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.

Paperight and beyond: learning from disappointment

At a Mobile Literacy Network Meeting this week hosted by the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg, I talked about Paperight, why we had to close, and some of the lessons my team and I are taking to our next ventures – particularly Bettercare and Book Dash


In the next ten minutes I’m going to talk about three things: what was Paperight, why we had to close, and a few lessons (out of a great many) that I’m taking into my next ventures.


But first, a quick note on learning lessons from disappointment.


Hindsight is cruel, because it’s almost certainly wrong.

The disappointment you feel when you decide that your project didn’t work only indicates what particular set of circumstances, and series of events, didn’t work out the way you hoped. That disappointment makes us regret our decisions, and looking back we’re tempted to say ‘We should have done this instead.’ The problem is that your journey was one of an infinite number of possible alternatives, and you have no way of knowing what exactly you should have done differently.

So when we draw lessons, we can say ‘For us, this didn’t work and this did’. We can’t say ‘If we’d done this, everything would have turned out well.’

  • It’s okay to say ‘This didn’t work.’
  • It’s foolish to say ‘This would have worked better.’

Watch out for that trap of wishful alternatives. Once you start noticing it, you realise that we all fall into it all the time, wasting energy on we-should-haves.

It also means that our lessons might not apply to your project directly, but perhaps they are a rough guide to potential challenges.

So, let’s see what happened to Paperight.


At Paperight we built a network of independent print shops that could print books out for their customers on demand.

We worked with publishers to provide an online library of books that print shops could legally download, print and sell to customers.


We wanted to:

  • turn photocopiers into bookstores in every village in Africa
  • dramatically reduce the cost of tertiary (higher-ed, university college) textbooks
  • 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.


So how did we do?


From May 2012 to Dec 2014 we got to:

  • 200+ outlets on our map (there were about 200 more that we didn’t believe were active copy shops)
  • 150+ publishers
  • 2100+ titles (with 1000+ in our queue)
  • 4049 copies distributed.

We worked with copy shops to make sure their customers knew about the service.


In some cases, we helped with signage, and in others…


…copy shops did a great job of promoting on-demand books themselves. The early signs were promising – we told ourselves we had traction.


But revenue just didn’t climb. I began to realise that, starting from a small base, a trickle can look like traction. A trickle can inspire confidence that is both valuable – to confidence, to our ability to sell – and 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. A trickle can hide fundamental problems with your model.

A trickle can look like traction. It’s a dangerous time for an ambitious team, because both make you think your model is working, and that it’s time to plan for scale. A trickle can hide fundamental problems with your model.

In 2.5 years we charged R57500 in licence fees. Of this:

  • R26000 to publishers
  • R20000 as a publisher ourselves
  • R11500 in commission

That wasn’t enough to meet one month’s payroll. More importantly, after a year the rate of growth in sales had slowed to almost zero.


Our problems were of course, in part, the result our strategic decisions: out of an infinite number of possible alternatives, some would have been better than others. But aside from that, we knew we had three major external challenges:

One small collection of high-value, low-price titles made as much as all our other sales combined.

Despite our disappointment, buried in those revenue stats is a promising story: we made far more as a publisher than as a distributor. We had created a hundred simple, low-priced books of our own: 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.

Even though we made so much of our revenue from past exam papers, we often regretted deciding to charge for them. When they were still free, we made really good headway growing customers for copy shops in poor areas, especially in Khayelitsha and in peri-urban Eastern Cape towns.

From the day we started charging for them – between $1 and $2 a copy – those sales declined massively. It was a great lesson in the infinite distance between free and paid.


Free content is easy to sell. Paid content is infinitely more difficult.
You don’t just ‘add on’ paid to a free model. Payment changes a project fundamentally.

Still, we really wanted to prove a paid model. And we did have paying customers.

If I had to draw broad conclusions from this, I’d confidently say that if we’d had the right content, we could have done well.


A few high-value titles will sell. But it’s almost impossible to build a working experiment relying on commercial publishers’ content. Experimental projects like ours need high-value content to work with. If it’s open-licensed, we all get much further much faster. It’s critical that impact-minded content projects and funders prioritise open licensing.

