Ebooks Give Africa a New Future of Reading
I may be getting a reputation on this blog as a print activist and bemoaner of ebook platforms, but in truth, I love technology. Like most of my generation I grew up playing video games, navigating the internet and learning the latest tech to the point where technology has become a natural extension of myself. Although my boss is shocked I don't have a smartphone (data plans make my wallet cry), that doesn't mean I can't navigate my father's iPhone better than he can. I'm not afraid of technology and I'm not afraid of the ebook. I'm just frustrated it hasn't made my life easier yet.
Although the ebook has yet to meet my criteria, I was excited to read on the BBC's website and to hear in an interview on NPR that ebooks are making the lives of over 160 million people not only easier, but better.
Plagued by difficult and haphazard distribution of books, Africa has been criticized for not having a strong reading culture. But with more than 160 million Africans gaining internet access, mostly through their cell phones, digital publishing is beginning to find its foothold on the continent.
What is striking about these developments is that Africans are leapfrogging the printed book and moving right into digital. Issues that seem to have hindered ebook reading in the US-attachment to bookshop browsing, shareability and true book ownership-are not hangups in many African countries because they simply have not existed.
The nonprofit Worldreader Organization is one of the leaders of this revolution, providing ebooks and ereaders to over 12,000 African children. Led by former Amazon executive David Risher, Worldreader is hoping to spread ebooks even further by creating an e-reader app for cell phones.
In his interview with NPR, Risher explained, "It really is the best way to get books into people's hands where the physical infrastructure isn't very good, the roads are bad, gas costs too much ... but you can beam books through the cell phone network just like you can make a phone call-and that's really the thing that changes kids' lives."
As the success of these efforts continues to be measured, we may see implications for the rest of the world's reading populace. "I think digital books will become the worldwide norm," says Caleb Mason, founder of Publerati, a nonprofit publisher which donates a portion of its sales to Worldreader, "as the practical hurdles of distributing print to every corner of the globe was and is the very problem that Worldreader is improving through the use of ebooks. Just think about the leveling effect this can have on the future of civilization. It's called progress."
It will be interesting to note as more Africans begin reading on cell phones and perhaps even tablets how ebook reading is affected. According to Simba Information's latest iPad study, US ebook readership has dropped as tablet adoption continues to grow. Will a similar trend take hold in Africa and other developing regions of the world? Or will these regions, free of print's influence, introduce us to a new kind of reading-a digital reading that is more valued than a devices other features because it is the only kind of reading there is.
Will Africa be our future of reading?
Ellen Harvey is a freelance writer and editor who covers the latest technologies and strategies reshaping the publishing landscape. She previously served as the Senior Editor at Publishing Executive and Book Business.