Thoughts on Net Neutrality and Zero Rating

I am in favour of net neutrality and not in favour of zero rating, whether paid or unpaid. Further, I support the deregulation of the telecom sector so that competition between telecom companies is a viable check on their commercial activities and such that users can freely switch to competitors.

Now that my position is out of the way, I also have to acknowledge that I am making an exception to a general principle of reducing government regulation and preferring market forces and competition to regulation.

In the context of the current debate on Net Neutrality and Zero Rating, the most compelling reason for my choice has been provided by Metcalfe’s law and the public utility argument. On Net Neutrality, I believe there are a number of reasons why telecom companies should not be allowed to discriminate traffic on the basis of source and they fall in one of two buckets:

  1. Telecom companies should not be allowed to censor or impact free speech of users. Giving them the ability to block or throttle traffic to encourage payment should be disallowed on this count.
  2. Telecom companies should not be allowed to offer preferential treatment to traffic based on payment because this will reduce innovation and competition and, in particular, harms the interests of domestic product and service start-ups and internet companies.

The importance of these two is multiplied by Metcalfe’s law – that such changes by any one telecom company has a effect across the entire public network, that is the internet, and reduces the value of the network.

This is exactly why I oppose Zero Rating as well, whether paid or unpaid – it tends towards creating pockets of disconnected users per telecom company and while this is valuable for the telecom company and the applications and sites that are zero-rated, it reduces the total utility of the public internet, as a whole.

PS: Karthik Shashidhar has a much better articulation of this that influenced my position and which you must read. I am indebted to him for his clarity of thought.

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Thoughts on Copyright Law and the Internet

For the most part, copyright has always been about a balance between the rights of creators and the general public. Prior to the advent of digital networks, it was comparatively easier to restrict rights of reproduction and distribution because the tools were expensive. However, we’ve lost sight that copyright is, in fact, not a natural right but a government granted time-limited monopoly. And much like all monopolies, has evolved to do little more than protect monopolistic positions, gut the public domain and restrict users rights.

But the Internet changed all that. It disintermediated, dematerialized and disrupted content industries and gave users the tools and technologies to right that balance; challenging the current rule of law has driven this to and fro between content industries using copyright law to protect their business models vs. the semi anarchic liberty of the internet. In the recent past, one could reasonably say that the Internet has seen major successes – witness the death of SOPA and the imminent demise of ACTA.

That isn’t to say there is no rule of law around copyright and content on the Internet. Perhaps users on the Internet are trying to reclaim the original intent of copyright law? Perhaps the answer is not more law but more innovation? Much like the historic battle over the VCR and time-shifting, if you look at things we take for granted today – the iPod, iTunes, TataSky+, MusicMatch – they pretty much all had their origins in titanic clashes between users and technology companies on the one side and content industries on the other and that progression continues.

And that’s a particular asymmetry when talking about copyright law and the Internet. That the overemphasis of infringing uses of new technologies consistently undervalues possible future benefits – not just to users but to content industries too. It’s this lack of focus on the non-infringing innovative uses that has been the downfall of the content industry – little wonder Apple is one of the largest sellers of music and video online.

It’s not just companies that have fought technological change. The composer John Philip Sousa once lamented that “These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country” in the context of recording music. But things are changing, though. Artists recognise the power of technology and leverage it. Such as multiple award winning music artist, Moby, who is not just giving away his content for free but encouraging listeners to remix it and even profit from it. They recognise that the value equation has moved from mere content to monetisable experiences.

There’s this story about James Watt and the steam engine – that while he held patents that covered his invention, the U.K. added only about 750 horsepower of steam engines per year and in the three decades following the expiry of these patents, horsepower was added at a rate of more than 4,000 per year while fuel efficiency increased by a factor of five.

To me, that’s the crux of the matter. Protected content industries propped up by copyright law have been disrupted by the Internet. And that’s good for users, copyright law, innovation and the economy. There’s something I read a couple of years ago – an artist was in discussion with a group of teenagers and in the context of content they said that “We don’t want everything for free. We just want everything.” Maybe it’s not always the law that’s in the way.

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Thoughts on Crowdsourced Content

As the millennium was drawing to a close, Richard Stallman wrote a blogpost where he described what he called a “universal encyclopaedia.” He said that the “… World Wide Web has the potential to develop into a universal encyclopedia covering all areas of knowledge, and a complete library of instructional courses.”

Amongst the many elements of such an encyclopaedia, he hopes that the “… free encyclopedia will not be published in any one place. It will consist of all web pages that cover suitable topics, and have been made suitably available. These pages will be developed in a decentralized manner by thousands of contributors, each independently writing articles and posting them on various web servers. No one organization will be in charge, because such centralization would be incompatible with decentralized progress” and that “… anyone is welcome to write articles for the encyclopedia.”

In many ways, what Stallman describes is a crowdsources and crowd-owned body of knowledge even if the work “crowdsourcing” was only formally defined in by Wired magazine journalist Jeff Howe in mid-2006. He defines it as “… the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call. This can take the form of peer-production (when the job is performed collaboratively), but is also often undertaken by sole individuals.”

On the 15th of January, 2001, an online, volunteer run encyclopaedia was launched by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. This brought together Stallman’s ideals, Howe’s definition of crowdsourcing along with two other crucial elements – open sourced software that anyone can improve and openly licensed content that anyone can reuse. It is more commonly known as Wikipedia and as it describes it’s scale, as of January 2014, “… Wikipedia includes over 30.6 million freely usable articles in 287 languages that have been written by over 44 million registered users and numerous anonymous contributors worldwide.”

While there has been much ink spent on debating the accuracy of Wikipedia, a December 2005 survey by Nature magazine found that, on average for a set of 50 articles they compared, there were 2.9 errors per article for Encyclopaedia Britannica versus 3.9 errors per article in Wikipedia.