I was 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.


‘Here’s a tool that will change the way you work!’ No one wants a tool that will change the way they work. Work is complicated enough as it is.

Nonetheless, change must be possible. We just need different motivators. So I’ll try a different approach: competition. I’m actively implementing open-access models, easy licenses and print-on-demand at Bettercare.


If we can take market share at Bettercare by doing things differently, perhaps we’ll tempt established players to do the same.

Meanwhile, in other work I’ll focus on building readership for the long term. If twenty years ago, South African publishers had made a concerted effort to invest in early-childhood reading, perhaps Paperight’s distributed print-on-demand might have worked out better.


So at Book Dash, a volunteer-based non-profit, we’re creating new, high-quality, African books for little children that anyone can freely translate, print and distribute. Already our books are being reused by literacy projects like Nal’ibali and the African Storybook Project, who in turn create translations in many local languages. We’ll soon be distributing digital versions through FunDza, Worldreader and others. And we’ve recently crowd-funded over R80000 to print copies to give to children.

It was disappointing that Paperight didn’t work, but my excitement about our next steps far outweighs that. Those were good lessons.




Thirty months of Paperight metrics

Here’s a series of graphs about Paperight’s journey. They cover two and a half years, by month. We’ve picked our starting date for these as September 2011, when our investment and funding from the Shuttleworth Foundation kicked in. I’d already been working on my own, part-time, on the model and prototype tech for almost three years before that. We’re including:

  • our high-level projects and decisions
  • our team members and size
  • sales by quantity
  • sales revenue in US dollars (before deducting rightsholder earnings)
  • social media followers
  • unique visitors to

What’s interesting here is how little correlation there is between any of these. Perhaps our small data set lets outliers hide any evidence of correlations or trends over time. Or perhaps disruptive startups are just messy and unpredictable. (One very recent stat these graphs don’t show is that in the first two weeks of June we had our highest ever site visits, and our lowest ever sales. Go figure.)

This first graph shows our high-level projects and decisions, the most significant being the realisation in February 2014 that our original business model doesn’t work, and we need a big pivot. (More about that in this post.)

Click on each graph to open it at full-size.

High level projects and decisions

If you use the monthly-archive menu on this site, you’ll find posts by team members from the months concerned.

Then our team: we grew our team quickly from about five months in. This was critical in getting our outlet footprint established and creating our own content (reformatted classics and grade-12 past-exam packs).

Team members showing team size

So how many books did we get out there? Here’s books distributed by quantity. That is, the number of books for which our outlets paid licenses and printed. There are three big spikes that are outliers: large bulk deals we initiated and closed working directly with schools and sponsors. These look lucrative, but the cost of making each sale was very high, so they were not necessarily profitable.

With hindsight, I would have liked to have measured the time our staff spent on each sale. It would range from zero for organic sales to dozens of hours for the large bulk sales. At about R100/hour for staff time (cost to company), even two full days on a bulk sale could wipe out our margin. Often they took more than that: finding beneficiary schools for a sponsor, analysing what students needed, meetings, handovers, and more.

So by late 2013 I did not push our team to seek out bulk sales and focused rather on strategies (like the #textbookrevolution campaign, see posts by Marie, Tarryn and me) to grow organic sales, which I believed would make for a healthier business in the long run.

Now compare revenue.


Let me take you through that:

