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DOI 10.1007/s12109-011-9241-4

Digital Publishing in Developing Countries:


The Emergence of New Models?
Octavio Kulesz

Published online: 7 October 2011


Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Abstract In developing countries, where traditional publishing faces enormous


challenges, digital may work as an accelerator that could help local actors to skip a
stage and position themselves at a much more advanced level. However, for
domestic players to really benefit from the electronic era, it will be essential for
them not to adopt systems implanted from outside on an as is basis, but rather to
invest in new models better suited for the local peoples expectations and
requirements.
Keywords Africa  Amazon  Apple  Arab world  China  Developing countries 
Digital publishing  Google  India  Internet  North  Latin America  Russia 
Sony  South  Sub-Saharan

Introduction: Imitation or Autonomous Evolution?


As it is well known, in the last 15 years the digital revolution has transformed every
link of the publishing chain, from reading and writing to printing and selling. In
industrialized nations, these changes have been particularly apparent, and companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, Sony and Samsung have truly reshaped the whole
publishing landscape.

This paper summarizes the main results presented in the report Digital Publishing in Developing
Countries, commissioned by the International Alliance of Independent Publishers and the Prince Claus
Fund. The full studysubmitted in February 2011includes a wide range of technical details as well as
testimonies of more than 120 publishers from around 40 countries, and can be read in English, Spanish
and French on the web: http://www.alliance-lab.org/etude.
O. Kulesz (&)
Editorial Teseo, Gurruchaga 2235, CP 1425 Buenos Aires, Argentina
e-mail: ok@editorialteseo.com

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Now, when it comes to developing countries,1 it is generally agreed that digital


publishing in those regions suffers from a serious delay compared to that of
industrialized nations, due to poor technological infrastructure and limited human
resources. As a result, the recurring assumption we find in the media and in
international debates is that the only option left for the South2 is to simply wait until
companies from the North implant their successful models in these disadvantaged
regions.
Nevertheless, this statement is highly debatable. To begin with, it is not always
clear to what extent these models are successful, at least from a commercial
perspective. Indeed, all the companies we could think of as leaders in the field of
digital publishing are actually still groping their way, if we judge from the
continuous amendments back and forth they introduce on formats, devices and
terms of use. What is more, there are no reliable figures making clear how lucrative
the Kindle, the iPad, the Sony Reader or the Samsung Galaxy Tab paradigms
implying both content and deviceshave been in the area of electronic
publications.
On the other hand, even if those systems may prove one day very successful in
their own territories, we should wonder how useful it would be to implant them
on an as is basis in regions whose reality differs dramatically from the original, i.e.,
countries whose language, culture and social structure would convert a Kindle or an
iPad into mere oddities. In our view, digital technologies, like any other tool, are
much more than simple instruments; in truth, as they need to be useful to a certain
group of people to be authentic tools, they will necessarily say a lot about the
particular society they were born in. Lets take for instance Apples digital
ecosystem: devices with a highly minimalistic design; applications that were
previously checked by the company to ensure a safe and chaste experience by the
user; a solipsistic I prefix attached to the name of every product and an enigmatic
logo that refers to biblical sin are all features that could be related to a sort of puritan
Weltanschauung which are unlikely to be adopted on a massive scale by societies
ruled by very different values.3
Thirdly, does the South really need to wait for its digital publishing industry to
surge forward? In fact, it is hard to believe that despite accounting for 82% of the
global population4 and having experienced an astounding economic growth in the
1

With regard to the difference between industrialized and developing countries, we have opted to follow
the classification given by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its report of April 2010, although in
the section on China we have included references to Taiwan, which for the IMF belongs to the advanced
economies. Cf. [4].

Throughout the text we will use the terms North and South as synonyms for more industrialized
nations and developing countries, respectively, while fully conscious of the fact that this distinction is
highly schematic; indeed, developing countries like India or Mexico are located in the northern
hemisphere and, inversely, a high income country like Australia is situated in the southern hemisphere.

Of course, a company like Apple will certainly find a highly profitable niche among the most affluent
classes in developing countries, since the cultural and consumption patterns of these sectors tend to
imitate those of the North. But the interesting thing would be to find out what digital models might be a
hit not just with the wealthiest 20% of the citizens of developing countries, but with the rest of the
inhabitants, that is to say with the bulk of humanity.