For the most part, it is safe to say that crowdsourcing has indeed arrived, been validated and here to stay. Given this history, the dramatic rise of people connected to the internet and the inherent human need to express oneself, many organisation – both for profit and otherwise – have sought to take advantage of crowdsourcing.

Some of the most exciting examples of crowdsourced content, however, are projects run by volunteers and not for profit. While Wikipedia crowd-sources text and visual content, a project called Lirivox uses volunteers to help convert books in the public domain to spoken audio that is available, for free, on the Internet and does so in multiple languages from across the world. Many of the public domain books they narrate and record are available on Project Gutenberg where volunteers help transcribe scanned copies of out of copyright books to digital formats.

It isn’t just for leisure where one sees content being crowdsourced. In 2012, Iceland embarked on project that sought to crowdsource a new constitution for the country and engaged over half of citizens of the country. While it finally did not pass in Parliament, it was certainly a first for the legislative process.

There have also been numerous sites that attempt to crowdsource news – some mainstream and some not. For example, CNN-IBN’s award winning Citizen Journalist programs allows viewers of the program to become journalists and submit reports which the channel does air. Similarly, there is Video Volunteers and CGNet Swara that enable marginalised communities to document and tell their own stories through voice and video. WikiNews and NowPublic crowdsource news from across the globe driven mainly by volunteers.

In India, a non-profit publishing house called Pratham Books (Disclaimer: The author is an advisor to Pratham Books) follows a novel publishing model where they openly license their content so that communities can personalise and adapt their books to local needs. For example, books they publish have been translated by volunteers to new languages and volunteers have written entirely new books based on existing material. Other publishers have also attempted to crowdsource illustrations for books they intend to publish.

One concern with crowdsourcing is the quality and veracity of such content since there is no single entity that might take ownership of the output. While this is a genuine concern, as the example of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica shows, with a large enough community of volunteers, problems of quality are much more easily fixed and far more quickly than in traditional models of content creation. As Eric Raymond stated, albeit in the context of crowdsourced software development, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” – which is to state that with enough volunteers helping with the crowdsourcing efforts, errors are quickly identified and fixed.

In India, crowdsourcing is only just beginning to reach a stage of growth given that Internet access is growing rapidly. With the linguistic diversity that India has, we can fully expect to see many interesting crowdsourcing models arise especially around languages and the preservation of traditional knowledge such as oral traditions of knowledge. Businesses and organisations in India should look to take advantage of this opportunity but simultaneously be aware that such models work best when they give back to the community of crowdsourcers as much as they receive, if not more.

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Thoughts and Evidence on “Open” Publishing

I joined Pratham Books in September 2007 for a six-month internship and it was soon obvious that I’d be there much longer. Their mission of “A Book in Every Child’s Hand”, the people and the organisation were fantastic and I ended up working there for five years. Currently, I am an advisor to Pratham Books.

Over the course of my first year, the mission and ways one could use to achieve the scale required without necessarily growing the organisation proportionally fascinated me. We reached out, via multiple channels and networks, to possible partner organisations who could use our content and the Nepal wing of the One Laptop Per Child project and the Open Learning Exchange, Nepal were the first who wrote to us asking if we could provide content for their project in multiple ways: On their low cost laptops being distributed for children’s use, in their eBook library and translated into Nepali for local use.

These were exciting opportunities. But we soon realised the limitations of traditional copyright law and the administrative overhead involved in bi/multilateral negotiations of agreements for content licensing and reuse – none of which we had the bandwidth or wherewithal to engage in.  Creative Commons licenses seemed to be a possible way around this problem and in November 2008 we took the plunge and licensed six books under a Creative Commons Attribution-­Non-Commercial-­Share-Alike India 2.5 Licence. (This is the blog post announcing the plunge. )

Our idea was to test the waters and see what came of this openly licensed content. One Laptop Per Child project and the Open Learning Exchange, Nepal were most enthusiastic partners and distributed our content to children who would otherwise not have had access to our books in languages that we did not publish in. It did appear that our early foray in to the Commons was a moderate success.

However, while this was a big leap for us as a publisher, it did have some push back from the larger community as Philipp Schmidt’s comment points out: “… the NonCommercial option makes things unnecessarily complicated, but since they are part of a larger commercial publisher, I suspect it was the mother company’s fear of the unknown (Share What?) that meant it would be non-commercial or non-Creative Commons.”

Simultaneously, I was also growing more aware of “openness” as an important trend along with the strength of the Internet. It opens up communities and enables new platforms.. It was obvious that a dramatic revision of existing publishing models was possible and long overdue. I was also curious as to the nature of a social publishing model that could be built using connected communities collaborating around openly licensed content.

Over the course of 2009, we, internally, debated the idea of using more liberal Creative Commons licenses and the Pratham Books Board was very supportive of the idea of licensing a subset of our catalogue under a Creative Commons Attribution license. We decided to license about 400 books under a Creative Commons Attribution license and make them available on Scribd and the illustrations on Flickr and began uploading these in October 2009. However, for various reasons, we only ever managed to upload around 173 of these books with the remaining CC licensed books never having been uploaded to Scribd and Flickr and is a process we have only recently restarted.

As we wrote in our case study, the Creative Commons licensing model is one that helped Pratham Books achieve many of its aims of flexibility, scalability, and its mission of placing a book in every child’s hands. We have been able to tap into a common value system of sharing and openness with a growing community of users and this has increased the scale and reach of our efforts. We have been able to license content to multiple organizations and individuals, both known and unknown, with a one-time effort of releasing them under a Creative Commons license, as opposed to the traditional model which involved time consuming negotiations and discussions with each known organization or individual who wanted to use our content.

This has formed a strong foundation for our social publishing model.

