For those of you who either weren’t there or don’t happen to be familiar with it, the Startup Showcase that took place during last week’s Tools of Change (TOC) Conference in New York was something of a mini-entrepreneurial competition between 10 different publishing-related startup companies. As TOC explains on its website, the competition is designed to “[give] groundbreaking startups a chance to show their stuff to the world.”

At various times throughout the three-day TOC conference, attendees were encouraged to wander throughout the hotel’s seventh floor ballroom, where the chosen startups were explaining their business models and demonstrating their products and services to what was at times a very crowded room full of digital publishing professionals.

Three of those 10 startups were ultimately chosen as winners, with a fascinating South African company known as Paperight taking home the competition’s Entrepreneurial Award.

Paperight’s tagline, “Turn your copy shop into a book shop,” is pretty much a perfect explanation of the service the company offers. As Paperight’s founder, the Cape Town-based Arthur Attwell (pictured above), explained during a TOC panel discussion he shared with Worldreader‘s Michael Smith:

South Africa is like two different countries: about 2 million wealthy people who support the publishing industry (excluding schools publishing, where the state is the largest client by far), and about 48 million people who could never afford an ereader, don’t have credit cards to buy things online, or can’t afford to physically travel to a bookstore. So to make it possible for most people to read books, we need to totally rethink how we sell books. And that’s going to take some disruptive innovations.

Exactly. And the disruptive innovation Attwell and his company eventually executed was both forehead-slappingly obvious and totally brilliant, both at the same time. He realized that while most poor South Africans don’t have access to a bookstore, the vast majority of them do live within walking distance of a photocopy shop. (Copy shops, for reasons I won’t pretend to understand, are ubiquitous in developing countries.)

Atwell had countless meetings, I’m assuming, with publishing companies and copy shops in and around South Africa. And as of now, Paperight has more than 145 active outlets signed on to its program, which means those 145 shops have effectively become print-on-demand hubs.

Each copy shop in the Paperight program, in other words, has a specific book list—a digitized inventory of books that are stored on its computer. Customers pay the copy shop for a specific title, which is then literally printed on one of the store’s photocopying machines. The books are sold are a relatively low rate, but thanks to some creative problem solving and number-crunching on the part of Atwell, the publishers involved in the operation are still able to recoup their costs and make their necessarily profits. (Click here to see a simple pie-chart explanation of how the Paperight model is able to financially sustain both itself and the publishers it works with.)

The physical appearance of the printed books, Atwell explained during his TOC talk, is very similar to the sort of photocopied study packets with comb binding that university students are often required to purchase. (See photo, above-left, for a visual approximation.)

Atwell likes to refer to the South Africa copy shops he works with as “print-on-demand factories.” And for the 65 percent of South Africans who have no Internet access, and therefore no access to e-books—not to mention those who live nowhere near a traditional bookstore—print-on-demand factories are exactly what many of these little shops have become.

“So far,” as Atwell writes on his personal blog, “we have 40 publishers on the [Paperight] platform, and over 1400 books. And we’re selling books in places where no bookstores have ever existed.”

To learn more about Paperight—a company that is literally changing lives in Sub-Saharan Africa (they also have at least one outlet in Ghana, with plans to partner with more copy shops in Northwest Africa)—visit their blog, here.


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