Cf. [10].

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last decade, the developing world is not producing right now innovative and
powerful models that may be better suited for its own peoples expectations and
requirements.
It is for these reasons that the study of digital publishing in the South could be
much richer if we envisage those regions in their own right rather than as a mere
copy of the models from the North. This means paying attention not only to the
platforms and devices being tested on the ground but alsoand especiallyto the
particular way in which local actors make use of those tools. In fact, if the goal is to
nurture local digital ecosystems that may become self-sustainable, this new
approach could be much more beneficial to the South itself.
What follows is a summary of the main results of our research. We have broken
them down into six regionsLatin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Arab World,
Russia, India and Chinathat can shed light on the reality of the developing world
as a whole.

Latin America
As frequently stated, Latin America is a territory characterized by sharp contrasts
and a considerable cultural diversity. This has led to very different ways of
appropriation of digital technologies, and Print on Demand (POD) is probably one
of the most widely adopted ones, having gradually started to displace the traditional
Offset system, in a context of decreasing average print runs.
On the other hand, numerous online stores5 have begun to offer thousands of
e-books in Spanish, Portuguese and English through their portals. It is interesting to
observe that most of the e-books sold in Latin American stores come from external
aggregators, in particular from Spain, the US and the UK. Among the few local
aggregation initiatives, we must mention Xeripha Brazilian company that also
owns Gato Sabido, the first store selling e-books onlyand Distribuidora de Livros
Digitaisan e-distributor launched by the main Brazilian publishing houses.
So far, e-readers and tablets have not reached anything like a mass market, due to
the high price of these devices at the destination point, in the case of imported ones.
It is worth mentioning that some countries in the region, especially Brazil and
Argentina, have undertaken a very aggressive policy of reduction of the price of
gadgets that will eventually lead to the emergence of new players.6
In any case, there are various trends that are likely to accelerate the development
of digital publishing in Latin America: (1) a new middle class will be rapidly
incorporated into the consumer market, particularly in Brazil;7 (2) various public
initiatives will help to narrow the digital gap, a case in point being the plans
concerning technological infrastructure for the education sector, such as Ceibal
(Uruguay) and Conectar Igualdad (Argentina); (3) the promotion of local production
in free trade zones such as Tierra del Fuego (Argentina) or Manaus (Brazil) will
5

The reader will be able to find a detailed list of these players in the original report, on the web.

Cf., for example: [5].

Cf. [1].

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catalyze the appearance of nationally manufactured hardware designed for


electronic reading; (4) there will be a possible expansion of free and open source
software, which has been part of the state policies of different countries for several
years (Brazil8 and Venezuela,9 for example); (5) there may be changes in
legislation, such as tax exemptions on electronic publications, discussions of fixed/
variable prices for e-books and a wider debate on current copyright laws; (6) online
literaturea field that since the mid-2000s has shown an interesting dynamism
will probably thrive; (7) Brazilby a mile the country that invests the most in R&D
in the region10 will play a leading role in both producing electronic reading
hardware and in creating content platforms.

Sub-Saharan Africa
The first observation a visitor might make with regard to digital publishing in
Sub-Saharan Africa is that it is in an entirely embryonic state. For a start, the
presence of e-readers is minimal. Since March 2010, the Worldreader organization
has been handing out Kindle devices to students in Ghana, in order to explore the
reactions of these young people to digital technology.11 This initiative made an
immediate impact on the media, but many analysts pointed out that whereas the
original objective of the program was to fight illiteracy, it ultimately faced the
challenge of creating a whole new cultural and economic ecosystem, thus
introducing more complications than solutions.12
Other projects, triggered by actors on the ground, have trodden a very different
path, taking the existing human and technological ecosystems of the continent as
their starting point. For instance, Paperightrun by the South African entrepreneur
Arthur Attwellhas betted on POD as a way to distribute texts using an already
available infrastructure. Paperight transforms any computer with a printer and
Internet connection into a non-conventional on-demand store. Through this system,
readers might be able to buy books at the local photocopying centre and pay for the
cost of printing along with a small amount corresponding to the authors and
publishers rights.
On the other hand, while we may find some online e-bookstoresmost of them
launched in 2010, it is probably the mobile network that has had the most
profound effect as a platform for electronic publications. One example is M4Lit, the
project created by Steve Vosloo, another South African entrepreneur who in 2009
published the story Kontax, by Sam Wilson, first from a dedicated site13 and then
8

Cf. [6].

