campaign as a “Blaze of Glory”, last ditch effort to see if we could gain enough traction in the university market to avoid having to make a serious pivot within the next six months. We’d increasingly been concerned that we were not close enough to reaching sustainability, and we’d ultimately need to shrink the team in order to extend the funding runway. As a team we started brainstorming the #textbookrevolution. Part of this planning lead to us focussing our attention on university prescriptions. I set up a database of prescriptions, and worked with Oscar to flesh this out.

Publisher Registrations

  • Short Story Day Africa (25/10/2013)
  • Jacana Media (30/10/2013)
  • A Poet’s Tree (30/10/2013)