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A Dashing Undertaking

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PUBLISHED OCTOBER 2016

by Author Atwell, co-founder & director, Fire and Lion


Arthur Atwell

I like to imagine that I’m a pharmaceutical rep who is selling a drug proven to dramatically enhance brain development in young children. It’s safe, easy, and quick to administer—in fact, children love it so much, they ask for it.

Until now, only wealthy families have been able to afford the drug. Until now, it cost about R6 per day, which is over R10,000 by the age of five. But now we’ve found a way to reduce that cost tenfold to less than 56 cents a day (that’s $0.05 in US dollars). And we reckon it’s time that, as a country, we started giving it to poor families to give their kids a boost.

That drug, of course, is a book. And we’ve found a way that just 56 cents a day can buy a child 100 books by the age of five. That’s also our vision at nonprofit organization Book Dash. What we want for the world: Every child should own 100 books by the age of five.

Our books are produced by teams of professional writers, illustrators, and designers, volunteering their time to create new children’s books that anyone, anywhere, is free to download and adapt, translate, print, republish, sell, or give away.

When you print 5,000 copies or more of a book, it costs less than R10 a book. I’ll explain how we’re making that possible, and why it’s important and special.

Sindi buzzes with colourful songs and dance. Will start school end all that? Created at Book Dash on Nov. 7, 2015, by Wesley van Eeden (illustrator), Zanele Dlamini (writer) and Thokozani Mkhize (designer).

But first, why do I think it’s necessary to create and give away free paper books? Surely the publishing industry is growing the market. Surely e-book technology is solving our problems.

I’m a book publisher, and I worked in big educational publishing companies for many years. And I happen to have an especially strong love-hate relationship with technology. I’m a keen technologist; I live and breathe technology, and yet I think technology is our age’s greatest distraction to real progress, and our biggest money waster.

Back in 2006, I left my corporate publishing job, sold my little red sports car, and struck out with some friends to start Electric Book Works, a small agency where I wanted to reimagine publishing for emerging markets, using technology sensibly and humbly.

South Africa is very different from the places we inherited our publishing industry from—the UK and US in particular. We inherited their royalty schemes, bookshop relationships, price points, technologies, and job descriptions. But our languages, our histories, our physical spaces, our ambitions, and our daily lives are different.

So the book publishing industry, as it stands, doesn’t really work here. And by “really work,” I mean it has not and cannot make books a part of everyone’s lives.

Over the years, I’ve tried dozens of experiments to tackle this problem: I’ve published e-books with musical soundtracks (they didn’t catch on), a self-publishing service, and a youth magazine. My biggest recent project was Paperight, where we were funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation to turn copy shops into print-on-demand bookstores. And our longest-running project is Bettercare, which creates learning programs for nurses that anyone can use online for free.

The point is to keep trying something else, anything that isn’t the usual way of doing things, because the usual way has left our country with very few, very expensive books.

After all my experimenting, I’ve come to believe that there are no market solutions to growing a book-loving nation. For most South Africans, books are a luxury they can’t afford—not when food and clothing is already hard to come by.

I don’t know what I want to be when O grow up. Can you help me choose? Created at Book Dash Cape Town on March 5, 2016, by Simone van der Spuy (illustrator), Michele Fry (writer), and Jennifer Jacobs (designer).

Recent research from UCT’s Unilever Institute showed that most families in South Africa live on less than R6,000 ($440 USD) a month. They regularly turn off the fridge before the end of the month—they’re out of electricity, and there’s no food in it anyway. Many of them skip meals toward the end of the month. It’s mad to think they’ll ever be able to buy books, at any price.

The only way to grow readers is the hard way: We simply must give away vast numbers of free books to young children.

And this isn’t some idealistic, third-world charity idea. In the UK, for eight years already, every school-going child has been given free books on World Book Day. Why do our children deserve any less?

I’m not the only one who wants to give away free books: Many great organizations are trying to do the same. The Shine Centre and Biblionef are shining examples. But they have to buy expensive books from publishers to do it, and there are very, very few books available that are new, high-quality stories created here, with scenes and characters our children recognize, in languages they speak, and beautiful enough to love for a lifetime.

Why are books like this so rare and expensive? Well, traditional publishing is an expensive process.

