SPS-181: WorldReader: Giving the Gift of Reading – with David Risher
Literacy is opportunity. David Risher and his non-profit, WordReader, are bringing digital reading to developing nations while also helping small publishers in those countries learn about the digital opportunities available to them and expand their reach globally.
- Working at Microsoft in the very early days
- Building a friendship with Jeff Bezos and being employee 35 at Amazon
- Getting the idea to bring reading to a billion people in poor countries
- Taking Kindles to Ghana
- Why reading matters
- The secondary benefits of Worldreader’s work to publishers in developing nations
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
WORLDREADER: Creating a world where everyone can be a reader. Learn more and donate.
Transcript of interview with David Risher
Narrator: On this edition of the Self-publishing Show.
David Risher: We actually talked to a witchdoctor when we first went to Ghana, which is sort of a protocol thing. And what was hilarious was we were talking to this guy, a very serious guy, at a certain point in the conversation he starts tapping at his robe and it’s his cellphone. So that’s the world we live in.
Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers. No more barriers. No one standing between you and your readers.
Do you want to make a living from your writing? Join indie bestseller Mark Dawson and first-time author James Black as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success.
This is the Self-publishing Show. There’s never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello. Yes, it’s the Self-publishing Show wearing remarkably similar clothes to last time, it’s James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: I do have more than one t-shirt and you have more than one waistcoat and whatever other sartorial elements you wearing today.
Mark Dawson: James, you may have seen them before.
James Blatch: We’re always upfront and honest. I know you always have a go at me for being scruffy but you know that’s why I stopped working the BBC. I don’t want to wear a suit anymore.
Mark Dawson: And you work in a shed.
James Blatch: I now work in a shed and today my indoor bike trainer is arriving so the shed is going to become a place of awesomeness. It’s what’s been missing.
We’ve been busy recently and I’ve struggled with it before, getting on my bike and a lot of my friends do have these indoor trainers so we now get geared up to the whole virtual world.
So you do virtual crimes like the cycleabra climb we did a Majorca. They’d all done it several times and said it was remarkably similar on their trainers doing it. So I have been tempted into this. It’s quite an outlay but it’s coming today.
Mark Dawson: How much does it cost?
James Blatch: Sixteen hundred pounds.
Mark Dawson: Oh blimey that is expensive.
James Blatch: And that doesn’t include the iPad you need to go with it, or some sort of screen.
But the other way of doing it is to take a road bike, take the back wheel off and attach it to a thing, a trainer, to the gears. So that’s the other side. A trainer which is more common but you know your bikes cost in a starting price of 1600 pounds for a bike and then you’ve got to tie it up and then lock people at their bike which they paid three grand for is now doing that so. So I’m slowly justifying to myself why I’ve spent so much money on this. And also, as one of my friends said over a couple of beers, it’s your health.
Mark Dawson: Well there you are. When you put it that way everything is justifiable.
James Blatch: A lot of people do take this more seriously. I enjoy my exercise. You enjoy your exercise and we talked to Jo Penn about it before. But I remember talking to Russell Blake ages ago. He had a walking desk, he said. What a difference it made to him just having that daily access to exercise and Jo’s been huge about a fitter body and a fit of mind.
Mark Dawson: I was going to say finish that sentence.
James Blatch: You’re terrible. You’re trying to get me into trouble.
Okay look we can talk about your slaughter in the quarter in Southwold town.
Mark Dawson: What are you talking about?
James Blatch: Where did you go this weekend?
Mark Dawson: Well as we record this it was the weekend so when this goes out I would’ve been some time ago but a couple of weeks ago I went to Southwold which is a very pretty, picturesque village, well town I suppose, on the east coast of England. Not too far away from where I come from but couldn’t be much more different from Lowestoft. Lowestoft is quite down on its luck. Struggling a little bit where Southwold is gentrified and it’s basically Brexit land where it’s kind of the 1950s.
James Blatch: That’s a politically charged comment, for which he should apologize.
Mark Dawson: No, it’s true.
James Blatch: You portray yourself as a kid brought up on the wrong side of the tracks and he’s now finally been invited to the posh railway station on the other side of the tracks.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, well, it’s very expensive so you have terraced houses on Southwold Green that cost…you know a terraced house in Lowestoft would cost 40,000. These houses cost over a million. It’s also known as Chelsea on Sea. So all these bankers come down at the weekend and they buy houses.
James Blatch: What did you call them?
Mark Dawson: Bankers.
James Blatch: The other thing it’s famous for, if you Google Southwold you’ll see rows of brightly colored beach huts, which are beautiful. A unique thing to that part of the world. Well, not unique but there is a feature of that part of the world.
Those huts used to go for twenty, thirty thousand pounds. The last time I was in Southwold I think I saw one go for fifty thousand pounds.
Mark Dawson: Yes, one is on the market for 150, so you know it’s it is you can buy a lot of bicycle trainers for that.
James Blatch: They’re sheds that you’re not allowed to stay overnight in.
Mark Dawson: Yes that’s right. There’s a called Motherford down south from Salisbury which is similar to that. Very picturesque with these very expensive beach huts that you can’t use for anything other than basically changing your swimming costume.
James Blatch: You were not there to look at property, well maybe you were, but you were there to take part because you’ve been invited as a panelist.