We have been heartened to see communities create multiple derivative works ranging from iPad and iPhone applications, to porting such works to OLPC laptops, to creating entirely new books from existing illustrations and creating versions of their books for the print impaired – from DAISY and Braille books to rich audio books such that we are now closer to fulfilling our mission of reaching every single child. We continue to track these efforts and are always amazed at what communities create and have been stunned at the traction some of these have achieved. For example, our books on Scribd have been read close to half a million times, on the International Children’s Digital Library we have had over half a million views and have been downloaded on various applications over a quarter of a million times. And in Nepal, where it all began, our books have been loaded on servers in seventy-seven schools and around twenty thousand children have access to these books. We also are fairly certain that the books have been used elsewhere and in different ways (For example, downloaded, printed and distributed – we have seen this happen but do not have any way of tracking such usage.)

The Creative Commons model has extended the Pratham Books mission in ways that we could never have envisioned but a question we have constantly grappled with is whether making our books available under an open license and, for free, online has a negative impact on sales. While anecdotally we believed it did not have much of an impact on sales, we lacked data that proved or disproved the hypothesis – until now.

Given that we had a set of around 400 CC licensed books, of which we had uploaded only around half, and that the selection of those uploaded to those not uploaded was more driven by chance than design, we found that we could compare the sales figures for those CC booksavailable online on Scribd to those that had not been uploaded to Scribd.


Individual Book Sales, Online vs. Not Online, Discrete By Month

We first looked at the individual books to see sales patterns over time and it did seem that the books on Scribd outsold the ones not on Scribd but it was hard to infer the significance of this or the margin of difference between the two when looking at individual books’ sales.


Cumulative Book Sales, Online vs. Not Online, Discrete By Month

We then looked at the cumulative sales,of books on and not on Scribd, over time and it was clearer that books on Scribd certainly seemed to outsell books not on Scribd.


Cumulative Book Sales, Online vs. Not Online, Cumulatively

Lastly, when we looked at the cumulative sales data for CC books that were available on Scribd vs. CC books that were not available on Scribd, we were astounded to see that the former outsold the latter in such dramatic fashion in almost a 3:1 ratio. While we would be hesitant to say, given the specifics of our market and our model, that making books openly licensed and available online increased sales, we are a lot more confident in claiming that, at worst, it does not seem to depress sales of those books. And that, in itself, is an important learning for us and as it should be for the rest of the publishing industry.

If nothing else making some part of your catalogue available online is a powerful way to build your community, your brand and engage audiences because content is marketing in itself. We were fortunate that this also helps us get closer to a book in every child’s hand in ways that still amaze us. The International Literacy Day events from last year are a fine example.

We hope our experiences and evidence will encourage other publishers to start making their content available online, in toto, and even consider openly licensing some part of their catalogue.

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Thoughts on the Future of an Organization

This was written specifically with Pratham Books in mind but maybe you’ll find something of interest here.  

“A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” ~ Wayne Gretzky 

Since 2004, Pratham Books has achieved great successes in the children’s publishing space. With over 10 million books and an equal number of story cards published, Pratham Books has enabled access to high quality multi-lingual and engaging reading content to over 25 million children. However, it is worth looking at this in terms of the scale of the problem and to consider whether our efforts are significant when viewed through that prism. With 300 million children in the age group we seek to serve and only 25000 new titles printed each year predominantly in Hindi or English, our numbers seem small but a very worthy start. For example, in the United Kingdom, 6 copies of books are published for every child but in India, we print 1 book for every 20 children. Given this, does traditional strategy work to solve problem at a scale that is almost insurmountable? It is not that it cannot – Walmart and Reliance models will work but the question is whether we are okay building an organisation at that scale and performing at that level. Everyday. And, of course, the capital required doing so.

To begin with, there are some fairly sticky questions for us to answer. Our mission, while laudable, does involve some confusion that is mostly internal. What exactly does “A book in every child’s hand” mean and what is the problem we are solving? To me, it means two problems of quantity of quality content (and corollaries of diversity of content) along with the challenge of access to content.

What is the problem we are solving? Our current model focuses much energy on the quality of content (rightly so) and the price of content but with focus on the latter and if access to reading material is the problem, are we simply moving the problem to a lower price point? And if we compete on price alone, what happens when other publishers are at the same price point – do we believe our mission is then done? A further question worth exploring is what we define as a ‘book’ – is it the form that we hold dear? Does it have to be a Pratham Book’ book? Or is it wider and implies that every child will have access to a book or even wider, that every child will have access to reading material. Then again, does that imply every book will be paid for and if so, does that payment have to accrue to Pratham Books?

As publishers, the biggest question we have to ask ourselves is whether we, who are content creators, are also gatekeepers of content or curators of content. I think with our Creative Commons model, we have answered many dimensions of this question such as acknowledging that the intrinsic and extrinsic value of our content appreciates when freed and that there a net increase in value, when freed from the strictures of copyright law – value that is captured by the entire ecosystem and not just by us. In a sense, our challenge is to create infinite good with finite time and resources. In some small way, our Creative Commons model has allowed us to create more value than we capture, to build a reading commons of content and to create real value.

For the most part, the publishing industry is still in the dark ages and as much as we are publishers, we are also educators. Given this mild dichotomy, do we follow the rules set by entrenched publishing players with vested interests in the current systemic setup where the old rules do not work anymore or do we make our own rules because if the rules of the game are killing us and killing our mission why play should by them?

To me, what makes us unique is that we work on things that matter more than money and sales, we take the long view and are less about selling more books and more or about getting more children reading. While we have innovated at a process, product and service level we need this innovation to be at our core: at a business model, strategic and management level. 

Assuming we are to make a dent in the problem and that we do not want to build a 200 person, or larger, organisation, a few thoughts come to mind. 