  • For our first nine months (from May 2012 launch), most books on were free. That is, we charged no licence fee for our grade-12 past-exam packs or our classics. And at this stage we had very few books from commercial publishers in our catalogue. Downloads are satisfying (we didn’t know then what ‘high’ or ‘low’ would look like), but revenue is almost nil. We’re getting customers but no money.
  • We decide from January 2013 to start charging a licence fee (usually 1 to 2 US dollars) for each copy. Revenue goes up a little, albeit in bumpy fashion. But downloads almost vanish. That is, most of our users disappear, but we do, technically, make more money from those that remain. With hindsight, I want to think we started charging too soon. But I also know that if we’d waited, we may only have postponed discovering the sad truth about our original business model.
  • Faced with these now disappointing sales, we decide to go find some big customers. We send Yazeed on a sales course and he throws his time into finding sponsors to buy for schools in bulk. We get a few bites and by the second quarter of 2013 we think we’re onto something. I’m not yet thinking about what each sale is costing us in time, only that bulk sales may be the way we bring in cash while we grow. But our first few deals come through existing relationships, and we don’t up our game building new relationships. So we run out of good leads. By the third quarter of 2013 I realise how much it’s costing us in time, and therefore payroll, to find bulk sales. And I see that beneath the tall trees that are the bulk sales, there’s no mulch. No organic sales.
  • By early 2014 our sales look a little better. Perhaps our smarter marketing work is paying off, and we’re also finally selling popular study guides from major South African publishers. But it’s too little, too late for our original business model.

On to some web metrics. I don’t believe Paperight has ever been an online business. We’re part of the offline paper-book industry, and we just use the Internet to scale our footprint. We only realised this about ourselves in late 2012.

Nonetheless, I expected to see some correlation month to month between site visits and sales. However, we’ve never noticed any real correlation we can count on or plan around.

Unique visitors to

No metrics are more vain than Facebook likes and Twitter followers:

Facebook Likes and Twitter followers

We are hugely grateful for the moral support of thousands of people over the last two years, represented well in this graph of social-media supporters. And insofar as Paperight’s mission was to change the way people think about rights and book distribution, perhaps these followers represent success.

But as you can see, they have zero correlation with sales. I know that for our next phase, our big pivot, I won’t spend a heartbeat’s time trying to grow them.

That said, please keep supporting us anyway. It keeps our heads up when things are tough. We have a long way to go and much more to learn. We’ll keep sharing.

Project 16 : Team operational costs 2014: closing report

This project was to establish our basic infrastructure for the six months from September 2013 to February 2014. The plan was to:

  • Extend contracts of certain team members (marketing team salaries are covered in project pitch 17)
  • Provide for another sales team member and another intern
  • Cover various operational costs including rent, hosting, and others detailed in the budget below.

General report-back

We are closing this project early because it is not achieving what we set out to achieve.

This project was the base on which we hoped to get Paperight further along the road to self-sustainability after a third year of funding.

We planned in detail how we’d work as a team to generate revenue, mainly by supporting our marketing efforts, and each taking an active role in sales. Based on progress and our experience with publishers, outlets and end customers to date, we decided that we were most likely to be successful in focusing on the university textbook market.

By the end of this project, and despite our best efforts and our concept being well received by students and the public, our original business model did not work out. The key reasons were:

  • Publishers not signing on or taking far too long in their ongoing discussions with us
  • Poor customer service in most copy shops, meaning we could not get enough return customers.

We were not able to reach our targets and realised that we needed to change our core model, while remaining true to our mission to use a rights marketplace to help put every book within walking distance of every home.

Objectives achieved and not achieved

Our main objective was to generate more sales, achieving our sales targets and becoming self sustainable by early 2015. We did not achieve this. (See project 17 closing report for more detail on sales.)


We shifted our focus to marketing as far as possible. To varying degrees all of the Paperight team were involved in marketing and trying to create sales opportunities during the course of this pitch. The core marketing and sales team now consisted of:

  • Marie, our marketing co-ordinator (paid from project 17), created a marketing plan and strategy for Paperight going forward. Her drive was endless and she really did generate volumes of media recognition and public support. Despite her best efforts to generate public interest in purchasing our Paperight products and getting involved, she was limited by the available product offering and the lack of decent content being received from publishers.
  • Nick, our creative head (also paid from project 17), created outstanding design work. He assisted with grant applications, create guides for schools and sponsors on how to work with us, generated all our fliers, newsletters, book covers. Anything design related had Nick’s stamp on it.
  • Yazeed, our business development manager, enabled two large bulk sales and focused on schools and outlets and trying to encourage relationships and potential sales. He walked outlets through the purchasing process, followed and tracked all our sales.
  • Philippa, our content manager, focused on public-domain content, face-to-face outlet support, and on-campus marketing.
  • Oscar, our reading-communities manager, focused on content curation and creating relationships with lecturers at UCT, trying to encourage them to participate and use Paperight products as far as possible.
  • Shaun, our video-production intern, created great footage and finished video for Paperight during the three months that he worked for Paperight.
  • Tarryn, our COO and head of content, continued to build relationships with publishers, most importantly bringing in a range of matric study guides form SA’s top publishers. She also travelled to the Frankfurt Book Fair and won us the CONTEC startup award, which generated PR and industry credibility.