Mark Dawson: There was no panel. It’s just me with 80 or 90 readers and actually, a couple of SPFers had made the trip as well. I spoke about my career really, so starting out in traditional publishing and then what I’ve done since then and some lessons I’ve learned along the way. I did some readings from my books, which was fun. I don’t normally do stuff like that. I normally talk about marketing so it’s quite nice to actually talk about the fact I can string a sentence together now and again and it was good. Very done well.
Val McDermid was there. Mick Herron, Nikki French, some reasonably and very well-known names and me. I signed some books, was nice to a couple of fans who had made the effort to turn up. One of them, a couple, live in Southwold and they gave me a very nice present. A bottle of Southwell Gin, Adnams gin, which was very nice.
And also they have alpacas and they’d named one of their alpacas Phoenix, after the son of my friend Matthew whose wife died last year. So they named it Phoenix and they gave me some of Phoenix’s wool.
I assume that’s what you call what covers an alpaca, wool, in a bag. I don’t know quite why they did that, but it was nice and it was labeled Phoenix the alpaca. I now have some wool in my house and some gin. I don’t know which of those gifts I prefer.
James Blatch: It wasn’t laced with anything was it?
What was the crowd like? It was kind of reader orientated, was it not?
Mark Dawson: Yeah it was good. I think they found it quite refreshing that I was open about the fact that you have to market these days. There were some wanna-be writers there who were starting out. And I think I opened their eyes up to what was possible. Some were new, others were a little surprised about what you can do and what you can potentially earn from doing yourself. So I think I may have converted a few to the dark side.
James Blatch: Good. That’s what we like to hear.
We’re talking not so much about writing today as reading.
So this digital revolution the advent of the eReader, the Kindle in particular, has opened up so many worlds. Many if you listen to this either on that journey or you want to be a part of it because it’s changing the publishing industry.
The other thing that’s changed is access to books. So where they were physical and difficult to maneuver and got damaged easily, particularly in more remote parts of the world, suddenly eReaders are enabling people, particularly children. Some of the poorest children on the planet actually to have access to books and education to open their minds up to the rest of the world. What a fantastic thing that is.
Now one charity has sprung up whose sole purpose is to extend that reach and extend reading into the poorest parts of the world. It’s called World Reader.
The man behind it is called David Risher and it’s David who I mentioned at the end of the last episode who was very high up in Microsoft, working with Bill Gates. He then had a random phone call with Jeff Bezos and ended up very high up with Amazon.
We’ve got a little story about that, which we will tell you off the back of the interview.
But one thing before we hear from David. I just want to say is that we were very taken with this absolutely fantastic project. And definitely for people who are being successful in this area which is both Mark and SPF we wanted to do our bit for it. So you’ll hear in the interview that I donated a thousand pounds, which is about fourteen hundred dollars, to the cause.
For those of you who aren’t making money perhaps at the moment and can’t afford to do it, but if you can, if you’ve got a little bit spare change, maybe five or ten dollars, if you go to WorldReader.org.
I told David that we’re a very generous and supportive community and we’ll do our best for him, so hopefully off this podcast episode if we will give a fiver or a tenner. Do you say five or ten on America? A few bucks to WorldReader with our numbers will make a significant difference and put these eReaders into the hands of little girls and boys around the world.
Okay. Let’s hear from David Risher and Mark and I’ll be back for a chat off the back.
James Blatch: David Risher, thank you so much indeed for coming to the Self-publishing Show. It’s a real pleasure to have you here. You’re a man with a vast amount of experience in all sorts of fields actually. But you’re putting a lot of that to good use with World Reader, which we’re going to come on to.
But first of all, I just want people to understand the type of success and experience you’ve had today. Can you give us a little presis of that?
David Risher: Well I can. You sound like my mother. She’s also very proud of me, which is very kind.
If I look back over my 53 years there’s this kind of interesting mixture of books and reading and technology and then doing things at kind of a big scale. So I was in comparative literature. I grew up. I’ll tell you about that maybe another time. But I was a comparative literature major in college. I’ve always been a reader. And so I’ve always loved technology.
In fact, my mother ran her own small business and she bought an Apple II+ years and years ago. So it’s ancient history stuff to run her business. I had terrible handwriting in high school so I literally would use her computer to type up my papers. As a result, I got to know a little something about computers. And I’ve always been a reader.
So when I left that business school I was lucky enough to join Microsoft back in the 1990s. It was sort of just getting Windows 3.0, Windows 3.1 kind of launched which obviously was a big milestone for that company. And I was lucky enough to be part of that.
And then in ’96 or ‘95 I got a call from this crazy guy Jeff. And he was doing the reference check of a friend of mine at Microsoft. He called me for this online Internet bookstore. He was getting up getting ready to take to the next level. And so over the course of about a year and I still remember that conversation but I can tell you that story another time.
Over the course the next year I got to know Jeff Bezos well enough for at a certain point us to say well maybe we should be working together. I threw my hat in the ring to join that company. So I joined Amazon back in the early days, in 1997 to help them establish their bookstore and create a music store or a toy store and so forth. I did that first for a number of years. I was the thirty-seventh employee at Amazon and then by the time I left it was a four billion dollar organization.
I did a bunch of other things around both edges including being a father and featuring a bunch of other things separately but that’s some of the some of what I’ve been up to.