I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.” – Edward Everett Hale

The alternative to scaling the organisation is to enable the organisation to scale through external resources – in short, building communities, engaging networks and creating platforms. As much as Pratham Books is a social enterprise, I believe that there should be a greater focus on the social aspect, not as in media but as in community, than purely on the enterprise aspect. Social should not only remain an outcome of our work but the approach to our endeavours. We could, of course, be the 800lb gorilla in the children’s publishing space but it is expensive to feed such a beast and the beast is also slow and lethargic in responding to external changes. It also represents a single point of failure. An alternative to this, or the social alternative, is to be a herd of 800 gazelles – they are lean, nimble, respond both as a group and as individuals and have no ostensible single leader that is subject to a single point of failure. However, in theory, it’s far easier to manage the 800lb gorilla simply because it is a single entity but there is a way to manage the herd – to build, or even better, to be the watering hole where they can gather.

The traditional approach to strategy to solve this problem is to build multiple teams, in our case say content, sales, marketing and communication, that work in defined boxes pulling towards a common goal. Our mission is how we get there but there is a far more basic value at play – our purpose. I think we have understated our purpose, which is our reason for being, and overstated our mission, which is our plan for how we get there. This model works well when scale is the solution to the challenges but I am not sure that Pratham Books want to be in the scale business – we want to be in the impact business.

The alternative view of this organisational structure is a far more fluid state of being, where individuals share a common purpose, have specific skills that they hone but contribute more broadly than just those, and every outcome seeks to add velocity to the structure to drive momentum. I use the word momentum because in driving social change, it isn’t merely speed that is important it is also the size of the change and as a single organisation, the size of that change is limited by the size of the organisation. How then, do we overcome the challenge of scale and size without morphing into Walmart? (Interestingly, Walmart seems to be looking ahead too: 

“In the long history of humankind those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” ~ Charles Darwin

By bringing the outside in. Over the last four years, Pratham Books has built an enviable digital presence in new media and social media properties so much so that we have won a national award for our use of social media and the strategies employed. At the core of our social strategy lie three elements:

  1. Openly licensed content to spur discussion and community formation
  2. That our social strategy is anchored not in our brand and identity but in the larger context of our purpose.
  3. That we are consistent in
    our approach and the periodicity of interactions.

The first point is important because it is the fulcrum of our work. While people are attracted to our cause, our purpose and our mission, our content are basic building blocks in the creating communities and enriching conversations by functioning as social objects – objects around which conversations coalesce. Further, the open content model allows the capture of value throughout the eco-system such as entrepreneurs who take a chance on creating new formats or new mediums or organisations being able to change them in to forms that are accessible by those who are print impaired to individuals and communities who can localise the content in ways that are relevant to their contexts and that we cannot do. This is why our open content model is important and why changing this is to bring the entire community edifice we have built, using open content, down and with it, anything that we can do with and by community.

The second point is worth talking about especially because it is one we do right. Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Books, recently wrote a wonderful piece, and please do read this and other linked pieces in their entirety, titled “It’s Not About You: The Truth About Social Media Marketing”

At its core, the social revolution allows people to consume what they want, when they want, and largely on the recommendation of friends and other non-professional influencers.  Attempt to graft old models onto it and you are doomed to struggle; find models that are native to the medium and you will thrive.

Activism has been the core of our marketing ever since.  We tell big stories that matter to a community of users, and together we use those stories to amplify a message that we all care about. Framing ideas in such a way that they include and reinforce the identity of a group of people who might not previously have seen themselves as part of the same community allows everyone to tell their own story in a way that adds up to something bigger than any one of them might tell alone. And once they start telling their story as part of the bigger story, it suddenly looks like a parade. But what’s most important about a parade isn’t who’s in front – it’s how many people are in it, and how many people are cheering them on. 

The consistency of approach and periodicity of our interactions, allied with the two previous points has allowed us to build momentum and direct action in ways that have not been done before. In particular, the build up to our International Literacy Day event this year – we have, over 2 years, gone from having 19 sessions to 419 sessions that impacted close to 20,000 children. In one day. However, this was not without much pain to the organisation as running an event of this scale and being the pivot is a non-trivial activity. Which also means that they cannot be done frequently nor can they build momentum in any significant way. In many ways, we have looked at social (media) as an intermediate layer between the organisation and the external world but that needs to be revisited and we need to focus on how to be social, not on how to do social. Which begs the question, what can we do to involve the outside on the inside and to do it scalably, reliably and sustainably?

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” ~ Jane Howard

If we were to look at our work through the boxes we have defined – content, sales, marketing and communication – each one of them has the tantalising prospect of scaling via the outside-in methodology described above and ties in to our purpose and our mission. However, it is important that we create platforms, or more simply put, a kind of stage that showcases our work and provide visibility for our cause, that allow the community to function alongside our organisation and staff. The reasons platforms are important are manifold:

  1. They provide a way to scale without scaling the organisation proportionally.
  2. They provide a way to continually bind and engage communities even when we do not engage. While platforms are scalable, the scale also allows us to build sustainability and reliability  – because economic sustainability comes from a very small slice of the user base and hence, one needs a large user base while reliability, in communities, comes from a larger number of eyeballs .
  3. They are a force multiplier and allow us to tap in to networks and leverage the power of networks and as the network grows, the value increases exponentially.
  4. While social media platforms are great beachheads, or acquisition channels, they should not be our default retention channels, as we have no control over them. We can, however, build and own the platform.
  5. Lastly, platforms give us some protection against failure. The platform, once stable, needs far less overhead to function than an organisation does. 

