I previously wrote from the incredibly comfortable position of someone who has access to reading material in various formats: besides a large choice of paper books and magazines which I can borrow for free from a library or purchase at a relatively affordable rate, I own a laptop, a Kindle e-reader and a smartphone that can all be used to read. It is no secret that most readers or would-be readers in the world do not have all these resources at their disposal and hence end up having their reading options severely curtailed.
A library in your pocket
One device most of them do have though, is a mobile phone: there are more than 6 billion mobile subscritions worldwide, a figure that must be nuanced by the fact that mobile ownership is not evenly distributed and that most of the devices are not connected to the Internet. I’ve read that there are technologies that enable reading even on simple handsets [ie not smartphones] but I am not sure how this works as I’ve never tried it myself.
Still: mobile reading is already big, with apps such as Okada Books and Safari Tales opening up new publishing perspectives by providing a service designed specifically for a mobile experience. Some reading apps allow the user to open ebook formats initially designed for e-readers, thus broadening the scope of reading material to other types of digital content, like the Ankara Press romance series.
Convenience and affordability
Though it is true that access to books, even in schoools, is an issue in many parts of the world, a recent Unesco survey on mobile reading habits carried out in seven countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe) showed that the main reason for turning to mobile phones for reading is convenience, followed by affordability.
The convenience argument points to the fact that reading on a mobile phone becomes an activity completely embedded in daily life, just like checking social media notifications. Reading time does not have to be planned since the phone is an object we carry around with us all day. Finally, people around you can’t snatch a look at the book cover and find out whether you’re revising for your upcoming exam or reading a romance novel (one of the more popular genres along with educational and religious books).
That affordability matters so much will be obvious to anyone who’s walked into a bookshop in East Africa. Price tags are the same as in London, meaning that new books are out of reach of the average reader’s pocket. On the other hand, book hawkers rank well on affordability but one can never be sure to find relevant content ; you have to be willing to shop around and take chances. It’s a fun experience…for those of us who are already hooked on reading.
The affordability argument only makes sense to a point, because there is still a major entry barrier which is to purchase the smartphone in the first place.
A rocky start
So, yes, there is definitely some hope that digital publishing designed for mobile devices will take off, mostly because it bypasses some of the costs and logistical issues that hinder physical book publication and distribution.
However, the economic model will need some fine-tuning, especially with regards to payment methods – seeing as mobile money transfers have not conquered the world (yet). At the moment, as Alexander Polzin of WorldReader pointed out last year, paying for books on mobile isn’t easy enough. This is a make or break issue if mobile reading is going to become mainstream and some solutions are being experimented. Okada Books offers several means of payment within Nigeria : GTB Bank Transfer, Zenith Bank Transfer, PayPal, and Etisalat top-up card. This last option sounds really straight-forward, given that one does not have to be an Etisalat customer.
The Unesco report also mentions lack of reliable data connectivity hindering the reading experience with apps that offer only streaming and no download. Options do exist for offline reading though (I’m thinking of Okada and Pocket. Pocket is not designed specifically for book reading but it’s great to save longer texts to read on public transport for instance.)
Of course, mobile reading does not magically erase all inequalities : what it can do is contribute to enhancing literacy and giving enthusiastic readers access to material they are interested in reading. But let’s not forget that mobile ownership and patterns of usage are not uniform across sex and age groups : women are less likely than men to own a mobile phone, and when they do, it’s less likely to be a smartphone (Unesco report, p. 29) ; finally, mobile readers are typically under 25.
At the beginning of this post, I could also have mentioned that I am able to find all sorts of information and a wide range of literature in languages I feel comfortable reading. In 2015, it’s still not something to be taken for granted.