James Blatch: So you were there at exciting periods in both those companies. The fact that Jeff Bezos himself was phoning around getting references, I guess somebody else probably does that on his behalf now.
I’m old enough to remember Windows 3. And I ended up being confused about how it works or what it was and the fact I needed to have this running before I could run this application and I now I look back and I think wow, that was it really. That was the birth of the modern desktop that we use today. We haven’t really changed very much from that moment but it was dramatically different just before them. MS DOS you almost needed to be a programmer to run your programs.
But you were there at that point when the user-friendly birth of the PC happened.
David Risher: That’s exactly right. I remember. As you say Microsoft, that the DOS operating system that’s actually DOS stood for disk operating system or some people say it’s also for dumb operating system because it was a very basic operating system and it was entirely character based as they used to say.
And Windows and of course Macintosh people will debate this furiously. So Windows was certainly the operating system that popularized this idea of a graphical user interface with a mouse, with icons and all these things. Today we take for granted and I was just very lucky.
I graduated from business school. In fact, I was interning at Microsoft in 1990 and I remember sitting at my desk and hearing these guys walk through the hallway and it was a company that doesn’t even exist anymore. It’s called Egghead Software and Egghead Software was a retail store – again these things don’t exist anymore. And they were going around handing out ice cream bars as congratulations to Microsoft and employees for selling a million copies of Windows or whatever it is. It was such a breakthrough and obviously a really seminal moment for the whole industry that was moving to this new paradigm.
James Blatch: You were you were part of this pioneering approach and you’re quite right. I should actually say that the Mac operating system very much influenced the move to Windows. But nonetheless, I think most of the world uses PCs. I’m a Mac person. But most of the audience is PC. That was a massive and significant moment.
Being there in that kind of environment, does that become addictive to you?
To this day, do you want to be somebody who’s changing things and doing things for the first time?
David Risher: It’s a great question. I’m not sure if it becomes addictive or maybe I chose it because I was looking for it for something like that. That’s hard for me to say. I can tell you that.
Maybe if I were lying down on this couch instead of sitting on it we might have more insight here. But for whatever reason for a long time I’ve been interested in doing things on that sort of a scale that’s maybe a little bigger than that and a lot of people are attracted to.
I’ll give you an example. When I worked in a consulting firm for a couple of years as an undergraduate, mostly just to pay back my bills. Here in the U.S. your student loans are quite significant and so you have to figure out some way to pay them off. And so I took a job at a consulting firm for a couple of years a wonderful firm in fact called the L K Partnership, headquartered originally in London. They just started a Boston office.
Anyway, after leaving that firm for a couple of years and going to business school a friend of mine and I decided well let’s do some bicycling. We’ve got a couple of months or hand before we get to go to cycling. And so we decided to bicycle from Portland Oregon across and back to Boston Massachusetts.
I wasn’t necessarily a huge cyclist but it just sort of felt right to me that you had a couple of months to do this crazy thing. So I use that as an example just to say for whatever reason I’ve been drawn to doing that sort of big scale things and then Microsoft certainly reinforced that, for sure.
Microsoft was a company that I mean look at its original sort of mandate, its mission or vision really: a computer on every desktop and every home running Microsoft software. That’s not a small vision.
When I joined Amazon, Jeff’s phrase to me was we want to be the place where you can come and find and discover anything you want to buy online. And this was the time when they were selling 15 million dollars worth of books in their best year. That was the 1996 sales: fifteen point six million.
But again I found it very attractive this idea that we would do something at a big scale. And now of course with Worldreader we’re trying to do something big as well.
So, is it addictive? Probably. But maybe also it does it sort of tickle something in my soul probably.
James Blatch: You mentioned Worldreader and I’m guessing to what tickling something in your soul is a giving back project, is a vision.
Is this a vision of yours? Is this something you started, David, or something you’ve come on board with?
David Risher: I’m lucky. I got to co-found it with a good friend and one piece of advice that sometimes I give people is if you’re going to start something, start it with somebody else. It’s hard, it’s a lonely business to start something and doing it with a friend makes all the difference.
The genesis of Worldreader and I’ll just jump into this for a second. We can back up a little bit. But the idea was can we use technology which again I’ve been a fan for a long time. And add to it a couple of other things to get a billion people read.
But those billion people are not folks like you and me but people on some of the world’s poorest countries. And so we started way back in 2010 actually a little before. And I can tell you the story about it if you’re interested but. But to date, we’ve reached about 10 million people reading on eReaders or tablets or mobile phones, reading from a library, thirty five thousand books, many of which we’ve actually published ourselves through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program. So the idea here is can we use technology, but as you say can we use it for good? Really to try to get it to create world readers.
James Blatch: Did you say 2004 was the founding of it?
David Risher: No, we started it in 2010.
James Blatch: I was going to say that because that was ahead of the eReader. I was suddenly thinking wow, this guy is good. Okay, so 2010.
But that’s still early days for the eReader revolution. And well done to the self-publishing authors who discovered it then and got on board because they found it a little bit easier is today to get traction and get going and they’re doing well.
So those early days, you had that foresight of thought. You didn’t just think I could write some novels and make some money. You looked at this technology and thought, this is an easy way, a convenient easy way of getting people reading in parts of the world where there isn’t easy access to electricity from because these things lost for hours right.
