Why Book Publishers Should Pay Attention to the Developing World
Book sales in the U.S. and Europe have been stagnant for years. While publishers design creative campaigns to turn Twitter followers into customers, they often ignore a much larger and more challenging prize: developing nations.
250 million children worldwide currently lack access to books and basic education, representing one of the largest social challenges of our time and a major opportunity for publishers. In countries like Haiti, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is far more common to find schools without any books at all, or just a few worn books shared among hundreds of students, than to find well-stocked bookshelves. In Haiti, fewer than 15% of schools have a library.
And yet schools are the most important places to have books. Without books in schools, children grow up without a love of reading, and or even the ability to read. With no books in schools, there is no market for bookstores, e-readers, writers, or publishers. Even more urgently, without literacy there is no money to support this market: Statistically speaking, illiterate adults have lower incomes and far fewer job choices than their literate peers.
Thanks to technology, publishers in the U.S. and other developed countries are better positioned than ever to create new markets in the developing world. EBooks, low-cost mobile devices, ubiquitous mobile phone networks, and DRM all allow publishers to easily push their content to remote corners of the world. Technology now allows us to gather usage analytics about readers in unexplored markets. As publishing expert Jim Lichtenberg recently noted in an article in Publishers Weekly, "Big Data provides a huge upside in discovery, sales, and delivery of digital content, as U.S. publishers expand the market for English-language materials in emerging economies."
This data is especially crucial for the developing world, as we have known for years that what works in one context doesn't necessarily work in another. Developing communities don't just want rebranded products from American superstores. The need for more cultural diversity is especially true when it comes to books, as evidenced by the recent popularity of the blog and hashtag #weneeddiversebooks. There is great demand for English-language content across all corners of the world, but what kinds of characters, stories, and images will resonate with school children in Liberian slums? We don't know yet, because these children have never heard of Harry Potter or the television programs, video games, and apps competing for attention in most modern homes.
At the nonprofit Library For All, my colleagues and I are leveraging technology to create a digital library designed specifically for schools in the developing world. In partnership with many of the top U.S. publishers as well as independent publishers like Educa Vision and Akashic Books, we are bringing great content to schools that lack books. Students can search through a catalogue of relevant, quality books and educational materials on low-cost tablets.
Our digital library platform allows information to flow to places it has never reached before. Before we launched at our pilot school in Gressier, Haiti, the most recent books found at local markets were published in the 1980s. Now, we can make the latest releases from our publishing partners immediately available in the dusty classrooms of rural Haiti.
We are hoping to help answer for publishers the question of what content developing communities want with the Library For All platform. By making some of the world's best children's books freely available (and protected, of course) to millions of students living in poverty, we will capture data about which books are most popular and what students search for, giving publishers valuable insight into the next emerging markets.
When we began curating books for developing communities, it immediately became clear that the current body of literature, categorized by language and country of origin, is out of balance with the world's cultures and languages. Through our combined efforts with publishers to boost literacy and knowledge about developing communities, we can begin generating exciting new content that speaks to the rich diversity of human experiences. Using data to publish better titles for developing markets, the next global bestseller is anyone's game.
Nicole Comforto is director of education resources at Library For All, a New York-based nonprofit founded in 2012 to unlock knowledge to those without access to books in developing countries. She works with publishers of quality children's and educational books to curate resources for schools in Haiti and sub-Saharan Africa. Nicole previously worked as a consultant in education policy at UNESCO.