We facilitated bulk sales for:

  • Pelican Park High School
  • Minuteman Press, who sponsored books for Silverstream Secondary School
  • Mduduzi Ngidi Kwamakutha High School

Both of the schools that we sold books to or enabled sponsorships, improved their matric results. They were highly appreciative of having had access to textbooks in their time of need.

Additional achievements:

  • We won the FNB Innovation Index Award
  • We won the Contec Startup Showcase at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
  • We achieved a wide range of media coverage, in print, online, over the radio and in magazines
  • We signed up some major publishers (although not always their best content)
  • We finally registered as a vendor with Unisa, which took over a year.
  • Paperight is now trademarked in South Africa. We are almost complete in our US trademarking process and only need to prove that the mark is in use to complete the final part of our trademarking application.

Measures of success


Aim Result
We are hitting our revenue targets (i.e. our existing revenue targets as of end Feb) Not achieved.
We’ve reached 5000 students in 50 schools with books worth R500 000 Not achieved. We did not manage to build sales on the relationships we started with the Young Writers Anthology. We delivered books to approximately 600 students worth about R150 000.
2000 copies downloaded outside of CBDs We barely managed a fraction of this: after we started charging for exam packs, our sales outside of cities plummeted and did not grow again. We’ve recently made these documents free again, but it’s too early to say whether that will have an impact.
R2m in turnover contributed to South African businesses (including licenses to publishers and turnover at copyshops) Not achieved. We created about R75000 in copy shop turnover (including licence fees; R42000 excluding licence fees), and about R31000 (USD3100) in licence fees.
10 outlets are a pleasure to by a book at (customers want to come back and would tell their friends about it) We can confidently say four outlets are great to buy from: Sagittarius Printworks in PMB, The Office Crew in Strand, Aloe X in Grahamstown, and 3@1 Cavendish. We are reasonably certain that another dozen are good. The common factor is always an owner manager who runs the front desk personally. At the most disappointing outlets, managers seem to be in a back office or not present every day.
We expect to see that we’re over a quarter of the way to these targets. Not achieved.
We would like to be halfway to these targets. Not achieved.
We would love to see that we’re well over halfway to these targets. Not achieved.



Original budget: R 1 000 000.00
Actual spend: R 723 797.13
Returned to pool: R 276 202.87