Platforms are the best way to engage what Seth Godin calls Tribes. A tribe is a group of people or a community that has a shared interest. A platform then becomes a way for them to communicate and organise. From an interview

Big world-changing ideas have had three cycles. The first cycle was that you could change the world by building a factory the way Henry Ford did. If you could put productive people to work and make money producing something that made change, then people like Henry Ford and Andy Grove could cause world-changing things to occur. The second cycle had to do with advertising and TV and media and promotion. The idea that if you talked about an idea enough and pushed it on people enough, it could change the world. The third idea, the one that I think is really available to a large number of people now without a lot of resources, is this idea of finding and connecting like-minded people and leading them to a place they want to go. The internet means geography isn’t so important, so if you can find the 1,000 or 5,000 or 50,000 people out there who want to make a certain kind of change and can connect them and show them a path, they want to follow you. And you can use that tribe, that group of people, to make change that matters. 

What makes Pratham Books so unique is that we already have the start of our communities or tribes, that there is a shared interest in our purpose and what we need to do is transform that shared interest in to a passionate goal and trigger a desire for change. To us, outcomes and momentum are far more important that the size of the community we have. To be a movement one needs a spark or a basic purpose, which we have, a connection between the community members, a platform that we do not yet have, leadership, which we have, and a finite call to action and desired outcomes, which we have. There is no one better placed than us to make this leap in to the future of children’s book publishing. There is no organisation better placed to be the platform and not just a publisher.  

As Hugh MacLeod says, “The market for something to believe in is infinite.”

In terms of content, the crux of the platform will always be our open, Creative Commons licensed, content. It provides a base upon which to build and the fuel for communities to form around content
in multiple ways – across languages, across themes and across functions. Given the myriad possibilities that exist, and that have been demonstrated, it would not be wise to tinker with the license model here because it will break interoperability of content, will create additional organisational overhead in negotiating licenses, provide less value generation opportunities within the ecosystem and vitiate a very basic compact we have made with the communities that have grown around our content. Which is not to say that all our content must be openly licenses. While that is indeed a wonderful situation to be in, we can continue to hold some content back and monetise that through different mediums on our own. Assuming a level playing field, we can also create our own applications and products on top of our pool of openly licensed content. Competing with your community is only possible when a level playing field exists and everyone has access to the same content in the same way.

We have, in the past, tried to partner with organisations that have platforms that we might have been able to use or modify to use but divergent priorities have meant that they have remained minor exercises only and not something we could put our name on. However, since then, technology has moved on and new platforms have emerged for our consideration. In particular, I am most excited by what has to offer. It is a free, open source platform that produces beautiful, engaging books formatted for print, Amazon, iBooks and almost any eReader within minutes. It allows users to create books individually or with others via an easy-to-use web interface. We can build a community around our content with social tools and use the reach of mobile, tablet and eBook technology to engage new audiences. What is then possible is for individuals and communities to slip in, do exactly what they want to, from proof reading, to translating one word, one sentence or one book, to creating an entirely new book without too much effort from us. We no longer are the slowest link in the chain. Excitingly, for us, their roadmap essentially envisages the creation of InDesign (the publishing tool we currently use to create books) in the cloud – which is exactly what we need. This is not to suggest it will be a perfect match and some work in customising it will most certainly be required. However, given everything I have seen, I remain positive that BookType, if not a similar platform yet to be discovered or developed, will fulfil our needs. With that said, I would like to reiterate the importance of supporting the development of Unicode fonts for Indic languages and for using Unicode fonts for our publishing. It is no longer academic discussion – without Unicode, our books, in digital form, will not be accessible or useable and in time, will be unlikely to be supported. In addition, we will not be able to do crowd sourced translations unless we move to Unicode fonts.

With sales, we have yet to implement well-known methods for bringing the social element to our online and offline sales models. Our current sales model, outside of the Government led buying as in Bihar, does scale but scales too slowly and requires a proportionate growth in the sales teams to support these sales. The corollary to this is that the organisation then has to carry that overhead even in years when sales are slow. Assuming a base of 1 million books and 1 million story cards being sold a year, we will achieve a target of 2.4 million books and 2.4 million story cards in 2020 assuming 10% year on year growth and with 30% growth, do around 11 million each. Large numbers, no doubt, but still small in the context of the problem. This also assumes that the market preferences and ability to absorb technology does not grow but we know that will not be the case over an eight year horizon. Which leads us to two questions: How do we deal with digital? And how do we scale sales without building a very large sales force? The question of digital has been answered above and our open, collaborative content framework is key to meaningfully democratising the joy of reading and fulfilling our fundamental purpose.

I do not suggest that we do away with a physical sales team – that is and will always remain important to reach underserved communities but limitations and costs of distribution will remain a choke point. Within the ecommerce space, there are multiple methods that we have not really implemented – the affiliate sales model is one such model where we allow people to sell our books via their websites and other such digital properties in exchange for a small percentage of the sales transaction. We do not use online advertising at all nor do we do any sort of search engine optimisation – these are both low hanging fruit to tap. A subscription based model is also interesting: Buy or gift one years worth of supply of Hindi books. A hopeful side effect is an increased awareness within the organisation of the need to publicly state and produce a certain number of books every year. For our books that are now out of print, using an on-demand publisher, both in India and outside, are worth considering. They might not draw huge volumes but again, are very low hanging fruit for us to target. The last model, the community model, holds the most interest for us.

Lead generation from within the community is something we should look at – it need to be in the form of fees but could be simply in the form of credit to buy books or even social capital. We currently see lots of interest from individuals and organisations that want to set up libraries and sometimes need to raise funds for that. Currently, customers cannot create lists of books they want to buy nor can they create and share such lists for other people to fulfil buy way of charity or gifts. There is much promise in such a platform and even more so if we could include other publishers on this platform – a Library in a Classroom that isn’t just our books but the books the individual or the organisations wants. For non Pratham Books’ books, we could charge a transaction fee, a flat listing fee or ask for special prices that we could use to make a small margin on these sales. The power here really is engaging the community of those who need libraries versus those who can fund them while the beauty and simplicity lies in the fact that the former will actively solicit the latter growing our community. Indeed, we could drive partnerships such as the Pearson one, to have corporations fund libraries or book drives and because we have a platform, setup feedback loops that tie in to a rating system for those requesting books or libraries that will tie in to a public rating system.

