10 Lessons from the Digital Reading Summits
By Alex Nderitu
A guest blog post by Alex Nderitu, the Deputy Secretary-General of PEN Kenya Centre, a poet, playwright and novelist. Alex was also an attendee at this year’s Digital Reading Summits.
This year’s 4th Digital Reading Summits centered around The Power of Digital in Learning. Over 350 participants converged to talk about how communities are harnessing mobile technology and digital reading to promote continuous learning. Here are some of the key takeaways.
1. Every Mobile Phone can be a Library!
More than half a billion people across Africa are now subscribed to mobile services, reveals a recent GSMA study. This rapid move to mobile broadband networks is unlocking new opportunities for users, governments and businesses. Thanks to mobile apps, such as Worldreader’s Open Library, these mobile devices can now also double-up as digital libraries. The advantages of converting mobile phones into libraries are many. One huge advantage is the sheer convenience – you always have your phone with you. “Thanks to technology,” says Worldreader’s East Africa Director, Joan Mwachi, “reading is an activity that can now take place anywhere.”
2. Educators and Innovators Should Embrace Tech
“What is the historical capital of Myanmar?” Mark West, an information and communication technology education specialist for UNESCO asked the audience this obscure question during his opening plenary at the West Africa Digital Reading Summit. He used the unsurprising silence that followed to make a point about how education models that are focused on memorization are out of sync with the internet age. “We don’t need to do old things in new ways. We should be bold enough to attempt new things in new ways,” West argued. “If we take a narrow view of what technology should do for education, we would miss exploring what it can do.” In an expansive and inspiring talk, he challenged the room full of educators and innovators to integrate technology throughout their work and tailor education to the challenges 21st students will face after graduation, starting the 2017 Summits off with a buzz.
3. Reading Can Change Your Life Trajectory
Acclaimed musician and Worldreader Ghana Board Member Okyeame Kwame shared a personal story about how reading changed his life trajectory and put him on the path to music. His mentor, an English professor, challenged him to start reading if he wanted to achieve his dream of becoming a musician. Kwame told participants he is able to be creative and express himself in a way he wouldn’t have been able to if he weren’t an avid reader. “We must encourage the youth to read because without the skill or the interest, they will struggle in life.”
4. Africans Love to Get Lost in a Good Story
The most popular genres in Worldreader’s collection among African readers are Religion, Fantasy and Romance. The books that have been accessed the most by readers on the continent include The Girl With the Magic Hands, a fantasy novel by Nigeria’s Nnedi Okorafor, winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature; Broken Promises, a romance novel by Ros Haden; Sugar Daddy another romance favorite by Ros Haden; and The Sex Lives of African Girls by Taiye Selasi. The Bible and other religious materials are also quite popular.
5. Partnerships are like Booster Rockets
We have all heard the phrase, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.’ Partnerships are like booster rockets – they help you go to places you would never have reached by yourself or achieve things that make you look superhuman. Worldreader has achieved incredible milestones (eg. reaching over 5.2 million digital readers in just 7 years of existence) because they ‘go with others’ as opposed to trying to be a lone hero. Their current goal is to reach 40 million readers by 2020.
Carol Williams, Worldreader’s West Africa Director ,says “we want people reading in the bus, in the library, in the classroom. It’s a daunting task because we are targeting millions of people. But we are not afraid because we have partners.”
6. Be Dynamic—Especially if you’re a Publisher
“Emotions are running high because the publishing industry is being radically reshaped by the same disruptive forces that have transformed all sorts of industries from travel and insurance to newspapers and music. Change is scary, and the publishing industry is changing at light-speed. If you want a parallel with music, I think it’s akin to going from vinyl straight to MP3,” says author JJ Marsh.
David Waweru, CEO of Word Alive gave an impassioned call to embrace the role of technology in publishing to attendees at the East Africa Digital Reading Summit: “we need to accept that technology is very disruptive and only those businesses that adapt will survive. We need to have digital DNA. Internet penetration in Africa is at around 60% but growing by 9% per year. There is also convergence between mobile and Internet penetration. The businesses that succeed will be the ones that know their customers and respond to their needs. Those [publishers] who are too cautious will find themselves with no content [when mobile reading expands]. Millennials were born in the age of technology.”
