Arthur Attwell & Paperight: Lessons From the Publishing Industry

by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 5 February 2019

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Created by Arthur Attwell

Arthur Attwell and the Paperight team worked tirelessly over three years to turn a simple idea into a world-changing, for-profit social enterprise. The idea was stunningly simple - turn any organisation with a printer and access to the Internet into a print-on-demand bookstore. Publishers would still get paid, photocopy shops would have a new business opportunity, and people would pay less for books and educational materials.

Sadly, as is often the case when you try to influence change in established systems like the publishing industry, the Paperight project didn’t work out. There is always an element of risk you have a big vision for change, and Arthur’s story is a good example of what you are up against.

From the Foundation’s perspective, this isn’t a story of failure. Instead, Arthur’s experience is one of learning, experimentation, and valuable work towards making the world a better place. He remains and engaged and valued member of the Shuttleworth community and continues to champion and drive change in the publishing field; rewarding our belief in investing in individuals, not projects.

Arthur Attwell: Introduction

“It was a difficult time,” recalls Arthur Attwell, when asked about the closure of the Shuttleworth-funded Paperight, his for-profit social enterprise that aimed to turn any business with a photocopier in South Africa into a bookstore.

“I was angry and frustrated at the publishing industry,” he says. “And I convinced myself I didn’t know what I was doing … it took a long time for me to get any confidence back.”

But that was then. Today, Arthur is in a good place. He heads up Electric Book Works and sits on the boards of Book Dash, a nonprofit children’s book publisher, and Bettercare, a healthcare publisher. He is firmly focussed on doing good things for the world.

He is remarkably pragmatic about the Paperight experience and references many lessons gleaned from his three years spent as a Fellow. “The real fruits of the Fellowship are still happening now,” he says.

“You learn a lot when you get the chance to do something audacious.”

Paperight: The Big Idea

The Paperight project was bold, innovative, and potentially life-changing for those it aimed to serve. Arthur Attwell planned to make all books available within walking distance of every home, granting access to reading in remote areas where bookstores are rare, but copy shops are in abundance.

And like all great ideas, it arrived in a few simple moments of inspiration.

“I’d taken on some research work looking at the Espresso Book Machine,” remembers Arthur. “It struck me that this incredibly expensive device was just a glorified photocopier.

“Later, I saw a group of students printing copies of their textbooks in a hair salon, and it was my Eureka moment. I knew if you could print a book at a hairdresser’s, you could print them everywhere.”

Paperight’s positioning as a rights clearinghouse also meant they could bypass the costs of professional printing and distribution, pay the copy shops for their efforts, and protect the profit margins of publishers and license holders.

Critically, the project also addressed one of the publishing industry’s most prominent issues - piracy. “Students were printing the textbooks illegally anyway,” says Arthur. “Why not make it part of the value chain? It seemed a total no-brainer.”

Arthur’s offer to the publishing world was simple: More books sold, more people reading, a protected profit margin and an idea to tackle piracy. It doesn’t get more compelling - or so we all thought.

Shuttleworth Funding & Fellowship

The Shuttleworth Foundation awarded Arthur a Fellowship starting in September of 2011, and it was clear the Paperight project was a natural fit for funding. Arthur demonstrated:

  • Clear commitment to openness
  • Commitment to social change
  • An innovative idea to shake up a highly traditional system
  • Workable, costed plans

Arthur acknowledges his Fellowship as a life-changing experience. “I was lucky to be accepted on the first application,” he laughs. “A lot of people apply two or three times before they get a result.

“I would recommend it to anyone with an idea in the open space - just apply. I felt like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.

“The Fellowship is a golden ticket…a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The funding granted Arthur financial space to explore his idea to its full, and he spent the next three years trying to turn it into a for-profit business, with the help of the Shuttleworth team and the Fellowship.

“When you walk into a room of Shuttleworth Fellows you see these super smart rock stars of the Open movement,” he says. “But you quickly realise they are just people, and what sets them apart is a propensity to get things done.

“It’s such a supportive community that gives you a safe space to admit you are all learning basic lessons, but everyone is at different stages.

“You get concrete training in running a business.”

Open Doors & Brick Walls

As Paperight started making inroads into the publishing industry, it received many plaudits. They won startup competitions and awards and found themselves featured in international media and publishing, technology and startup publications.

“The Fellowship gave me the time, resources and opportunity to open doors,” recalls Arthur. “I had access to almost any publisher’s office I wanted.”