Cf. [7].

10

Cf. [9].

11

According to its website, Worldreader is a non-profit organization that aims to put whole libraries in
the hands of people in the developing world, by using tools like e-readers. Their motto is Books for all:
http://www.worldreader.org/.
12

Cf. [2].

13

http://www.kontax.mobi/.

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through the mobile platform MXit. Kontax was distributed free of charge in English
and in Isixhosaone of the countrys official languages, while an interactive blog
was set up where readers could leave comments, discuss the story and suggest
alternative endings that were later entries in a competition. In just 2 months the
mobile site exceeded 63,000 subscribers.
In spite of the enormous difficulties that exist with regard to infrastructure and
human resources, digital publishing in Africa shows an interesting potential. Based
on the different cases studied, we can outline two main future trends: (1) the mobile
phone network will continue to be fertile terrain for new experiments in book
publishing or promotion, given that the Internet penetration will certainly take many
years to reach the heights of other regions; (2) the training of traditional publishers
will be a decisive factor that might accelerate change, as long as it will foster
experimentation with the existing technologies.

Arab World
Some players entered the field of digital publications in the Arab world quite early,
like the portal Arabic eBook, presented in 2002, and Kotobarabia, an Egyptian
e-book distributor founded in 2005.
While PDF or Flash formats do not pose any technical complications, many local
publishers complain about the difficulties that arise when a text in Arabic has to be
converted into ePub. A great deal of training and experimentation will thus be
needed to overcome these challenges.
Like in Sub-Saharan Africa, in the Arab world, possession of e-readers and
tablets is limited to the wealthiest stratum of the social pyramid. The sales figures
for the Kindle in the region are not known, and devices like the iPad are considered
luxury products. In spite of these shortcomings, native players agree on the fact that
digital could prove vital for the Arab world, since the fundamental challenges of
publishing in the regioni.e., inefficient analogue distribution and censorship
could be mitigated thanks to the incorporation of electronic technology.
Currently, it is possible to identify various forces that are likely to have a
considerable effect on the future publishing in the Arab world: (1) the recent
political events that took place in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and other
locations have already brought about modifications in the power structure of those
countries, something that in turn will lead to changes in the way control and
censorship are exercised; (2) the younger generations, eager for content that goes
beyond the reality their parents were accustomed to, may become more and more
involved in blogs and other digital social networks; (3) analogue publishing will
increasingly show its intrinsic weaknesses and limitations when it comes to
satisfying new demands; (4) publishers will have good opportunities to venture into
the electronic age, although this will require a great deal of experimentation with
different tools, formats and platforms; (5) print on demand and mobile phones may
play a key role, at least in the short to medium term.

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Russia
As an initial approach, it is important to acknowledge that within Russia there is a
myriad of websites dedicated to the sale of e-books. The main actors in this field are
Ozon, Biblion, iMobilco, Elkniga, Bookee and BestKniga. We can also find various
sites that base their business model on online texts subscriptionssuch as
Bookmate or KnigaFund, as well as big local aggregatorslike Litres or DDC.
Even if there is considerable activity taking place in online platformsstores,
distributors and e-libraries, we must be well aware that the hardware industry
displays a far greater vigor. Dozens of e-readers are manufactured in Russia and sold
in both the domestic market and abroad, particularly in the former Soviet republics.
As for POD, some recent moves suggest that this technology may prove very
active in the short and medium term. One relevant example is Kniga Po Trebovaniyu
(On Demand Book), a company that has made it clear that it intends to set up dozens
of POD terminals in different cities in Russiaan initiative that will enable readers
from distant locations to access a backlist of 300,000 works in 50 languages.14
Digital technology is advancing at such speed in Russia that it appears to exceed
the possibilities of traditional publishers. However, it is clear that digital could
represent a qualitative leap in this country with regard to the distribution of written
content. In fact, Russian publishing has always faced an obvious obstacle: the
problem of distributing printed books across the length and breadth of its vast
geography. In this sense, options like online stores, virtual libraries and even print
on demand constitute a necessary step. Such tools represent the only way to ensure
that an inhabitant of Siberia can access reasonably similar backlists to those
available to a fellow citizen from Moscow.
Although as yet there are no digital business models in Russia that can entirely
replace the traditional system, there are forces that could accelerate the migration of
the industry: (1) sooner or later the economic crisis that has plagued the book sector
since 2008 will lead publishers to reduce print runs and seek new and more efficient
forms of production and marketing, such as print on demand and the many variants
of electronic distribution; (2) Russian readers thirst for digital content, which is
demonstrated by the boom in e-readers and the increase in piracy, may result in new
modes of creation, specifically designed for digital mediums;15 (3) there may be
heated legal debates, such as those that have already taken place on topics including
reprography, e-book taxation and access to virtual libraries;16 (4) the most
influential factor in the future may perhaps be the cluster of hardware companies
which, along with mobile phone operators, have an enormous domestic and foreign
market volume, which guarantees them an extraordinary capacity for investment
and manoeuvre.
14