David Risher: That’s right. Yeah.
James Blatch: In those early days, you set this task of a billion people on the planet which is an appropriately ambitious task for you. That’s a lot of people.
How did you set about getting this to the logistics of how this is going to work?
David Risher: We took a couple of components you might say off the shelf and then added some new things.
So off the shelf, we knew that we had a Kindle and Kindle actually, I’ll hold one up here. This is obviously a newer version from the one that we use early on. But all of your listeners and viewers will recognize this product. This is the Kindle.
Back in 2010 I think was about a $249 product here in the US but we had a sense that that that price was going to come down over time. So we originally actually got Amazon to donate about 20 Kindles and each one of those we preloaded about six books.
At the time we were focused in sub-Saharan Africa. So we made sure that their books are going to be relevant in some way shape or form to Ghana which is a country where we started. And so it was everything from taking information from Wikipedia on a football team. We were lucky enough to sort of had the intuition that children’s books, of course, could be interesting to people all around and we downloaded a series of Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne, a classic American series and some other books.
And then we literally put them in our suitcases and went to Ghana for a week and worked from there.
Now the village we chose and this was through a friend of ours was really almost a dirt poor village but we knew a couple of things about it. We knew that there was a passion for education in this village because a number of people had visited there and given us the lay of the land.
Ghana has been a stable country since its independence from the UK in 1957 and focused on education. And we know they had some access to electricity. They, in fact, have some solar power and some on grid stuff. So anyway that just sets the context.
The idea was we preloaded books. We took them into Ghana. We sort of shuffled them across customs and didn’t make a big deal. And then we put them out in front of sixth graders in the classroom and we would watch. They would read. They read a Curious George book as well. And they would read the book and it would take a couple of minutes to get the hang of it. And they look up and see can we have another. We said, of course you can. Of course, you can.
And then they read another book, maybe imaginary histories. And then they’d read another. Then we even started downloading books off of the cellphone network and then it just became very obvious in short order that this combination of technology, which as you say, even though was sort of expensive at the time has gotten much cheaper didn’t require a lot of battery life. You had a screen which can work outside and it’s fairly durable.
So you put on some content which is relevant and local. And we’ve increasingly moved much more towards local content. I’ll describe that in a second and then do some we call capacity building around the teachers in the classrooms or to figure out where to use them in school. If we could do that and if we got a way to do it at scale we might really get billions of people reading.
James Blatch: That’s fantastic. I have a little bit of experience in this. I filmed in Africa a bit over the last decade or so for my production coming and the BBC. But I went to Assia, which is a town about three hours hard drive out of Accra in Ghana. And I did what you should do, I think, if your privileged and coming from where I am. I took an extra suitcase and I filled it up with school supplies and then at some point in the day I said where’s the school. I walked in there.
And without question in the 10 years of working in video production that was the single best thing I ever did. And I didn’t think too hard about it. But the difference when I look on their faces and they open the suitcase full of pens and pads and notepads and stuff.
It would make you cry to think how simple and easy it is for us. And it was like 40 quid’s 50 dollars worth of stuff, these notepads, and yet the school had no pens and papers for most of the children and struggled to get children into the school.
It is possible to make a significant difference. And you’re using this technology is made it that much easier right.
David Risher: That’s exactly right. Because you look at a product like this and this isn’t just bringing a single book. This is bringing three thousand books.
And that’s a game changer. And I look at some of these books now, we have 35,000 books we’ve digitized. So thirty five thousand books, and of course, they’re not all on every device. We divide it up by primary school or secondary school. But there are books from local publishers or local languages. They’re locally relevant.
They’re books like Koofi Has Malaria you know by a Guinean publisher. So you just think of all the sudden the world gets opened up. I mean it’s like having a sort of a magic portal into your hand. Imagine the excitement of those kids and it’s exactly as you say James, they are they’re excited for even the basics.
But now imagine they have something that is something that very few people on the planet have. It just completely changed their view of what they’re capable of and how much information they’re capable of getting their fingers on.
James Blatch: That’s an unlimited part of it the opening the imagination. And this is a part of the world where there’s still a prevalence of witch doctors working by the side of the road, which I know a lot of people I spoke to, local Ghanaians want to move on from that. But when there’s not much reading going on, not much education going on, those old-fashioned things fill the void and sort of slightly hokey religions as well pop up and so books can change all that.
Education can change all that give people a world perspective which is amazing.
David Risher: I’ll tell you a story about that. You’re absolutely right. And people know that. That’s something maybe that’s a misperception.
People think let’s say if you’re in the US or the UK you may think oh, the kids or the parents, citizens, might not know that there’s this kind of baloney hokey stuff. Now they’re very aware that witch doctors are kind of baloney. It’s very much part of the culture. And it’s not that they have no value. In the same way that there are also things that we’re superstitious about. We still think of them as having some value but it’s almost a nostalgic value. This isn’t a stage or this isn’t a superstition.
A horse is your primary mode of transportation. You enjoy horseback riding as a sport or is something to do when you’re a kid. Same thing here.
These are societies that are right on the edge in the making. They’ve moved way beyond that. In fact I’ll tell you a little story.