Item Budget Actual Return to pool Comments
Laptop Marie 6500 6500 0
Laptop Philippa 6500 6500 0
External hardrive 2000 900 1100
Laptop sales manager 7000 0 7000
Laptop intern 7000 0 7000
Travel Yazeed 9000 0 9000
Travel sales manager 6000 0 6000
Data bundles Yazeed 1800 0 1800
Data bundles sales manager 1800 0 1800
3g dongle sales manager 500 0 500
Telephone telkom expense 10200 8342.45 1857.55
Telephone skype expense 1200 0 1200
Afrihost expense 7800 4185 3615
Mobile phone expense 600 0 600
Rent expense 120000 128958.39 -8958.39 Spent three additional months, March, April and May
Insurance 14940 5117 9823
Groceries and cleaning material 7860 7224.41 635.59
Paper for printing 1500 0 1500
Toner and ink 3570 750.12 2819.88
Binding machine 1000 0 1000
Rexel rotary trimmer 3000 0 3000
Domain registrations 5400 2404 2996
Freeagent subscriptions 1200 1951.46 -751.46 Spent three additional months, March, April and May
Dropbox subscription 2880 4120.77 -1240.77 Spent three additional months, March, April and May
Google apps subscription 4500 0 4500
PASA membership 6500 5931 569
SABA membership 3500 3300 200
Trovebox subscription 600 0 600
BEE annual certificate fees 3400 0 3400
COIDA 17825 13824.98 4000.02
Google email subscription 9000 0 9000
General accounting fees 36000 6919 29081
VAT returns 5400 0 5400
Year end accounting fees 20000 9633 10367
Provision for legal expense 7000 0 7000
Provision for trademarking expense 16000 0 16000
Fnb bank charges 6000 3599.04 2400.96
Paperight banners 1500 0 1500
Extra chairs for the office 3000 0 3000
Extra table for the office 5000 3800 1200
Bookshelf for accounts filing 500 3790 -3290 There was a desperate need for shelving for filing.
Router for the office 2200 2199 1
Staff workshops 3500 930 2570
Entertainment and meals 2000 3659.88 -1659.88 Spent three additional months, March, April and May
Docraptor monthly subscription 4800 1210.70 3589.30
Paperight monthly winner 4000 0 4000
Tarryn’s screen 1500 1500 0
Nick’s screen 700 700 0
Arthur’s screen 1500 1500 0
Philippa’s screen 700 700 0
Software hosting Paperight 51300 25650 25650
Business cards for employees 2250 0 2250
Dezre – Financial Manager 102000 143567.29 -41567.29 Spent three additional months, March, April and May. See note below.
Tarryn – Content manager 102000 153000 -51000 Spent three additional months, March, April and May. See note below.
Philippa – Content manager 60000 75238.10 -15328.10 Spent one month extra, see note below.
Intern 12000 0 12000
Intern audiovisual 15000 0 15000
Payroll expense 67590 9144.14 58445.86
Recruitment ads 1000 0 1000
Travel local 60000 0 60000
Travel international 25000 0 25000
Bank charges 4485 0 4485 bug fixes 16000 570 15430
Software development 75600 69027 6573
Courier expenses 900 488.22 411.78
Monthly meetings 3000 4500 -1500 Spent three additional months, March, April and May
TOTAL 1000000 723797.13 276202.87


Note: We overspent on some salaries and on some subscription items in this project by up to three months. Towards the end of the project period, I knew we’d be letting most of our team go and restructuring others. 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
New content (mostly reformatted public domain content) Paperight team Paperight
Market data (including textbook prescriptions database) Paperight team Paperight
Internal process documents (e.g. wiki and documents) Paperight team Paperight
Improvements to and new features on Paperight team Paperight



We and our many champions all firmly believe that distributed print-on-demand is a crucial part of putting every book within walking distance of every home.

We believe that there were three key challenges we didn’t overcome in the time we had. In no particular order:

  • We made some decisions about strategy and focus that didn’t work out.
  • Copy shop service wasn’t good enough, in general, to draw customers and keep them coming back.
  • Where publishers joined, they almost never gave us the books that mattered.

And the result was that we didn’t sell enough books to hit our targets. Here is more detail.

1. Strategy and focus

Our strategy and focus changed during the course this project.

Our initial focus for September, October and November:

Our main metric was turnover from sales in dollars. We maintained our growing targets till October last year, but slipped dramatically since November. At the end of January, for the first time, we slipped below our cumulative ‘Mort’ figure, the minimum target for staying on track to self-sustainability.

Focus for December, January and February:

Our sales were very low over this period. We decided to shift our focus to our February/March 2014 university-centred promotional campaign, headlined #textbookrevolution. All available resources and staff were now focused on this campaign. The shift in focus was also part of our planning for the year ahead and to encourage social change in the publishing industry.

The focus of the #textbookrevolution campaign was 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.

Our campaign involved 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; doing lots of PR work; and organising a Twitter debate on the high price of textbooks. This is all outlined in more detail in the marketing closing report 17A and 17B.

The campaign itself was a great success. The response from students at Stellenbosch and UCT was great. 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 established that students are highly sensitised to the issue of high textbook prices. We reached more students in the 20 hours we spent on campuses than we would have in months online. The lesson that we learnt here 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).