Cf. [8].

15

A premonitory example is that of the novel Metro 2033, published by Dmitry Glukhovsky in 2002; the
work could originally be read free of charge on the web and became a huge bestseller after it was
published on paper; Glukhovskys later titles were published directly as online experiments.
16
Cf. for example the discussions taking place within the Russian Association of Online Publishers:
http://webpublishers.ru/.

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India
The championing of its software industry has made India a global centre for
publishing-related technological services. This strength in IT has probably been
vital in the early emergence of a great number of online stores selling e-books, such
as Odyssey360, BookGanga, India Ebooks and A1Books.
However, the most dynamic players in the e-book field are currently those which
have attempted to build their own ecosystem, combining content and hardware.
Created in 2007, Infibeam is the biggest online bookstore in India: in January 2010,
it captured the attention of the local and international media when it announced the
launch of Pi, its own e-reader with electronic ink and touch-screen. Another
remarkable venture that integrates an online platform with a reading device is DC
Books/EC Media, with its e-reader Wink, prepared to operateas the Piboth in
English and 15 Indian languages.
Anyway, neither fixed Internet connections nor e-readers have mass penetration
in India today. As occurs in Sub-Saharan Africa, the only devices that are found on a
wide scale are cell phones: in late 2010, India had around 752 million cell phone
users. One of the keys to this growth is related to the existence of companies that
have managed to adapt their models to the local reality. For example, in August
2010, the Indian company Wynncombased in Gurgaonannounced the launch of
the Y45, the first cell phone with an analogue keyboard in Hindi.
Mobile operators themselves are among the most dynamic actors in written
content distribution today. Vodafone, for example, markets an entire series of
Momics (mobile comics), that deal with Indian mythology and can be downloaded
by sending an SMS. At the same time, India has witnessed the emergence of
veritable e-factories producing publications for mobile devices, such as Mogae
Digital and MobileVeda.
At any rate, digital publishing in India will be positively impacted by a series of
powerful tendencies that will carve out a new landscape in the medium and long
term: (1) to begin with, the countrys economic growth has led to the surfacing of
a new middle class hungry for customized hardware and content; (2) in addition,
Indias growing technological sophistication and the progressive interaction
between content producers and IT companies may boost the digital publishing
industry; (3) thirdly, it is highly likely that we will see a rise in text dissemination
via mobile phones, given the mass penetration of these devices throughout Indian
society, irrespective of class or region; (4) finally, in spite of all its restrictions
mainly coordination and budget wisethe Indian State will certainly continue
striving to bridge the digital gap, particularly among the inhabitants of rural
areas.

China
It goes without saying that China has been for decades a world centre for
manufacturing of all kinds of goods, and this supremacy is absolutely clear in the
field of e-readers. According to various sources, around half of the worlds electronic