We actually talked a witchdoctor when we first went to Ghana, which is sort of a protocol thing. And what was hilarious was talking to this guy, very serious guy. But at a certain point in the conversation we’re talking and all of a sudden he starts patting his robe, and it’s his cell phone.
James Blatch: So there’s a ceremony about to happen.
David Risher: Exactly right. It’s just his phone ringing. It’s his wife calling him to remind him to pick something up on the way home or something.
So anyway, that that’s the world we live in now, is this end of tradition in the future but everyone wants to be digital if something can be digitized. We’re trying to help bring that and help these societies get more digital and move forward.
James Blatch: I absolutely don’t want to sound condescending or colonial about that description. Because it’s a reality and the people I was working with were a pharmaceutical company setting up these portable pharmacies and they would rather somebody went to get Maladrone rather than go to witch doctor they’ve got malaria for instance.
And that is still the case. Less so in the big cities. But once you get a few hours out, right into the countryside, that is the case.
And the portability of these beautiful little devices. I’m a huge Kindle fan. It changed things for me. I think I’ve said this several times on the podcast but I had the classic thing: my wife and I got about similar times and you can’t sit there with the lights on. It’s a simple courtesy. Somebodies trying to sleep next to me. The Kindle changed that for me.
So I read so much more now. I’ve always read at night and the small technological things can make a big difference people’s lives.
I want to talk about the books now because it’s not simply straightforward for you. You can’t simply pull out the latest Lee Child and put it on there unless you’ve got some sort of permissions and donations going.
How do you approach that side of things?
David Risher: So this is, I think, one of the areas where they say it’s better to be lucky than smart.
And I think we were very lucky in the early days. Maybe to say we came up with one insight and then we got kind of lucky. The insight was in order for reading to make a difference in your life. And let’s remember reading is a fundamental skill for prosperity, for health, for self-actualization, to become your best self. That there is simply no way for that to happen if you are not a reader. That’s not just me speaking the religion of reading. The facts bear it up.
So but in order for that to happen, what we say is, books have to be mirrors before they become windows. You have to be able to see yourself. You’ve got to be able to recognize your own context before you journey beyond that.
Once we came to that realization and it becomes quite obvious we need to spend time in Ghana or in Kenya or in Rwanda there are the issues that you deal with in your day by day. I was just in Nairobi last week. There may be issues of sexually transmitted diseases and we’ve used the example of malaria. They may be exactly the same issues you and I deal with on just learning basic math or basic science or whatever.
But remember that of course the currency symbols the Ghanaian CD is not the US dollar. See you need to be able to read with local context. So we are recognizing that that was an important piece of the puzzle. We went very early on to local publishers. EPP is a local publisher in Ghana. Sam Woode is a local publisher. Woeli publisher. These are fairly small publishers.
We went to them and when we said, look, we don’t have a lot of money right now. We’re just getting started. But we believe that digital could get people reading at a scale much, much greater than the analog world that we’re all living in today. In 2010 would you as publishers be willing to support this initiative by at first giving us the rights to use your books digitally and then over time we would pay for it. So that was the early conversation.
Hugely to our surprise, and we are still grateful to this day, most of them said yes. Most of the publishing houses in Ghana said yes. And then later in Kenya and elsewhere said we’d be happy to experiment.
But they said there is one catch, which is we don’t really have books in digital format right now. Of course they had books in InDesign or Corel draw, but from the 1998 versions of these software packages. And they certainly weren’t. Maybe they have PD apps but it was definitely not designed for it for use on eReadrs. Certainly no EPUB or MOBI files because there was no market for it.
So we said that’s OK. So part of our charitable model, because we are a non-profit, was we said we will raise money for this and we will, in fact, help you digitize these books. And we did we digitize thousands and in fact, you could go to Amazon right now because we then use the Kindle self-publishing platform to publish.
If you go in and type in Worldreader you’ll see some 3000, 3500 books. You’ll see them in English but also in Swahili. You’ll see Kofi Has Malaria. You’ll see Say It Stories from God. You’ll see books on reproductive health. You’ll see textbooks.
So we took on the burden of digitizing these books for the publishers and giving them back the files, publishing them through Amazon’s platform and then through other digital platforms later. And then, over time, paying them for the rights from the beginning, using those donated books back in our program to be able to jumpstart this whole ecosystem. And that’s what we wanted.
I was just in Kenya last week and the second part is really interesting to hear. Longhorn publishing which is one of Kenya’s biggest publishers, how grateful they were for our early investment in them and how much we’ve helped them scale up and build capacity over time because it’s been useful for them to see that digital process taking place. And they may not have had the wherewithal at the time to do that themselves so they’ve benefited from that.
There’s no question. And that was part of our model. Again as a non-profit we have to think how are we having impact in this world. And the most direct impact we have is on the hundreds of thousands and millions of kids who are reading on our digital reading platforms every single day.
But a secondary beneficiary are these publishers. And again that was sort of by design we said in order for a reading culture to really take root you have to work the whole supply chain almost and then to give you a sense by the way of publishing across Africa.
And of course we work in India and the Middle East as well, but just to use the continent of Africa as kind of a proxy for second: there might be five to ten thousand new titles published a year across the entire continent. I mean that is an infinitesimal number. Infinitesimal when you compare that to say the U.S. where there might be three hundred thousand new details published a year or something like that. I don’t know what the UK’s equivalent number is.