Focus for March, April and May:

We finally concluded, under the weight of years of anecdotal evidence and topped off with a full day in a top Stellenbosch copy shop, that customer service in most copy shops is atrocious. This is a major blow to our business model. I’d long worked on the assumption that 80% of stores would offer good service (or care about offering good service and aim for that actively), and 20% would be bad. I’ve now come to believe the opposite is true. As a result, under our current model we will never consistently create return customers. And without return customers, we could never hit the growth rates we need in order to sustain our current overheads.

We tried hard to train outlets, but managers consistently gatekeep or just did not work with us. We would only be able to tackle this problem in the long term by owning or franchising the outlets ourselves, which is beyond the scope of the project.

As a result, I decided to cut my team, and drastically cut costs. We decided to see whether there are new licencing opportunities for Paperight to explore during the last months of my fellowship.

Before the team went their separate ways, they each contributed to the Paperight story at This has greatly helped us to find a clearer understanding of why Paperight did not succeed in the way that we wanted to and when we wanted it to.

We realise that we need to accept that the industry is not ready for our model just yet and that it is going to take time to initiate change.  Even establishing a relationship with Unisa took a full year before we could even become a supplier on their database. We still believe that there is a need for Paperight, and it would be ideal if we could keep Paperight alive while this gradual change is taking place.

Adding our stories to allowed us to also reflect on not only our difficulties that we experienced, but all our achievements, the obstacles that we did overcome in the industry, the contributions that we made to schools in the form of sponsorships and our small contribution towards literacy and inspirtng young writers in our Anthology project.

The team was reduced by the end of March 2014 to three core team members: our COO Tarryn, Financial Manager Dezre and myself. Between the three of us we plan to guide Paperight through its next phase of publishing our Paperight story.

  1. Copy shop service levels

We focused on outlets in Stellenbosch and near UCT and many hours were spent training them both in person and over the phone. Despite this, we still found that we needed to assist them with their purchases. Despite much introspection, know that the difficulties were not related to bad UX on our site, because many other outlets had used the service flawlessly without training.

We also found out that many customers had cancelled their orders due to the length of time that the copy shops took to get back to them. (We ourselves waited almost two weeks on two occasions for books we ordered from Top Copy, a leading copy shop near our office.) We also had a number of phone calls where customers were upset because they had gone to a copy shop only to be turned away because the copy shop didn’t sell books. There were misunderstandings and lack of communication between staff. Strangely, copy shops often behaved as though Paperight was an inconvenience to their business model. They did not like to make changes, and were not always enthusiastic about being able to offer a new service.

We also sent some mystery shoppers to outlets in Stellenbosch and from their experience we don’t think that they would become return customers.

