Books and Publishing in South Africa: A publisher’s journey to tech and back | Holger Ehling Worldwide Blog 2014-08-05


"In 2005, I left a big-publishing job and, without knowing it, set out on a mission to reimagine publishing for emerging markets. Since then I’ve worked on dozens of innovative technology projects, from creating musical ebooks to teaching maths on tablets. And now, after nine years hacking through the technology jungle, I’m a bigger believer than ever in the power of paper. This is the text of a talk about that, originally delivered at U3A in Greyton near Cape Town ... Here are some of the things we tried. [1] We made ebooks for publishers at loss-making margins to try to spur demand, and did lots of training of their staff: but we had to do it at very low margins because publishers needed to avoid spending money on what was really R&D. [2] We developed super lean production processes in creating a service that helped authors self-publish books, providing high quality design and international print and ebook distribution: but authors underestimated what it costs to create a book and we couldn’t make it viable. [3] We created ebooks with soundtracks, to test whether buyers would pay for more than just the story, but they didn’t. Perhaps bandwidth was too low to make the big files popular, and many popular ereaders didn’t support the technology standards we had to use. Perhaps people didn’t care. [4] We let nurses read our healthcare books and do quizzes and earn certificates online: but nurses couldn’t get to computers and didn’t have email addresses or credit cards for registering on our site. [5] We helped South Africa’s biggest media companies with their ebook plans, but just couldn’t mount a real challenge to Amazon, and we suspect that four years later they’re still not making a profit. In many of these cases we were too early for the market, and that’s okay. We learned many valuable lessons and I don’t regret that. The biggest lesson was that by reaching for technological solutions to problems, most of the time you just create a new set of problems. Technology is no panacea. Importantly, none of these innovations really spurred more reading among those who hadn’t bought books before. Maybe 45 million South Africans, ninety per cent of us. We were just making more products for the wealthy, and leaving everyone else behind. Meanwhile, the digital divide, between the Internet haves and have-nots, kept getting worse as the lure of technology drew in more and more institutions, leading them to provide digital products for the wealthy, and to stop providing paper products that the poor once shared in. [1] Encyclopaedia Britannica went out of print – so you won’t find an up-to-date printed encyclopaedia in libraries ever again. [2] Maps went online. [3] UNISA took its postgrad courses online. [4] Combined with a lack of imagination in the industry, piracy (copying and online) continued to make textbooks so expensive that poor students go without.  [5] And digital became so sexy that even though paper still accounts for the lion’s share of the market, almost everyone has rushed to spend R&D money on digital, and have stopped innovating around paper.  It took several years for me to realise that the innovation we needed in South Africa would not come from a new, first-world technology. Adopting new technologies requires disposable income and the space and time to learn new things, and human beings are stingy and don’t change quickly ..."


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Tags: oa.comment oa.books oa.publishing oa.south_africa oa.presentations oa.south

Date tagged:

08/05/2014, 09:44

Date published:

08/05/2014, 05:44