Digital Gridlock: Could Social Entrepreneurship Help the Struggling Publishing World?

As publishers wrestle with the world of digital and what it means for their traditional print model, one social entrepreneur is coming up with solutions that could benefit bottom lines, and unlock knowledge to billions globally.

Rebecca McDonald, Founder and CEO of Library For All, is a woman on a mission. A warm-hearted, gregarious Aussie, her idea is to create an online platform purpose-built for developing nations that will provide free access to e-books for users living in poverty.

Implementing a horizontal model in partnership with existing institutions including schools, government and NGO partners, Library For All aims to provide access to three million users within three years.

Library For All caught my attention because it's more than a bold charitable proposition. Rebecca and her team aim to build an innovative model of public-private partnership, collaborating with publishing industry leaders to bring the project to life, and make them key stakeholders in the library's success.

The model is based on publishers agreeing to provide their content for free to poor users in developing nations. In turn, the Library For All platform will collect and analyze valuable data on users' preferences and attitudes, giving publishers key insights into emerging markets and developing economies.

Moreover, the licensing model will enable publishers to sell their digital content through the Library For All platform to users in developing countries who can afford to pay -- the wealthy elite, and the middle class that is a growing segment in many developing nations.

In sum, Library For All will create new paths to market for publishers into countries that they often know little about. As Rebecca remarks, "Like the publishers I have spoken to, I love books. Together, we can find a way to expand access to those who can't afford books and reach new customers who can."

So, how will the poor gain access to the Library For All platform I hear you ask? Fortunately, existing mobile technology in developing nations offers these countries the opportunity to 'leapfrog' the development of library infrastructure that could take decades, and reach users directly with e-books and other content.

The vast majority of the world's mobile subscribers -- five billion people -- live in the developing world, representing a huge distribution network for providing the poor with access to knowledge and information.

To reach these mobile users, Library For All is partnering with biNu, a mobile platform that can turn low-end mobile phones into a smartphone -- equipped with an e-reader. Partnerships with Worldreader and One Laptop Per Child, are also in the pipeline.

'Unlocking knowledge' is Library For All's mission. Rebecca was inspired to found the organization whilst working on a solar project in Haiti. Through that project she encountered Noel and Alex -- two bright Haitian entrepreneurs, who had managed to get their hands on some MIT OpenCourseWare learning materials detailing how to build solar panels.

Using only this information, Alex and Noel taught themselves how to manufacture the solar panels from scratch, and now run a thriving business that is bringing light to Haitian homes and communities.

"Seeing Alex and Noel succeed helped me to realize that if these two guys could do that with a little piece of information, just think how a nation could be transformed with access to a library of free knowledge," said Rebecca.

For those of us in the development community, we know there is also a global context to this local story. In the past two decades, there has been an explosion in global knowledge production. At the same time, the economic significance of knowledge has increased. As a result, according to the World Bank, the poorest countries are at risk of becoming further marginalized from the global community if they do not gain access to new knowledge.

In this environment, Library For All represents a huge opportunity for developing nations. As Noel and Alex's story highlights, knowledge has great potential for improving living conditions and income earning capacity for the poor if they have access to it.

Before the Library For All platform can be piloted there are still some issues to be ironed out on the operational side -- including navigating the tricky world of international licensing.

To overcome these issues, Library For All is recruiting an Advisory Board of key advisers, including Jim Lichtenberg, former Vice President of the Association of American Publishers and President of LightSpeed, a publishing consulting firm.

Library For All is also hosting a 'Digital Library Huddle' on the 21st and 22nd of September in New York, gathering together key industry experts and executives from the top publishing houses to discuss digital book sales in emerging markets, and plan a strategy for the distribution of digital books to the poor across the developing world.

"This model is about partnership", says Rebecca. "We want the publishing industry to take the lead in developing the Library For All platform, and helping us to develop a sustainable model that benefits everyone."