Digital Romance Reading… in Africa

A screenshot of Worldreader's library, with Romance and Romance by Mills & Boon as #1 and #2Ready to learn about something cool? I hope so – this about blew my mind with the neat-o. I was contacted recently by Dani, who works for WorldReader.org. Their mission is to make digital books available to developing nations, and they focus on school children. But because they want everyone to assist kids in picking up the digital reading habit, WorldReader also makes books available to adults through their supremely cool app. The app is for everyone, as they want to reach as many people as possible.

Dani contacted me because guess what type of book is among the most popular among the adult readers? But, of course: romance!

When Dani emailed me, I asked her all kinds of nosy questions because I thought this was really freaking cool. I put together a Q&A based on our conversation, and I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

Dani

I work for an organization called Worldreader (http://www.worldreader.org) whose mission is to bring books to all. We do this by using electronic books delivered over mobile phones and eReaders, a solution which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of books being sent to children in schools and several hundred thousand more people in the developing world reading engaging stories on their phones. I'm writing to you two today because we've discovered, somewhat unsurprisingly, that no matter where people are in the world they love reading romance novels, and in our quest to acquire more of the kinds of things people like reading I'm thinking you could help.

To clarify on our audience, our eReader program is geared toward students (primary to high school), however in order to make our programs a success in the schools in which we work the teachers need to love their reading devices. We often try to put on exclusive teacher-only content that will get them reading, like romance. As for our mobile app, it's interestingly, mostly men in their late teens and early twenties but they also seem to dig romance, a lot…. We have a lot of romance stories from Africa, particularly by an author called Myne Whitman who is originally from Nigeria that you might be interested in.

Screenshot of BiNu app osSarah:

How did you discover that romance is popular? What writers are read the most?

Dani:

We can see what people are reading and romance novels generally have the most page views and opens. There was one book, by Myne “A Heart to Mend”, that we couldn't knock of out the top spot for weeks. Also, now we've added some books from romance publishers and they're accounting for an astonishing number of page views. Finally, we did a survey and when asked our readers said they liked reading romance (and non fiction).

Sarah:

How does your service work? Are the books provided free or do readers have to buy them? Which countries are using your app?

Dani:

The books are free and the bulk of our readership is in India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Ethiopia, though most African countries have at least some readership. In order to access The Worldreader Book App people have to download something called biNu (http://www.binu.com) which is free and comes with a suite of other free items.

biNu's main attraction is that it turns a feature phone (a low end smart phone that normally runs on java, though the program also works on Android phones) into a smart phone by making it run faster and have items display better on the screen. If you want to see a demo of this, we have a page showing our Worldreader in action.

Most of our stories are also African as well, though we do have romance titles from the US and Canada and we're slowly acquiring more Latin American content. We also have a lot of skills development and non-fiction educational content (about malaria, for instance).

Sarah:

Do readers have to pay to read the books, or are they donated by the publisher? Are you looking for more material from American or European publishers? Are there (forgive me for not knowing this) many African publishers of digital material?

Dani:

Readers don't have to pay to read the books. Most of the stories are donated directly by authors, some from publishers. Publishers are using it to market themselves in the areas we have traction and I see what they are doing more as promotion than donation.

With most of our African content (including the books in our eReader program) we've been taking on the costs of digitization and a lot of the epub conversion has been done in house. There aren't that many African publishers that do their own digital conversion but it's slowly starting to pick up steam in the African market. Anything we convert we send back to the publishers so they have epubs and mobis of everything on hand.

Sarah:

Have you noticed that romance is far above other topics/genres in the ereading? How many romance titles and total titles do you have now? 

What languages are they reading in?

Dani:

In terms of the mobile phone app people really do love romance more than anything else even though they self report liking non-fiction as much.

We've got about 50 romance titles and about 300 titles overall. Our books are mostly in English but we also have Spanish books and a few French titles. We're working on fleshing out our languages since the platform (biNu) that we are on can display books in any language with any characters.

If authors want to donate I normally get in touch directly. They can choose to donate just to the App program, or to both our App and eReader program. Depending on which they choose they sign a contract, send us a preferably word doc or epub of their book and we upload it to our App. Instantly, our readers are able to read their story.

If I really want people to read something I just add it to our top ten new.

Sarah:

That's interesting! So the Top Ten New gets a lot of interest? That's cool. 

Which languages do people read in most? Do you know which countries in Africa use the service most? 

Dani:

Well, when it comes to languages many countries (for example Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda)  were all British colonies at one point in time. Most people tend to be bilingual or trilingual, speaking several tribal languages in addition to English. English is taught in all the schools as well and most official business and signs tend to be in English. Dutch and French are also big, but not in the countries we're operating in.

The countries that use the app the most in Africa are Nigeria and Ethiopia.