One step removed from this is to replicate the First Book model – to set up a platform that allows individuals and publishers to donate excess stock of books to those who need it. Key to all of these community led platforms is that we build and identify them as being about our purpose and not our books alone.

Relooking at our Pratham Books Champions, it is very clear that while it was a success, there is no way it is scalable without significant resources at our end and there is no way to replicate on a regular basis as it takes far too much bandwidth to do it on a regular basis. Which is a pity because it has immense potential to be a movement to amplify our mission. One can mobilise volunteers around specific geographies, languages, themes or even institutions – say hospitals, remand homes etc. What we need, once again, is a platform to manage this from – a platform that will help use viral channels to sign people up, to stay in touch with, to solicit feedback (that we currently post – pictures and a blog post) that builds social credibility and capital and, in time, to open up to other organisations that either want to run book reading (and similar activities) or need such activities at their institutions. 

Assuming the above are implemented, in some form or fashion, I do not believe marketing and communications will exist in the traditional form. Branding will and must be a very strong component of our work – in many ways our brand is our message and our story of trust. These are two elements that are the easiest to socialize and should not be seen as verticals but as horizontals cutting through the organisation or as pivots, around which everything else pivots. The distinction between marketing, communications and social media is an artificial one and not one that should continue to exist. This is an area we have done well at and have learned many lessons from – I do believe this is a integration we can achieve sooner rather than later.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

In working with communities and creating platforms, one should be careful of not predefining outcomes we seek too rigidly or defining our universe that the community must come help build. The beauty of a purpose led organisation is that we co-create the universe along with out community and that is where all the magic happens. 

There are many things we need to do, however. Some of which, we have done, and some that remain undone. Our understanding of social networks is better than most organisations but we have not been able to create an internal social culture. We do listen, engage and build relationships with individuals and organisations but have not yet made the leap to building trust through transparency and to making the organization simpler. We also need to learn how to work with crowds, build specific learning and feedback loops and begin to govern through the network rather than try and govern the network. For most of these elements, the tone at the top of the organisation sets the example, needs to be demonstrated by action and cannot be delegated. Something that the CEO of HUL seems to have taken to heart

“Most people say we either need to do short-term or long-term. I say we have to run the business with a bifocal lens. Part of it is looking at this week, this month and this quarter and the other part is how do I shape this business and make it ‘future-proof’ five years from today. Both have to be done,” he argues.

So, he got himself a ‘reverse mentor’. A young 25-year-old at the firm was put in charge of tutoring the CEO on how to navigate the social media. How do you tag a person on Facebook? How do you write on somebody’s wall? How do you tweet? Most people at his level lead seminars. But he figured if he had to participate in the world his children were now a part of, he’d have to “go back to school” and attend digital workshops led by his brand managers, read the materials they insisted he read, and submit assignments they asked him to complete. When we last checked, he had 251 friends on Facebook; on Twitter though, he remains a passive participant.

Marketing Director Hemant Bakshi says Paranjpe was clear the strategies that helped them win so far may not necessarily be what will help them win tomorrow. “Because the skills and capabilities with which I grew up as a marketer are dramatically different from the skills and capabilities needed in the future,” Paranjpe explained.

While existing platforms (Twitter, Facebook et. al.) are great, they must not be our primary platforms because we do not control their agenda. They are beachheads in the social world but we must feed community back to our platforms where we control the development, messaging and purpose.

JP Rangaswami recently wrote two pieces “The plural of personal is social” where he says:

You need to start thinking of the customer as someone to have a relationship with, to get to know, to invest in, to trust, to respect. And you need to get everyone in the company to think that way, to act that way, in everything they do. And you need to do this everywhere, not just with your customers. Not just with your supply web or your trading partners. Not just with your staff and your consultants. Everyone. Everywhere.

And a follow up piece “Social is the plural of personal” where he says:

Social. Not a layer. Not a feature. Not an app. Social is the plural of personal.

Our mission of “A Book in Every Child’s Hand” has four areas that I would like to focus on:

1. More: There is an element of scale involved which is inescapable. To get more – books, children, reach, sales – the only common element is scale. Currently I see us grappling with this – How big should we be? Are we supposed to be big? Do we have it in us to be big? Is this big, big enough? If we are big will we be different? Managing scale involves a massive deviation from what we do on a daily basis – it involves a loss of control, it involves a huge amount of delegation and trust in employees and in involves a goal that everyone should be uncomfortable with. This ambition on scale and the quantity and quality of it can only be decided by the senior leadership and, to me, it isn’t necessary that we have any immediate idea how it’s to be done. Just that it needs to be done, because that’s what the ambition on scale is.  In short, an upfront acknowledgement of ambition on scale is inescapable – because, to us, our scale is our impact.

2. Getting: Our cause is a noble cause. It’s a fun cause. It’s a cause most of literate India can understand, identify with and participate with. Potentially, we are, sitting on a goldmine of resources – people’s interest, their time and their money in that order but the benefits of partnering with our cause is something that’s not trickled down to the last participant. How does my participating with us make me look a better person? Whether that is crowd funded content, or distribution, the end benefit for a consumer is the appreciation of an audience that they are contributing to a good cause. I see the role of a larger audience in 2 broad areas – content and building communities. Content acquisition need not be driven solely by our Creative Commons led content and can be driven by a broad method of user generated content as well. They supplement, rather than replace, each other and the former acts as a catalyst. That said, there is no escaping the need for a platform for this to scale, as currently we, as an organisation, are the slowest link in the chain. On community building – we are fortunate to live in a time where there are more and more people who are willing to deviated from the beaten career path, and still build a career for themselves. The skills of this new generation of “self-made” workforce, mirror the growth of certain fields – social media, content, food, design. These fields are close to our growth and any non-monetary contribution from this army of people will definitely benefit us. However a lot of this is possible only when they recognize us as a brand that requires their help and that there is great badge value. Our Pratham Books Champions program is a start in that direction. But we do need to build a feeling of belonging to a tribe. A cool tribe that helps one look better among their peers.

