Cape Town print-on-demand specialist Paperight has been hitting university campuses for the new academic year, hoping to convince students to adopt its low cost publishing system for textbooks. Through its Textbook Revolution campaign, it says it can save the student body en masse over R1bn a year.

The Paperight system is simple. The firm has put together a library of books and magazines which it has the rights to distribute digitally, and has printers installed in copy shops all over the country. Customers can choose a book, get it printed there and then, and walk away having saved all of the overheads which bookstores normally incur through logistics and storage.

While it was designed specifically for countries like South Africa, where the high price of importing books makes them prohibitively expensive for many people, in the last year Paperight scooped awards in the UK, US, Germany and Italy for its tech and vision.

Now, says founder Arthur Attwell, the firm has its eyes set on universities. Students, he says, are even harder hit than most when it comes to paying for books – which they must, of course, own. The entire system needs shaking up, he says.

“Current monopolies often allow only one business to sell textbooks on campus,” Attwell explains. “Those monopolies are sealed by hard-won legal contracts. In the case of UNISA, only a small selection of bookstores are allowed to be mentioned by lecturers in guidance to students. So no UNISA lecturer is allowed to tell their students they can save hundreds of rand at Paperight copy shops, for instance. If it were up to me, I’d call these monopolies collusion. They’re certainly deeply anti-competitive. We want anyone to be able to sell textbooks to students right where they are, so that students can get the best deal.”

Attwell says that even in this day and age of digital services like iTunes U and Kindle-type digital distribution, there’s still a need for access to old-fashioned print at a reduced cost. While many courses now require students to own laptops or tablets, the idea that the majority of students have access to such tech is an “upper-class myth”.

“Digital is great for those who can afford the overheads: device, data, electricity, credit-cards for puchases, insurance, maybe WIFI at home,” he says, “And that market’s well taken care of by other players. We’re trying to fill the massive gap they leave – by far the majority of South African students, who just need to be able to buy a textbook today, on paper, with cash or bursary vouchers.”

While Paperight has managed to secure licensing deals for textbooks suitable for the new CAPS curriculum at basic education level, one issue with distribution on campuses that remains is that it doesn’t have agreements that cover all required reading for courses at higher levels of learning. Part of the campaign is aimed at convincing lecturers that it’s worth changing set texts.
“Many academics love the idea,” says Attwell, “But aren’t necessarily willing to change the books they’re prescribing to ones that are on Paperight, and are often reticent to pressure publishers. And university administrators, so far, haven’t really understood the urgency and won’t publicly support our initiative. It’s infuriating, to be honest.”

Attwell says that according to his calculations, distribution by Paperight is around 40% cheaper overall than traditional printing, savings which can be passed on to students.

Naturally, students love the idea.

Sindisiwe Sibisi, a student of business management at Majuba FET college, says that: “Students and their families are always burdened with tuition and textbook prices and they rise every year. Some even end up dropping out or failing because they don’t have money to buy textbooks. I’ve

seen students who had to borrow from others but could only study for a very short time because each student needs their textbook to study from.”

You can follow Attwell and Paperight’s campaign progress on Twitter using the hashtag #textbookrevolution.

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Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar,, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.