If you're interested in donating a book to Worldreader, you can read more about the services for publishers and authors on their website. You can also learn more about WorldReader's focus on Africa on their FAQ

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Rebecca says:

    Very cool initiative, with a praiseworthy goal.  BUT I do wonder a little bit about the exclusive focus on ebooks.  I see from the organization’s website that it was founded by an Amazon executive, and that the photos all feature smiling children with Kindles, and I can’t help wondering how much of this is a loss leader/product promotion in a developing market for e-reader devices.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with doing this, any more than there is with a publisher making content available for free as a loss leader.  But it would seem more intellectually honest to SAY that’s what they’re doing.  Especially since, at the end of the day, a paper book doesn’t depend on an electricity supply, a wireless network or even a “low end” phone, and can be easily passed around among many people, making it still a useful technology for schools…even in the developing world.

  2. 2
    Olivia Waite says:

    It’s always great to hear about romance on a global scale—thanks for the info, and the tip on Myne Whitman!

  3. 3
    Samantha Crawley says:

    I read a new novel. It said it was Fifty Shades for the assertive woman. Its the reverse scenario of a submissive intern guy and his dominant female boss.
    Here’s the link:
    http://www.amazon.com/Her-Toyb…

  4. 4
    Danielle says:

    The site’s FAQ addresses the question of why Worldreader has chosen e-books over paper books: shipping costs, immediate access to a wide selection of books, storage, text-to-speech capability for vision impaired readers and parents who don’t read, plus non-book content such as newspapers.

    The impression I received from the team profiles was that the CEO is a former, not a current employee of Amazon; he has held other positions after that. But the section on why Worldreader uses Kindles is too short to really say anything useful, I agree. Amazon is listed first among the partners, which include Penguin, USAid, and many others.

    I had never hear of Worldreader before today, so this was interesting. Now I am off to explore Myne Whitman’s site and books!

     

  5. 5
    JL says:

    I guess I’m just a big obnoxious cynic, but I don’t believe this initiative needs to be lauded quite so much. There’s nothing wrong with it, and I certainly don’t think one can say anything bad about encouraging reading. However, an e-book initiative will not reach those most in need of books. Yes, many folks in the countries targeted have phones, but these are not Iphones or Blackberries – at least not for the most part. Reading a book on one of the old-school phones would be insanely difficult. Plus, it is expensive to pay for electricity to charge up phones (many people on the poorer end of things have to travel a large distance and pay someone else to access electricity) so using a phone to that excess might be prohibitive. It’s common to share a village cellphone, too, since lots of people still can’t afford them despite their prevalence. It seems to me this initiative will benefit those who are already better off, not those whose access to books and reading is already greatly limited.
    Anyway, all this to say that it’s cool to spread the love of reading, especially romance, but this isn’t a non-profit that I would personally choose to support.

  6. 6
    SB Sarah says:

    As I understand it, the Binu add-on adds additional functionality and the digital reading software and library to an existing phone that isn’t an iPhone or Blackberry. The software is, if I’m reading correctly, meant to work on the types of phones most common in different communities.

    The access to mobile technology varies in Africa, and this Gallup article from Sept 2011 indicates that sub-Saharan Africa has greater use/access than other parts of the continent:

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/149…

    This article from Nov. 2011 names Africa as the second largest mobile phone market:

    http://digitaljournal.com/arti…

    This part of the article caught my eye, too:

    “Access to mobile phones is greater than access to banks. Even an African who earns moderate money may have to travel hours just to reach a bank. Merging the services creates a more trustworthy relationship between commerce and finance.”

    I think the possibilities of wireless commerce (and by extension, reading) are huge in Africa, given the physical distances between communities, and the changes that can happen in a few months are astonishing- I wonder at the figures of those surveys six to nine months later.

    Regardless, I totally understand that this may not float your boat, and I’m not trying to convince you that it should. I just find the differences in the way we find and consume books in various parts of the world fascinating.

  7. 7
    Anne Tenino says:

    I think this is a great program. I know it seems like there are problems in trying to push electronic media on most countries in Africa, but from my experiences in other parts of the world (I’ve never been to Africa other than Morocco, so I’m totally extrapolating here—take it with a grain of salt), countries without a lot of communication infrastructure are more likely to have a large population with cell phones than more advanced countries.

    At any rate, I wanted to add that I’ve heard from a few readers in Africa, and since I write M/M, they often are very happy to have ebooks rather than print, because it’s easier to escape notice. Being gay is still “illegal” in some countries.

  8. 8
    JL says:

    I’m just basing my thoughts on my experience using a cell phone in rural sub-Saharan Africa, but I can’t imagine any type of add-on making a one-inch by one-inch screen feasible for reading books. I think I’m also sensitive to efforts that push a particular interest rather than an actual need since they often tend to lead to more social inequality.
    That being said, on my second reading of this post and browsing the organization’s site, my wariness and cynicism seems misplaced. I’m imposing my concerns on what is an interesting discussion on how books are consumed. Sorry about that :)

Comments are closed.

↑ Back to Top