James Blatch: I don’t know the number but it’s big. Just the number of new books that appear on KDP every day is an eye-watering number now.
David Risher: It absolutely is. It absolutely is and so, therefore, that gives you a sense maybe of how we had to work with these publishers to help them understand everything from the digitization process, which is so fairly straightforward now but tagging your books. And what does that look like and what why would you do such a thing? Why would you spend energy on this? Even pricing them for international markets.
But if I look through the benefits as I say we were just at Longhorn publishing and Maxwell who is their CEO in Kenya, with Evans who’s there digital guy, listed off five benefits that they’ve gotten from working with us over the years. And I’m just reading notes from this meeting last week in that.
Helped us in digital transformation.
Helped to specifically digitize the content.
Helped us understand licensing and got revenue from that.
Gave us readers around the world and then emboldened us as a publisher to actually create some of our own digital offerings.
The non-profit business model is interesting. I mean it’s complicated in certain ways. Again that’s a conversation that we can have. Because fundraising is always a challenge itself. But it gives you also a certain amount, if you use it wisely, a flexibility to really help where you can have an enormous impact. And in our case, we’re very lucky. We’ve helped both within the reader segment but also our publishers kind of get the next level.
James Blatch: So how can we help you, David? This podcast will be listened to by around 10000 people next week and probably 30 to 40 thousand in its lifetime. They’re all indie authors. Some will be inspired by this.
What do you need from us?
David Risher: I really appreciate that question and it’s a question I encourage everyone if you’re involved in a nonprofit to ask because nonprofits can always tell you.
In our case, I would say thinking particularly about your viewership and your listeners. There are two areas that can make a huge difference.
The first one is very straightforward: funding. It’s very straightforward. We are a registered charity in the UK. We’re a 501C3 in the US. We are registered in Ghana as a charity. We’re registered in Kenya as a charity and registered India as a charity.
In each one of those countries what holds us back is not demand. It’s not demand for reading. People want to read and as you alluded to earlier there’s a hunger and so much of the world have been held back. So it’s a supply problem, not a demand problem.
And what allows us to do what we do to help publishers and to help kids is read, help teachers learn how to use digital technology in their classrooms is funding. Pure and simple.
We’ve been very, very lucky over the years to have support from donors from as big as the Gates Foundation and Jeff Bezos to as small as one dollar donation on the website. Of course, I always love the fact in the UK that a one pound donation turns and I think one pound twenty.
Any financial support you give us would be put to good use and you give it to us today and we’ll use it tomorrow to help get more people reading and more publishers publish. That’s number one.
Then thinking of course about your listenership and your viewership; we’re in the business of getting more people reading and that requires great content. And so to the extent that your audience has books that would be relevant to people in Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania or Rwanda or India where we’re working with mothers reading with their children. A big focus of ours is on the Middle East. We’re in Jordan working with refugees. Every refugee has a cellphone. It’s a lifeline for them.
And we now have 50000 refugees reading with their parents, reading books like The Giant Watermelon, which is a book from actually a London publisher that takes place in a refugee camp. Children who hollow out a giant watermelon and turn it into their own school. It’s written in English and in Arabic; a multilingual book.
To the extent that you have content that you think would be relevant please reach out to us and send us an email and we can talk about how we can use that in the program and then give you statistics back about how many readers and we have our content and sort of keyed certain of the Sustainable Development Goals. We have a health care collection. We have a general quality collection and so forth. So, in the end, you’ll find information on that on our website and if you don’t then you can e-mail us and we’ll get information. So those are two ways where your audience might be able to help.
James Blatch: Excellent. And I tapped in world reader to google before the interview and it comes up appropriately as the top response, so it’s very easy to find the Web site and on there, there’s a big blue donate button.
We’re very thrilled that you’ve come onto the podcast so I’ll kick things off and say that we’ll put a thousand pounds in from SPF and that will be on behalf of some of our listeners who can’t afford to contribute at the moment.
And I’d also say to people listening to this if you can afford five bucks and go in that we will do that. Listen to this interview and then that makes a difference.
David Risher: Oh that is incredibly generous. I don’t know if our video link is working well enough for you to see the huge smile on my face right now.
James Blatch: We are more than happy. We’re very grateful for your time.
I haven’t told Mark and my fellow directors yet but they’ll learn that later they’ll learn when they listen.
I’m interested now on the scale of the organization because in the early days you were flying out with your Kindles in a suitcase. And I’ve been to Ghana with a few bits of equipment and wondered what would happen. It’s an interesting experience sometimes at the airport and you’ve had all of that I’m sure. But you are now an organization with an outreach that spans continents.
How big is your staff and your logistics operation?
David Risher: I think the nice thing about digital is it allows you with a relatively small but mighty staff to reach just extraordinary numbers of people. We have 61 people around the world. We have offices in Ghana, in Kenya, in Delhi and then we have staff in addition to that in the U.K.
We have several staff members in the U.K. who do mostly fundraising and awareness building. We have staff in Jordan are working on our Middle Eastern program. And we’re actually just in the process of hiring somebody in Peru for a new Latin American expansion.
Now that 61 people though are supporting about – we’ve just crossed about 11 million people who have read on our platform in one way, shape or form. And I’ll say a little bit more about that and maybe make the scale a little more manageable because that number is hard to get your head around.