In a separate address, Worldreader India Board Director Bhanu Potta made a similar argument from an Indian perspective: “this [affordability] is one of the advantages that mobile has. It is harder for print publishers to slash costs – e-books can be affordable and micro-payments can be made, making piracy unnecessary.”
7. Content is King but Context is Queen
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to publishing content for the world. There is a famous saying in media that “all news is local.” That means that unless you can show a local connection (even to international events) your audience won’t care. One way to connect with an audience—in any form of mass communication—is to use local languages. For example, Worldreader’s content for India contains books in Hindi as well as English. Carol Williams, Worldreader’s West Africa Director, spoke of Worldreader being interested in material that is ‘culturally relevant’. Worldreader’s digital library currently contains books in 12 Kenyan languages. “Understand your target reader before publishing your digital content,” one speaker said during the plenary session. “Content is king but context is queen,” added the speaker.
In addition to that, different age groups usually have varying information needs and distinct levels of access to information. While adults are allowed unfettered access to reading material in most countries, pre-readers and early readers usually have restricted access to various types of content, especially educational material meant for schools. The current trend among publishers is to align their digital content meant for schools with the curriculum and/or authorized syllabus. One publisher revealed that they had adapted their materials to conform to the Rwandan school curriculum in order to sell textbooks there.
8. Technology Can Prevent Piracy and Protect Publishers
Publishers have been fighting the profit-gobbling monster called ‘piracy’ for many years now but their latest attempt to curb the rampant vice is distinctly technology-driven. Steps that they are now taking range from attaching hologram stickers to electronic tags to their books.
According to Valentina Morroti, Worldreader’s Digital Assets Specialist, “Digital books are more vulnerable [to piracy] than physical ones. The solution in the publishing industry is Digital Rights Management (DRM). DRM is used in the digital ecosystem to protect content. It’s a lock that prevents other people from using the content.” Different companies such as Apple, Barnes & Noble and Amazon create their own DRM but the overall concept is the same: locking the content such that it won’t work unless one has the right key. For example, a purchased e-book might work on your device but if you share it with others, it fails to open on their devices. On the question of whether publishers should release an e-book or a print version first, one participant opined that: “digital distribution is a great way to test interest beyond first market.”
9. People Don’t Read Books, They Read Authors
“We always view the author as the brand…The publisher’s name does help if you want to get on major media and if you want to get reviewed in the newspaper; who’s publishing [the book] really does matter. But for now, we put the author out as the brand.” —Brian Murray, President and CEO of HarperCollins Publishers, on ‘Content Creators as the Brand.’
David Waweru, author and veteran publisher, talked about the queues avid fans will form to get their copies signed by their favourite authors: “It is fascinating to go somewhere where there is a long line of people with an author at the end. Some people will even buy the book just to get the author’s autograph. How can we recreate this in the digital world?”
Incidentally, digital literature has served as a boon for authors. Not only do they have many more options of getting their work exposed than previously in history (eg. free e-book and print-on-demand platforms), but they now have more rights to sell (digital rights, territory rights etc.) and they stand to earn higher royalties due to the reduced cost of manufacturing. “We give authors more for their digital content,” Evans Rotich from Longhorn Publishers revealed. “We also expose them to digital tools [to help create their materials],” he added.
10. Metadata is a Secret Book Promotional Tool
“Before search engines can find your book, robots have to find it,” said Nancy Brown, Senior Manager of Publisher and Author Relations at Worldreader, framing a technical workshop for publishers. She stressed the importance of metadata—information about your content, including ISBN number, book title, description, keywords, and rights territory (e.g. worldwide). This additional data about your content may be tiring and boring to submit but it is absolutely critical because:
- Search engines, like Google, crawl over data and store the information
- When a potential customer makes a query, the search engine returns a list of results, ranked according to the ‘keywords’ entered
- Complete metadata signals to search engines that your content is worth discovering
“You know your book better than anyone else so it is important that you give this information,” Valentina Morroti said. “Otherwise, to search engines, it’s like a physical book with no, author, no title and no content—just blank pages.”