Types of problems that we have experienced with outlets include

  • Needing extensive training before being able to use Paperight
  • Needing repeated training due to inexperience, staff changes, long intervals between initial training and real time sales, and a lack of tech savvy staff.
  • Outlets not being motivated to advertise or actively sell Paperight books.
  • Some outlets were not motivated to even assist Paperight customers which was strange considering that they signed up as outlets.
  • Outlets were confused as to how to identify a Paperight customer.
  • Outlets battled to find the products that they wanted on our website when choosing among a range of similarly-named titles like exam packs. (We are aware that this is a problem we could probably do more to solve.)
  • If a customer ordered more than one book or even a series of exam papers, outlets often panicked and it became a struggle to assist them with the order.
  • They often battled with the book downloading process. For any of a number of reasons not limited but including:
    • viruses on their computer,
    • not knowing where their downloaded documents save to,
    • not understanding whether to select A4 or A5 one-up or two-up layouts (something we have been actively simplifying),
    • changing their internet security settings
    • slow internet speeds
    • mistakenly downloading the sample version and not the full book
    • not scrolling down the screen to click on the download now button and waiting for something to happen
    • using download-accelerator plugins that break when attempting secure downloads like ours.
  • Some outlets wanted full catalogues in order to know what books were on offer for their customers, others said that the catalogue was dense and not user friendly. (We have since produced a better catalogue.)
  • Some outlets allowed customers to view the books online and other outlets expected the customers to know beforehand what they wanted.
  • Many outlet owners and managers are nervous to hand over the use of the Paperight site to their employees. Some have said they are worried about staff abusing the site by using the same .pdf more than once. Others feel that staff can’t be trusted with the store’s Paperight credit balance. We have tried to find ways of reassuring them, but this is ultimately an issue of trust in their businesses that we can’t address.
  • Some outlets were reluctant to top-up until they had a sale. They then needed to top-up while making their sale and this added extra time pressure. We also assume some customers were not prepared to wait.
  • Some outlets after months of training and explanations still make a top up by simply depositing cash into our bank account and assuming that this will turn into credits. They do not phone, or even send an email that they have made a deposit. We can usually identify the outlet from the payment reference.
  • Some of our larger outlets who are more experienced printers, and we think are more likely to offer a great Paperight service, have incredibly fast staff turnover among shopfloor managers.
  • There is a general problem with staff not being aware that their outlet is signed up with Paperight.
  • Not reading our newsletter that we send out showing off new and valuable content.
  • Some managers tend to be disappointed in the lack of customers who just walk in and ask for Paperight. There is a sense of entitlement that Paperight should ensure they have the customers and that they should not have to do promotional work in store.
  • A few outlets have complained that they have been unable to contact us when they need us. They claim that our phone is mostly engaged. We addressed this by installing two extra lines (which since gone back to one line to save costs).
  • Copy shops are not consistent in the printing delivery time, even from the same copy shop. We know of orders that have taken from a 20 minutes to 2 weeks to complete from start to finish.
  • There were one or two copy shops who were not sure whether the download licence purchase was once off or for every book printed. This came up in training with Wizardz, where we discovered that they had reprinted the same PDF (we know because these were orders we placed with them ourselves).

These were common problems, but there were bright spots, outlets who are really engaged and love working with us. Our favourite is Sagittarius Print Works in Pietermaritzburg, where the owner Shahana Maharaj works hard to promote her Paperight-related services at local schools and in her area (e.g. putting flyers in all the post boxes at her post office, and taking order forms to schools).


The core business model that this project supported is not sustainable. It might be sustainable if we can keep all the costs and the team as low as possible, until revenue picks up, content is increased and the public becomes more aware of our products. Until then we are also looking to new business models, particularly around copy licensing, which is a much closer fit to existing publisher and institutional activities.


We did not achieve our big audacious goals, but we have made a noticeable impact on the publishing industry, and opened minds around greater access to books. We have inspired businesses to become more openness-minded, too. For instance, we’re a featured company in a new book published by Palgrave Macmillan. We have positively affected the lives of at least 300 children, many of whose matric exam results we know were improved over those in the prior year. We encouraged literacy and discussions about literacy in South Africa.

Paperight will continue in a new fashion, certainly much leaner. This is only the end of a chapter, not the book.

Next steps

As a step to reducing running costs, Paperight will be managed by Electric Book Works as one of its flagships projects and our focus over the next couple of months will be on photocopy licensing and testing reception to an open prescribed-textbooks database, starting with a full catalogue of prescribed texts at UCT.

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.

An inclusive business model

Paperight combines increased opportunities for publishers and entrepreneurs alike, as well as affordable and inclusive access to educational material.

Over time, we developed a handy list of Paperight’s benefits for use in promotional materials and award applications.

Paperight creates long-term benefits by

  • Boosting literacy and education by making books genuinely accessible
  • Creating simple and low cost entrepreneurial opportunities for individuals
  • Boosting existing printing and publishing businesses, by giving them additional products, increasing the value of the printing services that they provide by giving them access to publishers and book printing and providing them with marketing materials
  • Expanding publishers access to poorer and a wider range consumers, over a larger market area, 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 book shortages for publishers, universities and the individuals who are in remote areas.
  • Bringing the world of books to anyone’s doorstep: rich or poor, rural or urban helping to create equal education opportunities
  • 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, while redesigning the product in order to be sustainable
  • Increased livelihood opportunities by extending the business model to include the poor.
  • 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, expanding access to educational materials
  • Creating employment opportunities through growing copy shops
  • Building market value by giving copy shops a wider range of books and access to international products at an affordable price, thereby giving them a competitive advantage.