3. Reading
This for me is the toughest part, in two ways.

a. One: There is an overt importance give to reading technology and how digital solutions will be available for reading itself to be digital. The question that seems to crop up is “If digital devices are going to increase, then will we be ready with reading content for children in the future.”  The corollary to this is “If digital devices are going to increase, will reading be done on devices”? What if video takes off better than text? Will we be a publisher of audio/video reading content? Or are we going to be limited by “books”? And can we create a community that helps us be nimble?

b. Two: The digital revolution is probably best described as maddening. Suddenly you have women in a small town watching movies on their phones and sharing them via Bluetooth (true story), and at the same time no one in the whole town has access to any information off the internet (via phone or otherwise). There is still a huge market for a non-digital focus, so that means that we have two tasks – the now and the future. Can we handle both or do we build communities than can help us with these two tasks? And if in the affirmative, what do we need to provide to make this happen?

4. Children: The focus has always been children, and will hopefully be.

I firmly believe that communities, networks and platforms are Pratham Books’ best way forward to grow and engage communities, to build a purpose led movement, to co-create content, to build sales, to scale and to ensure against our own failure or irrelevance. Our model of innovation must be disruptive because incremental improvements will not begin to make a dent in the problem. Social must be our framework and purpose the glue that holds it all together.

Here are my recommendations:

  1. Set the tone at the top – Pratham Books will achieve its mission using scale and social as pivots.
  2. Pratham Books will invest in infrastructure needed to bring the outside in – from Unicode fonts to platforms.
  3. Pratham Books will create a modern organisational structure not defined by the strictures of traditional hierarchy but a far more fluid model that includes community.
  4. We will create a common shared purpose, something we can rally towards, which is not a pithy slogan, but something that is the heart of our organization and the reason why we come to work every day.
  5. We will set goals. At HUL, as part of most senior roles, they have to choose three goals they will achieve as part of business and one developmental goal. Why three? Because humanly, one cannot focus on more than that and if they do their three properly, and someone else does their three, they end up doing six. And that’s good. Why the additional goal? Because that’s an area one can contribute and the one additional goal is something that one is good at but the organization is not, and something one can help the organization get better at it. It makes everyone part of the company, and they really feel like they am doing something to help their teammates.
  6. We will create an organisational philosophy with a bias for action where an emphasis is laid on suggesting a course of action, picking up that course of action and seeing it to the end because that’s how new things are created. Bias for action needs to be rewarded and visibly rewarded, so that the employees understand that thinking like this is a benefit for both the employee and the organization. Three additional thoughts here, one that done is better than perfect, an internalisation that there is no such thing as a perfect plan, a perfect product, a perfect solution, but getting something done is better than wasting time on the perfect something and that we are always one 1% done.
  7. We will drive change, acknowledging that it is difficult both for the enforcer and the participant, and send a strong message from the top. And changes, at the top, when and where necessary, will be made. 

[This isn’t a very original piece. Many of the ideas and example are straight from 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era by Nilofer Merchant. Many of the points are from an email a friend sent to me with his ideas, thoughts and feedback on an early draft. This wasn’t meant to be an original piece – more a synthesis of existing ideas to create a strategy, of sorts, for an organisation I worked with over the last five years.]

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Thoughts on Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000

(A short piece I wrote for the Mid Day)

In February 2009, a few months after the close of the 2008 winter session of parliament, Pranesh Prakash from the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore wrote that “Section 66A [of the IT Amendment Act, 2008] which punishes persons for sending offensive messages is overly broad, and is patently in violation of Art. 19(1)(a) of our Constitution.” It is inexplicable that there has been precious little engagement with this badly drafted law, which has had the ability to wreck online free speech and freedom of expression in India, for over 40 months by either the media or citizens. 

Since early 2011, there have been at least five high profile cases where Section 66A has been invoked. They range from Jadavpur University’s Prof. Mohapatra’s case which was related to a parody cartoon of Mamata Banerjee posted online who was arrested in April 2011, to Aseem Trivedi, who was arrested in September 2012 for posting seditious cartoons of national symbols, to Heena Bakshi from Chandigarh, who was charged but not arrested, for posting “abusive remarks” against the Chandigarh Police on Facebook, to Ravi Srinivasan who was arrested in October 2012 for a tweet that alleged corruption and more recently the Palghar arrests over a comment posted on Facebook and a subsequent “Like” of said comment. While these are cases where the application of Section 66A has been criticised there have been instances where there has been no such criticism – take for example, the arrest of Saravana Kumar Perumal for sexually harassing singer Chinmayi Sripada on Twitter. 

A first order problem with Section 66A is that the restrictions it places on freedom of speech and expression exceed the reasonable restrictions that are laid down in Article 19(2) of the Constitution. Secondly, the wording of Section 66A is exceedingly vague and broad and many terms used including “grossly offensive”, “menacing character” and “annoyance, inconvenience” do not find definition with the Information Technology Act, 2000 and as such, do not find a parallel in the reasonable restrictions as mentioned in Article 19(2) of the Constitution. Thirdly, Section 66A seems to give rise to a duplication of offenses many of which are already well defined in our existing penal laws and further, increase existing penalties for already defined offenses. Fourthly, Section 66A is applicable only to online communications and speech which leads to an illogical outcome where there are different standards for restrictions on freedom of speech and expression online and offline. 

