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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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So how did we do?

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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4 thoughts on “Paperight and beyond: learning from disappointment”

  1. Interesting reading this. I published a book on the business of the music industry in 2010 that I KNEW had a vast market. While I was SELLING the physical book, it was slow, if consistent going. In 3 years, I sold about 1 700 physical copies, exhausting my print run. I then decided to put it up as a free pdf download on my website at the beginning of 2014. Since then I am sitting at about 2 500 downloads… The gap betwen paid and free is indeed vast!

  2. I find this article interesting. And I feel there is a correlations between free and sustainable openness. Let the 10% of the market pay for the 90% in the market, just make sure that the 90% demand does not increase and distort the equilibrium. Other mechanism need to be develop that forces the market share in the 90% (the non paying customer) to become part of the (10%) the paying customer.
    — Change the reading culture (very good approach)
    At the long run free is still good business all that need to be done is to discover the customer that would pay the bills of the unpaying customer and make sure to strike the balance .

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