Intermittent accounting

In December 2012 I moved our accounting system over from FreeAgent to FNB Instant Accounting. The reason for the change was to have a better system for managing our books and monitoring our project spending. The main reasons for choosing FNB Instant Accounting were:

  1. The easy importing of banking transactions (automated for most accounts)
  2. The service is free of charge (we are banking with FNB)
  3. The possibility to create multiple sub-ledger accounts (to assist with monitoring project spending).

Getting started wasn’t as quick and easy as we thought it would be. We had some teething issues. As a secondary user on the banking profile with only viewing abilities it wasn’t straightforward to set up. Only the primary account user can see and access the information. This was resolved by creating a secondary user who would then be able to access and use the accounting system. Unfortunately after that the primary user and main account holder, Arthur Attwell, could not access to his own FNB Instant Accounting profile. To date this has not been sorted out.

One of the nice features that FNB Instant Accounting has is the ability to automatically assign transactions to general ledgers using rules. FNB starts assigning some of your banking transactions for you that it recognises before you even start. These include banking charges, telephone expenses and so on. This would have been lovely feature to use. However, we needed to keep track of transactions per project and therefore needed to manually allocate transactions to their various related sub-ledger accounts. I had repeated instances in the early stages where I had disabled the rules and FNB re-enabled them again. After contacting  FNB to have this feature disabled it was fixed by the end of  March 2013.

One thing that I have found incredibly frustrating is the length of time that it takes for the program to load a transaction, refresh and update the data. The pages just hang and it takes ages to capture one manual transaction after another. You can only press save once otherwise you end up with duplicate transactions that you then need to create multiple reverse entries against. For those of us who can multi-task and have two separate screens to work on, this is not too much of a problem. Most of the time this means that the transaction has been captured but it’s best to double check.

Fortunately I had no need to capture invoices in Instant Accounting so I have not experienced issues here. If you need to keep track of debtors and creditors there are some useful discussions available for managing your accounts and VAT returns in Instant Accounting.

More issues that I experienced were with a split transaction that become corrupted while Instant Accounting froze. This meant that I ended up with a trial balance that didn’t balance.  This was resolved with the help of support. After this the bank balance did not match the actual bank balance.  Since I was not able to add or remove transactions that are automatically imported, support was needed to assist here as well. The support team did not let me know when they had made changes and what changes they had made.  These turned out to be wrong and so I needed to go back and advise them again. Since then, they have made an effort to let me know what changes they have made.

I logged into Instant Accounting … only to realise that I was logged into another unrelated company’s profile

One day in January 2013 I logged into Instant Accounting and was pleasantly surprised to see that our income had dramatically increased – only to realise that I was logged into another unrelated company’s profile: Women in Finance. Unfortunately this also meant that I could not access our own accounting profile. I forwarded screen shots to FNB to prove that I was in the wrong accounting profile and they changed  my profile back to having access to Paperight’s financial data.

Trying to find transactions and view historical data is not that great. To search for an amount, you need to know the exact amount you are looking for in order to pick the transaction. Trying to view historical data can be time consuming. FNB Instant Accounting decides for you what you want to search for. Even if you select the previous financial year and select to view all transactions it will still search for transactions within the current year. You then have to clear the filter items it has chosen and start the search again.

The most recent issues experienced were the scroll option no longer working for selecting ledger accounts. It was recommended that I use a different web browser. Later on I was not able to access my ledger accounts at all. Each time I tried to access them Instant Accounting would freeze and log me out. It turned out that I had too many ledger accounts and was asked to delete some of them in order to continue working.

All in all I have been much happier using FNB Instant Accounting than FreeAgent, Wave Accounting or Omni. As long as you don’t need a program that works quickly (especially in the mornings) their system works okay for entrepreneurs and start-ups. Most of the bugs mentioned have since been fixed.

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 inside story of our experiment in distributed print-on-demand