• Table of contents

    • [+]Preliminaries (3)
    • [+]Introduction (4)
    • [+]Latin America (13)
    • [+]Sub-Saharan Africa (9)
    • [+]Arab World (11)
    • [+]Russia (11)
    • [+]India (11)
    • [+]China (9)
    • [—]Conclusions (6)
    • [+]Appendix (1)



Technological infrastructure

From the point of view of technology, there are four prime movers that continually crop up: POD, online platforms, e-readers – and tablets – and mobile phones.

POD, which is relatively strong in Latin America, is less widespread in sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world, in spite of the important advance this tool might represent in countries with few bookstores and a fragile distribution system. It would be wise to act in various directions here, all of them exploratory:

1) In some cities, it will be necessary to evaluate the prospect of installing POD terminals in bookstores, libraries and educational centres. The only way to finance such an initiative will be through the public sector or contributions from foundations, since, in commercial terms, the investment is unlikely to be recovered. Given that operating these machines requires specific know-how, print workers already active locally should be factored into the equation. It is extremely complex a priori to draw up a plan that might prove useful in all cases, so it would be a good idea to first map the cities and institutions that could house a system with these characteristics and measure the feasibility of such an initiative according to the quality of the actors present. However, there are considerable challenges to be resolved, namely: What price will the books be sold at? Who will be paid for these sales? How will royalties be paid? How will files be protected?

2) Another possibility is to work with less conventional POD models, such as the one proposed by Paperight in South Africa. In this case, it will be necessary to wait a few months to measure the impact of the original project. The experience will even serve to provide answers to the questions raised in the previous option. At any rate, these open issues can be dealt with in the training and networking projects we will describe in the following section.

3) To supply content for the different POD alternatives it will be vital for local publishers to have electronic versions of the material contained in their books, as well as the respective metadata. Since publishers in sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world do not always possess these files, it will be necessary to carry out digitization campaigns that make use of various allies already in the field – such as university IT departments, which in some cities are the only institutions equipped with scanners. Obviously, the files will be of use not only for POD but for many other variants too.

4) POD also means the possibility of marketing books on a global scale, but without the shipping costs usually associated with exports. In this way, Indian, Guatemalan or Gabonese publishers will be able to sell their titles in the US or Europe by employing the services of companies that print copies on demand in those countries. Of course, this attractive alternative is not without its own technical and commercial challenges: for instance, in addition to the problem of having the right files, how will these publishers from the South receive payment for sales? Indeed the big aggregators do not usually deal with bank drafts to the developing world, but rather with transfers to the US or Europe, or at the very most with cheques – which publishers from the South will have difficulty cashing. Here it would be advisable to work on a pilot plan with the members of the International Alliance of Independent Publishers whereby the Alliance could open a bank account in Europe and another in the US in which any royalties can be deposited. Final payment to publishers can then be made in batches, every 6 months, through Western Union, local transfers or other systems yet to be explored. If the plan works, then it will be possible to include other publishers and set up a more standardized system.

As far as online platforms are concerned, other than exceptions such as DC Books in India, the most dynamic examples are provided by local software or video games companies rather than traditional actors from the book sector. Except for in the case of China, these sites from the developing world tend to be supplied by foreign aggregators (in particular from the US, the UK and Spain), since obtaining autochthonous content is an arduous task.

It will be necessary to work in two directions here:

1) To encourage networking between virtual stores and aggregators in the developing world.

2) To accelerate the distribution of local content on the part of existing aggregators, both national and global.

The first point could be included in the training activities we will detail shortly. The second aspect can be effectively addressed by the digitization of content for publication, also necessary for POD. Of course other challenges arise here too, such as defining which format documents should be kept in – ePub, PDF, mobi, etc. As a general rule, publishers should retain the original layout file – in InDesign, Quark or Scribus, for example –; if they don’t have one, they should at least try to keep a PDF or high definition images of each page. These basic rules can also be studied during the training sessions.

In countries where online stores or digital aggregators do not exist as yet, proposals are often made for various publishers to come together to create joint platforms. Given the technical and commercial complexities that would be involved in such a system, we believe that for the time being the most reasonable option would be to work with existing platforms, from both the South and North, and negotiate conditions that are fair and sustainable: in fact, these aggregators are so thirsty for content that it would not be impossible to obtain extremely advantageous terms for publishers. In addition, the proposal to collect royalties in a centralized manner can also be implemented here. Rather than creating joint platforms, it would be imperative to help publishers from the South who want to sell or disseminate their publications abroad to at least set up a web page. For this purpose it may be possible to provide free templates – for WordPress or Joomla, among many other options – and tutorials to facilitate their installation. In any case, we will return to these topics further on.

In the field of e-readers and tablets, China and Russia lead global production. There as well as in India and Brazil – countries that have also ventured into this terrain – autochthonous devices usually offer numerous advantages over imported models such as the Kindle or the iPad:

1) First of all, they are sometimes more economical thanks to savings on shipping and customs charges.

2) Also, they are generally designed with the local population in mind; thus, for example, some devices come with an interface in regional languages, something that devices from the North do not cater for.

3) In addition, they usually offer a permanent connection to platforms also from the country, which demonstrate better judgement when it comes to setting prices and choosing texts that are attractive to local readers.

It would be interesting here to explore zones of collaboration between countries of the South that have made great progress in the hardware industry and others that lack this knowledge but whose abundant production of content means that sooner or later they will inevitably manufacture devices adapted to the local reality. As some interviewees have pointed out, it would not be realistic to expect all developing countries to produce their own e-readers one day, but it would help to at least show them that the US and Japan are not the only – or even the main – manufacturers. As a result, hardware companies in Mexico, Colombia and Argentina may well be inspired by the experience of countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China, which face similar challenges.

As we have seen, one area with great potential in all regions is the mobile phone network. India, China and South Africa are leading the vanguard and local entrepreneurs sometimes demonstrate know-how comparable to that of other actors from Europe or the US. Given that in most developing countries there have so far been relatively few experiences involving the distribution of literature via mobile phones, the actors from these regions have a lot to learn from the explorations carried out in India, China and South Africa.

There is still a great deal left to explore, with regard to both formats and business models, but the opportunities in this area are extraordinary, for various reasons:

1) Mobile phones are an existing platform with high penetration throughout the social pyramid.

2) In many countries of Africa, mobile phones already incorporate electronic payment systems, giving publishers a privileged commercial platform.

3) The mobile phone network is particularly beneficial for local publishers, since international companies that wish to use it to distribute content must first go through regional languages, and the option of translating foreign texts will prove too bothersome for them and not always lucrative. Local publishers, on the other hand, have the formidable advantage of being on the ground and in contact with authors that publish in that same language, in addition to being much more familiar with the public’s needs.


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