When you pay, say, R100 for a book in a bookstore, you’re paying for writing, development, editing, design, proofreading, the to-and-fro of disks and paper, project management, marketing, sales, printing, e-book conversion, shipping, warehousing, wastage, the retailer’s cut, returns of unsold books, the publisher’s profit, and VAT. And in between each of those pieces, there is a lot of expensive time wasting.

This process is expensive, requires rare professional skills, and takes a long time. The average book-production process, after writing is complete, is about six months.

Neo’s father is an inventor. When he invents a helicopter hat and flies away, Neo decides to make an invention of her own. Created at Book Dash Cape Town on March 5, 2016, by Thea Nicole de Klerk (illustrator), Sam Wilson (writer), and Chenel Ferreira (designer).

It’s also hugely competitive, especially in children’s books. This all makes publishing very risky. It’s almost impossible to make back your investment as a South African children’s book publisher, especially when you’re up against imported books that were created in London or New York and shipped all over the world in massive quantities.

Most children’s books published in South Africa are effectively cross-subsidized by textbook sales to government schools. This is why there are so few South African children’s books. And why so few are in African languages. In 2013, the latest year we have stats for, of R312 million in local trade publishing revenue, only R1.7 million, or 0.5 percent, came from books in our nine official African languages.

But here’s an interesting thing about the cost of book publishing: Book publishing is 90 percent air and wages. What I mean is that if you were to squeeze it like a sponge, removing all the air (time and delay) and the wages, you could still make beautiful books, but for a fraction of the cost, in a fraction of the time. The trick is knowing how and what to squeeze.

So to start Book Dash, we asked professional writers, illustrators, designers, and editors to volunteer their time to create new, high-quality, African children’s books.

First, we put them in teams. Each team has a writer, an illustrator, and a designer, and 12 hours to create one book. Usually the writers have developed an idea for their story in advance, and the illustrators have thrown together some concept sketches. Expert editors then work with each team to help refine their story. We also bring in art directors and tech support, in a great venue, with great food and lots of coffee.

The room buzzes with creative energy and inspiration. We call it the Comrades Marathon of creativity, not just for the long, hard day, but for the incredible solidarity it produces.

Before our first Book Dash, I was secretly worried about the quality of the books we’d get. But what we found was astonishing: The books are so good, and so beautiful. Committed volunteers really bring their best, because they know this is a rare chance to do something special.

Also, real-time teamwork knits the writing, illustration, and design together powerfully—something that’s almost impossible in lengthy, traditional publishing workflows. One of our volunteer editors, who works by day for big publishing companies, said that this is how all children’s books should be created: with the creators sitting around a table together thrashing out every spread.

Most importantly, all our work is our gift to the world. Everything is open-licensed on the day so that anyone afterward can download, translate, print, and distribute it.

Shongololo has lost his shoes, and the other animals are not being very helpful. Will he ever find them? Crated at Book Dash Cape Town, March 5, 2016, by Marteli Kleyn (designer), Megan Lotter (illustrator), and Jacqui L’Ange (writer).

Already our books are being reused in print and digital forms around South Africa and beyond. Nal’ibali, the national reading campaign, has reused and translated our books in their newspaper story supplements, and they contribute those translations back to us. The African Storybook Project (which has sponsored two Book Dashes before) has republished and translated them for use online in several African countries. And we’re working with FunDza and Worldreader to put them on mobile phones here and around the world.

To date, we’ve hosted six Book Dashes in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban and created 50 unique titles. We’ve used crowdfunding, funding partnerships, and corporate sponsorship to print and distribute 104,502 books since our inception two and a half years ago. Sixty thousand of those books have been given to nonprofits, ECD centres, and other literacy organizations across the country completely free of charge, thanks to generous funding from The Solon Foundation, The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, Lauren Beukes, Nando’s, SAIDE, African Storybook Project, and the Geothe Institut. When we give books away, we go and meet some of the children and give them books in person. There’s nothing more wonderful for me than to give a book to a three-year-old and see them dash to a corner, open it up, and start reading.

After all my experimenting, that’s the result I’ve been looking for. And I look forward to the day those children grow up and take our publishing industry to places we can only dream of.


Arthur Attwell is a serial adventurer in publishing innovation. He is a cofounder and director at Fire and Lion, a long-form storytelling agency. His ventures include the Electric Book Works publishing lab; health care publisher Bettercare; Book Dash children’s books; and Paperight, an award-winning experiment in distributed print-on-demand. He is a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow.

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