Every month we have about half a million people – that’s 500,000 people – reading either in schools or libraries which would typically be on a device on a tablet or on their cell phone.
And to drop it down one more level. Let’s say you are a Kenyan and you visit a Kenyan national library one of Kenya’s 62 public libraries. Or maybe you don’t even visit the library. Maybe you’re sitting in a community center on a Saturday morning and someone comes to the community center and puts a set of eReaders in front of you. That’s quite possible.
That event that I’ve just talked about this idea of either Kenyan libraries or some of them walking into a library and using one of our readers or one of our readers somehow finding its way out into a community center or a girl’s Support Center a women’s sports center or a jail. That has happened about 650 thousand times in the last 18 months or so.
So our program is active in every one of Kenya’s national libraries, every single one of them. On the cell phone side of things, we realized in about 2014 that you can’t get obsessed with technology or with a particular technology because as soon as you do that the technology shifts out from under you.
I mean this podcast in five years people will look at and it will be a museum piece because we’ll be doing 3D holographic type of things. And so we realized early on, gosh that technology continues to move forward and we better keep abreast. So a lot of our most recent development has been working on cell phones.
There are now more cell phones on the planet than there are toilets. You spent time in Ghana so you know this you can be really in the middle of nowhere. And as I say the witchdoctor with his cell phone, it’s really like. So a lot of our readership now particularly young adult and older readers are on cell phones and they on average when they read they read about 19 minutes per session.
And by the way, you can do it too. You can go to your Android store for an Android phone and download our app and you’ll see about twenty thousand books for free of the types of books that we make available. So we’re trying to be multi-platform so that we can be wherever people are wherever they need us.
James Blatch: So just circling back and apologies if you answer this before, but I know some people do write stories based in Africa and other parts of the world might be relevant.
How do they let you know about them?
David Risher: So the easiest way is there’s an email address: [email protected] And if you send a note that deals with either an interest in making a financial contribution or an interest in submitting a book then we’ll get back to you.
I have to say we have a bit of a vetting process, of course. Just because you have it doesn’t necessarily mean it fits into our scheme. But if it does then we’d love it.
And we’ve done a number of writing contests and things around the world primarily again focused in Africa and India. In fact, we have a current program going on again to try to get more content that aligns with certain of the Sustainable Development Goals focused on young children. So anyway it starts the conversation by writing to [email protected] and we’ll get back to you and let you know how you can help.
James Blatch: Thank you.
How do you reach the children who aren’t in school who haven’t been taught to read.
David Risher: That’s a hard problem. The best and easiest way to do that is to work with their parents through community outreach organizations with our 61 people. Of course, we can’t speak to everyone ourselves.
And so what we do now, I’ll use our India program as an example, we’ve been talking a lot about Africa but we’ve been in India for the last couple of years thanks to our partnership with Pearson. So with that, we worked with a number of different community outreach organizations, for example, one which focuses on new mothers. So it’s pregnant mothers. I mean even mothers who were expecting and it helps them in a number of different ways.
Of course, it’s a medical organization and so they’re helping them with prenatal care and so forth. But the evidence again is so compelling that if you read to your child from age zero that child will have a 10 times bigger vocabulary and will enter school at a much higher academic level than his peers will ever read to. And so forth.
By the way, parent child bonding also happens through reading, so there are so many good outcomes for parent child reading.
So to your question then we then work through this organization and in their clinics and so on and so forth and encourage that organization to encourage in turn their parents to read to children.
What we realized early on is that the world is this economic pyramid. And there is a bottom of the bottom of the bottom pyramid that we’re not you know relevant to. We can’t teach reading ourselves just using a cell phone. There’s no magic. That has to be very difficult for us to work with a family where there’s not someone who’s literate in that family.
But increasingly there is such a broad realization that literacy is opportunity. Literacy does drive learning and if there is a brother, there is a sister, there is a sibling or there is a parent and even if her or his literacy skills are low, understands the value of reading and then we try to reach out to them through community outreach organizations and work with them to help get their kids read.
James Blatch: Finally I was going to ask you what’s next. I was thinking through that that in about five years time whatever this podcast – you talked about me being a museum piece which I think I probably am now – but some things were changed. But that the glory of this is that the interconnectedness of all things is only expanding. And those fibers, those wires are reaching further and further the world every day, every week, every month.
And so your job’s got to be to spot those. You’ve already worked out the mobile phones with an easy way of delivering the content.
What’s next thing for you is this? Do you have an idea?
David Risher: I do know for sure and that’s part of the fun of this job. And I hope you can hear, I’m so enthusiastic about what we do even if it’s hard and complicated and there are all sorts of twists and turns that are unexpected.
The path forward is pretty clear. Reading is going to matter more tomorrow than it did yesterday. The technology is going to be more ubiquitous less that’s tomorrow. Yes, you can bet on these things and help more and more people as a result.
Then within that, some things that we see and this will come as no surprise to your listeners, audio is it is a big deal. You might think of audiobooks and this type of thing you listen to, you want to commute on the tube or what have you. For a lot of our users and a lot of our readers it’s a critical piece to help them sound out words that they don’t recognize. They see the word e-i-g-h-t and they don’t recognize it and maybe their mother doesn’t know the word either. But I can help there.
