As a senior vice president of product and platform development at Amazon.com, David Risher was well aware of the potential of ebooks. But it wasn't until he left the company in 2008 that he discovered just how powerful ebooks really can be. Today, his non-profit venture, Worldreader.org, is undertaking an ambitious goal – to bring ebooks and ereaders to the developing world and, along with them, a self-sustaining reading and publishing culture.
Risher says that the "germ of the idea" came to him in 2008, while on a yearlong trip around the world with his family, to teach, learn and to explore. "We were in Ecuador at an orphanage, and I looked across the field at a building that I could see had books stacked up inside it. It used to be a library, but now it was locked up and out of use," Risher recalled. "Here I was looking at my two daughters, each of whom had a Kindle, and had read probably 50 books that year, and I thought, this could bring life to this part of the world, because we now live in a world where, theoretically, you can get your hands on a book as easily as getting a phone call."
With the help of partners Colin McElwee and Mike Sundermeyer, Worldreader.org, was born – a "market-based" not-for-profit organisation with the aim to put "a library of books within reach of every family on the planet, using electronic book technology." So far, thanks to donations and the generosity of Amazon.com, which has donated Kindles to the nascent effort, Worldreader.org has conducted two trials with ebooks, the latest in Ghana, last March. Their conclusion: ebooks and ereaders work.
In its first trial in the developing world, Worldreader.org officials reported that 6th graders in Ghana took quickly to the Kindle experience. They were able to use them in a matter of hours; enjoyed the experience; they liked the tools like the built-in dictionary; and they read more, thanks to the instant availability of titles. There were also challenges, of course. Setting up the readers, and charging them, raised scalability issues; there were environmental factors like dust and the lack of light and the lack of local content, and the cost and purchase of ebooks were a barrier in a part of the world where personal credit cards are not common. But the takeaway was clear – ebooks offer an extraordinary opportunity to establish reading – and not just in the classroom.
A key component of Worldreader.org's vision is to use ereaders and ebooks to jump start a reading-for-pleasure culture, and a vibrant publishing business in parts of the world where books and publishers now barely exist. For publishers in the developed world, Risher notes, it's easy to sometimes see ebooks as a threat, especially given all the unease about pricing, for example. But in the developing world, where a legacy publishing model has not existed, ebooks and ereaders can help publishers rise above the challenges, including the lack of bookstores, libraries and a distribution infrastructure, to positively impact literacy rates. "An analogy would be cell phones," Risher explains. "In the developing world, cell phones leaped over the whole landline phase, because they didn't have the legacy of the landline. Ebooks might turn out to be a bit similar."
So far, Worldreader's efforts have focused on Kindle, but Risher stresses that the effort must be and will be device agnostic. Amazon's generosity and his former connections have helped, as have Amazon's success with the Kindle device – especially its use of cell phone networks to access content, the only reliable way to access the internet in the developing world, Risher notes.
Right after this year's Fair, Worldreader.org will begin its second trial in Ghana, this one bigger, and it will report on its efforts in 2011. In the meantime, Risher says the effort needs everything non-profits traditionally need – including funding – but it is wide open to discussing involvement from publishers in any number of ways.
And, he stresses again, Worldreader's "market-based" approach (it intends to sell ereaders at a subsidised rate) is about more than pure charity: it is about seeding a viable, economically sustainable digital publishing business that will grow into a nice market for publishers in parts of the world where there currently is little business. "In order for us to be successful we almost have to do that," Risher says. "We need to be a much bigger force if we're going to establish a culture of reading and literacy. And we hope to demonstrate to publishers, and ereader manufacturers, that ebooks can literally change the world."