With recent citizen outcry and sustained action from various civil society organisations, the Government has issued a clarification that complaints under Section 66A must be approved by a DCP or and IGP before they are registered. While this does sound like a reasonable clarification, it is worth recalling that the complaint made by Karti Chidambaram was made, according to various media reports at the time to the Inspector General of Police in Puducherry showing that it isn’t necessarily the protection it pretends to be. With the Supreme Court now having stepped in, a decision on the constitutionality of the section is inevitable. 

Section 66A is a badly thought out and horribly drafted law that needs to go because clarifications cannot fix basic flaws of drafting that have given us a law that violates constitutionally guaranteed principles of freedom of speech and expression. Additionally, specific laws to regulate online speech lack a reasonable basis for such segmentation based solely on the medium and existing laws more than suffices to deal with these matters both online and offline. Finally, we as citizens, have an obligation to engage with the law making process because, as the aphorism goes, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

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Thoughts on the Freedom to Read

(Written as part of Nilanjana Roy’s series on Banned Books Week)

It isn’t always necessary to ban a book to ensure it isn’t read. With six in ten children unable to read grade 2 texts and half of all children in public schools graduating without being able to read fluently, most books will remain unread. The public education system has created, and continues to create, generations of children for whom books are effectively banned.

For the fortunate few who can read, there are further roadblocks on the road to reading. First, of the 80,000 odd new books published each year in India, only around 30% can be considered children’s books. And of those few, 50% are published either in Hindi or English. This, in a country that has 21 official constitutionally recognised languages and many 100s more used across the nation. It is fairly appalling that while the United Kingdom prints close to 6 books for every child, the Indian equivalent is 1 book to every 20 children.

To make the “Freedom to Read” a meaningful proposition in India there are at least three elements of the puzzle that require bolstering. We need more content, in more languages and ways of circumventing the high cost of distribution in India. ‘Innovation’ is a much-abused term that in the context of the Indian children’s book publishing industry, has invariably begun and ended with product and price strategies. For the “Freedom to Read” to be truly effective, publishers will need to create new models of innovation to address the entire content cycle – from the creation, distribution and consumption to the conversation around content – to make an impact in the gargantuan problem that this space represents.

These are not unrealistic expectations either. At Pratham Books, where I work, we have been piloting many such innovations across the spectrum and have diverse learning from these experiments. At the product level, we now have products that span the range from Rs. 2.00 to Rs. 30.00 and have multiple product forms as well – from story cards to books to newer folded paper story formats that are very low cost but maintain high quality standards of product and content. The distribution of reading material, so long as it is tied to physical formats, remains challenging but we have explored new avenues including non-traditional ones such as the railways and the postal service. However, the largest innovations have come at the strategic level – of what it means to be a publisher.

As a publisher, a constant question we ask ourselves is what the dimensions of our mission statement of “A book in every child’s hand” are and what the contours of the problem we are solving are. For example, producing low cost (yet, high quality) books might very well mean that, if access to reading material is the problem, we are only moving the problem to a lower price point. Similarly, does it have to be a Pratham Books’ book in a child’s hand or does it suffice to enable a child to have access to any book?

However, some of the more vexing questions go to the heart of being a publisher – were we acting as content creators and gatekeepers of content? What the rationale of keeping content, that had been published but might not be re-published, locked up by asserting copyright over it and whether there was greater value in setting such content free. Given our audaciously large mission, we had to find ways to create infinite good with finite time and resources and in the process, to create more value, within the ecosystem, than we capture. With this background, we realised that innovation at a process, product and service level alone was not enough and that we needed to innovate at a business model, strategic and management level.

Having answered most of these questions using “openness” (whereby, we asked whether allowing unrestricted access to use and re-use of their content furthered our mission) as a test and finding that it did fit our mission, the second set of questions to answer was more technical – how, as a small non-profit, do we accomplish ”openness” and not find itself overwhelmed and sapped of resources. It was at this point that we had a moment of realization – that reading is an extremely social activity and that there are communities and organizations that were more than ready to help it achieve its goals. While much has been written about this model of ours (see: and I will restrict myself to two elements of this strategy that strengthens the “Freedom to Read” in the context of the challenges laid out at the outset.

What this new content model, as outlined above, has allowed for is the creation of multiple derivative works, using a single Pratham Book’s book as the catalyst in languages we are unable to publish in, locally printed in places we are unable to deliver to and read in formats we are unable to publish in without any negative impact (we might go so far as to say, it had a positive impact) on our revenue streams. Most importantly, it allows for an inclusive “Freedom to Read” where even those who are print challenged have content made available to them in formats that they are able to consume.

Secondly, this ‘free’ content allied with our mission, has created an incredibly engaged, vibrant and active community around reading. A community of champions that are foot soldiers in making this right to read significant – over the last three years, we have experimented with assisting individuals hold book reading or book launch sessions in geographies in which we are absent. This came to pass as a request from the community itself – that while Pratham Books could not be present everywhere, the community was and all they needed was a minimum amount of material support to extend our reach. Year 1 saw 19 such events on a single day, year 2 saw 54 and this year, we had over 400 reading sessions conducted by over 170 champions covering 28 states and 2 union territories done in 5 languages that the book was published in along with 9 new languages that the book was translated in to by the champions and impacted over 18000 children. All in one day. (see: and:

For the “Freedom to Read” to be effective, innovation must be at the core of the publishing world, not merely at the periphery and we must leverage the power of the collective to achieve this societal goal. But mostly, it involves us, as individuals and as a nation, acknowledging that it as an important and basic right. Without that, stasis is all that remains.

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