By the way, let’s take that to the next step. Reading assessment, which is of course in schools there’s a fascination for it for better and for worse but an assessment tools. The nice thing about data enabled devices you can get a sense of people’s reading speed. The aggregate how it’s improving over time.
You can even ask them to speak into a microphone and say recite this passage and we’ll give you some feedback on your reading fluency level and then recommend some books as a result.
But by the way, when you hear this you might be thinking British English or American English. But it turns out that Kenyan English sounds quite different than Indian English, which some people actually call Hinglish, which is just kind of funny – Hindi and English sounds different so. So we can maybe start to innovate around that too and help people read and hear good examples of British English, which everyone aspires to.
It sounds a little colonial. It’s actually true. There’s a kind of hierarchy and we want to spea like they do but also a more sort of vernacular level. So that was really important things you can start to do when you realize that with relatively little technical lift you can really improve people’s lives and broaden their view of what it means to be a reader.
James Blatch: We, Mark, John, and I, who run this company, know about English because we used to work as film censors in London and we did Bollywood films and we all love them because they would speak a long sentence in aggressive Hindi a word of which we wouldn’t understand. Apart from the two strongest swear words in English you can imagine. They’re the words you know in English. And so suddenly we had to wake up and make a decision about where that film went.
David, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you. Is this full time for you? I know you have quite a lot of academic stuff going on as well.
Are you still running businesses somewhere?
David Risher: Yes. This full time, which then you know might lead you to wonder how I could also do those other things but somehow those are full time. I don’t know how it operates. But you know this is the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning. Last thing I think of when I go to bed.
Jeff Bezos has this expression so I’m just going to borrow for it. He says you don’t choose your passions, your passions choose you. And this passion, it chose me as a kid, as a reader. I wasn’t the best guy in sports. All sorts of other things that I didn’t do as well as others. But I can read the shit out of a book and you won’t have to bleep that last word.
James Blatch: That’s not even worthy of a Hindi sentence in a Bollywood film.
David Risher: That doesn’t even rank anywhere.
James Blatch: I don’t count that one.
David Risher: Everyone’s good at something and I happened to be good at that so as a kid. So this is a huge luxury for me to be able to do something I’m passionate about personally.
I loved reading to my kids when they were younger. They are now 19 and 22. But I can still help people read and we as an organization can try to do some things that that that help the world and I wouldn’t trade my job for anything else.
James Blatch: Fantastic. David thank you so much indeed for taking time to remind people to go to worldreader.org and click that donate button, even if it’s just ten dollars it’s going to make a big difference if we all do that. I’ll leave you to get on with your busy world.
David Risher: James, I appreciate that thank you so much for your great questions and and also your support. It just makes an enormous difference.
And thanks to all your listeners and viewers and audience for joining in the podcast. It’s big and we’d love to have you be part of it.
James Blatch: What a fantastic charity and what a guy. David Risher is just one of life’s enablers. Just somebody who you want to have working for you.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. Given that he would have had Amazon shares, I don’t think he’s working for anybody ever again. But he’s a cool guy. I’ve never met him but what I did find out when I did a quick search of Amazon is that there is basically an easter egg on the Amazon site.
It’s a message from Bezos to and about David, about how valid he was. I think he was one of the first Amazonians. I don’t know have done if he mentions in the interview what number he was but I have a feeling it was within the top the first 200 or so.
So would’ve got stock and had now left Amazon and is doing his own thing now, but clearly a very influential and important guy in the development of Amazon and now doing something totally amazing with his time so we are very, very pleased to be able to support that.
And yes I’ll echo what you said, James. If listeners or viewers would like to make a difference then I go to Worldreader.org and you’ll find a way that you can make a donation and help spread reading into communities that otherwise might not have access to it.
James Blatch: Absolutely brilliant. And he wants to see us at some point. So the next time he’s in London we’ll definitely catch up with him. What a great guy. Well done David. It was a real privilege to interview you and hope that your organization continues to make a difference.
And also thank you for spending some time with us. And thank you to Mark who survived a weekend of alpaca wool laced with goodness knows what.
We’ve got some good interviews coming up over the summer. We’re going to talk about the business of being an author. Coming up we’re going to be talking about prolific writing again and hopefully we’ll have a couple of special episodes from New York.
Oh yes that’s something I should mention, isn’t it? When is this going out?
This is going out on the fifth of July which means in a few days time we’re going to have some drinks in New York. We are going to have some drinks at the Stout Grand Central, Stout NYC Grand Central branch. We are going to be buying some beers so come say hello out but will just be me, James, and John Dyer and young Tom. Mark’s having a well-earned break during that time. But he will be around and about in locations later in the year.
But do come to say hello to us in the evening on Wednesday the 10th of July at Stout NYC at Grand Central. We would love to see you if you’re listening to the show and you can make it to New York.
Mark Dawson: I think that’s it too. Yes. So have a splendid week and we’ll be back next Friday with another action-packed show of the Self-publishing Formula show.
James Blatch: It’s not as easy as it looks is it?
Mark Dawson: Sure it is, I’m just pretending to be rubbish.
Yes, so thanks. Thanks. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next Friday with another Self-publishing Show. And until then it’s goodbye from me.
James Blatch: And it’s goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: See. Easy.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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