People in the publishing industry expressed a liking for the idea, too. Paperight was warmly received by contacts in the bookmaking world, by university students, and by copy shop owners - almost everyone, in fact.

So, what went wrong?

“The publishers we really needed on board were those putting out higher education texts,” explains Arthur. “To make a profit, we needed high-value books with big margins sold at the copy shops.

“Novels and nonfiction have low price points, and we would never get the margins we needed to make money. We wanted educational textbooks - but it was the one kind of publisher we couldn’t persuade.”

Another issue lay in the quality of the books. Even those publishers keen on the idea were only prepared to hand over the rights to poor quality, unknown releases; not bestsellers.

“Bad books don’t sell, no matter what format,” says Arthur.

Despite a lot of kind words and well wishes, Paperight endured a collective silence that dragged on for months at a time. Some publishers didn’t respond; others worried they would be seen working with ‘pirate’ photocopying industry, despite the fact Paperight was designed to help combat the problem.

Even the universities proved problematic. While students were keen to cut their costs on textbooks, Paperight’s ideas fell on deaf ears where the higher echelons of university administration were concerned.

Some successes proved the idea could work - mostly through publishing books under the Paperight name - but ultimately, without the right kind of books, the numbers didn’t add up.

Despite establishing Paperight in more than 400 copy shops, getting licenses from over 150 publishers and selling more than 2100 different titles, the money wasn’t coming in. Paperight had hit a brick wall.

“I could see it coming,” reflects Arthur. “We had strict targets to prove sustainability, and if they dropped below a certain level, everyone knew it was done.”

Sadly, at the beginning of 2015, Paperight closed its doors.


Arthur Attwell spent a long time reflecting on what happened with Paperight from the day he and the team realised it wasn’t a viable business. In a final ‘goodbye’ to the project, the Paperight team pulled together all their experiences over the entire three years - you can read about the entire journey here.

A lot went wrong. There were minor financial mistakes, and Arthur is convinced some different strategic choices - particularly in the beginning - would have led to a different outcome.

“A lot of my belief in the project stemmed from a meeting with a wonderful publisher who promised us over 400 titles for our launch…but she left the company by the time Paperight got off the ground.

“We couldn’t get the books from her successor, and it was a harsh first lesson. Don’t assume anything until you get it in writing.”

Ultimately, these were wrinkles that could have been ironed out. The real issue was getting entire companies to try something new.

‘I could turn anyone on to the Paperight idea just by talking to them across an office desk,” says Arthur. “But those people needed to persuade the board, and the enthusiasm couldn’t be transferred.The companies are immovable, and organisations have different minds to the people that work in them.

“The experience taught me that much of the publishing sector is lumbering and difficult to deal with,” he reflects. “I had enough of publishing and wanted out. Looking back, we shouldn’t have tried to solve the industry’s piracy problem.

“If you want to change an industry, don’t try to fix the incumbents – replace them.”

Resonance & Legacy

While Paperight failed to make it as a for-profit business, it has left a legacy, and the Fellowship experience resonates through everything Arthur does today. The Paperight team is still in close contact and has kept an extraordinarily strong bond.

And many of the lessons Arthur learned have been used in his other businesses. Book Dash - a volunteer project - stemmed from success Paperight enjoyed in publishing its own books and has grown from strength to strength.

The non-profit healthcare publisher Arthur co-founded, Bettercare, has been around since before Paperight, but he says the lessons learned by his experience have made it a better business.

“My day job now is running Electric Book Works,” reveals Arthur. “It’s a bookmaking company for print and screen. A lot of technical and strategic learning from Paperight goes into what we do now.

“One of EBW’s biggest contracts - an economics textbook for CORE - is down to the Fellowship contacts I made,” says Arthur. “We wouldn’t have got the gig if it wasn’t for Philipp Schmidt introducing us to the authors.”

As for Paperight, Arthur is convinced the idea could still succeed. “I believe someone will make it happen,’ he says.

And the Shuttleworth Foundation is inclined to agree. The Paperight code is here for anyone to use, change, adapt or remix, and to build on in whichever way they see fit.

Part of the Foundation’s remit when looking at a Fellowship’s success is to ask an important question: Does the individual leave the world a better, more equitable place than they found it? For Arthur Attwell, the answer is a resounding yes.

While the business idea behind Paperight didn’t make it, Arthur has introduced new conversations in the publishing industry. He’s got people asking the right questions, while asking questions of the industry itself. And, ultimately, he has left an enormous opportunity for someone else to pick up the Paperight torch and carry on from where he and the Paperight team left off.

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