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ink devices are produced in China.17 However, Chinese e-reader manufacturers face
the difficulty of creating a brand and competing over variables that go beyond price
alone.
As a way to elude the process of price cannibalization affecting hardware
industries and online sales, some Chinese playerslike the ones in India we have
pointed outhave developed ecosystems integrating the sale of content with the
distribution of an own-brand device. The most famous example is Shanda, a
formidable online platform made up of hundreds of thousands of writers and
millions of active readers who leaf through billions of pages every month. In August
2010, Shanda launched its Bambook e-reader, at a price below the Kindles.
Another heavyweight player is Apabi, the digital branch of the technology group
Founder, which since 2001 has been offering IT solutions to the publishing world.
Last but not least, the manufacturer Hanvon is also aiming to position itself as a
distributor of digital publications in order to avoid a devastating price war.
Anyway, as in other developing regions, the platform on which the greatest flow
of digital content is circulating in China is not e-readers, but rather mobile phones.
The three main cell phone operatorsChina Mobile, China Unicom and China
Telecomaccount for around 900 million users, which give these communications
giants an extraordinary margin for manoeuvre to develop their own operating
systems and to distribute publication apps via dedicated portals.
There are a number of forces within the Chinese digital publishing sector that are
likely to be sustained in the medium term: (1) first of all, like in Brazil and India, a
new middle class is being rapidly incorporated into the market, particularly into the
consumption of digital content; (2) insofar as these new sectors enter the market for
cultural consumption without any mediation on the part of the analogue book, we
may witness an even quicker expansion of online literature; (3) there will certainly
be more copyright-related lawsuits, as well as innovations in Chinese legislation; (4)
massive growth in demand and increasing competition will bring down the price of
all the electronic devices involved: e-readers, computers, mobile phones and tablets;
(5) the public sector will go on investing heavily to restructure its publishing
industry; (6) the main players in Chinese digital publishing will seek to impose the
game rules on their own territory; it will thus be extremely interesting to observe the
way these actors react to developments in American and European platforms; (7)
Finally, the AsiaPacific region, with China at its core, will become more aware of
its potential in the field of electronic publishing.

Conclusions: A Diverse and Vibrant Landscape


From the point of view of technology, there are four prime movers that continually
crop up: POD, online platforms, e-readersand tabletsand mobile phones.
POD, which is relatively strong in Latin America, is less widespread in SubSaharan Africa and the Arab world, in spite of the important advance this tool might
represent in countries with few bookstores and a fragile distribution system.
17

Cf. [3].

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As far as online platforms are concerned, except for DC Books in India, the most
dynamic examples are provided by local software or video games companies rather
than traditional actors from the book sector. But for China, these sites tend to be
supplied by foreign aggregators (in particular from the US, the UK and Spain), since
obtaining autochthonous content is still an arduous task.
In the field of e-readers and tablets, China and Russia lead global production.
There, as well as in India and Brazilcountries that have also ventured into this
terrain, native devices usually offer numerous advantages over imported models
such as the Kindle or the iPad: (1) first of all, they are sometimes more economical
thanks to savings on shipping and customs charges; (2) also, they are generally
designed with the local population in mind; thus, for example, some devices come
with an interface in regional languages, something that gadgets from the North do
not cater for; (3) in addition, they usually offer a permanent connection to platforms
also from the country, which demonstrate better judgment in pricing policies and
text selection.
As we have seen, one area with great potential in all regions is the mobile phone
network. India, China and South Africa are leading the vanguard and local
entrepreneurs sometimes demonstrate know-how comparable to that of other actors
from Europe or the US. There is still a great deal left to explore, with regard to both
formats and business models, but the opportunities in this area are extraordinary, for
various reasons: (1) mobile phones are an existing platform with high penetration
throughout the social pyramid; (2) in many countries of Africa, mobile phones
already incorporate electronic payment systems, giving publishers a privileged
commercial platform; (3) the mobile phone network is particularly beneficial for
local publishers, who have the advantage of being on the ground and in contact with
authors that publish in native languages, in addition to being much more familiar
with the publics needs.
In any case, it is clear that digital in the South plays a very different role to the
one it does in the North. Indeed, in countries such as France or the UK, where paper
publishing works acceptably well, digital appears as an extra layer that is not
generally considered vital by traditional actors. In contrast, in developing countries,
where book distribution faces enormous challenges, new technologies may work as
an accelerator that could help local players to skip a stage and position themselves at
a much more advanced level.
However, as we stated at the beginning of this article, for local actors to really
benefit from digital, it will be essential for them not to adopt infrastructures and
models implanted from outside on an as is basis. In our view, any approach based
on a top-down or deus ex machina strategy could prove not only ineffective but
also harmful, in that it might add confusion and eventually postpone the
strengthening of durable digital ecosystems in each region. What would be
needed, instead, is to make sure that local actorsauthors, readers, publishers,
entrepreneurs, booksellers, distributors, programmers, web designers and videogames developersbuild new alliances and work together on further explorations
within their own context.

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