Prospects of Mobile Phone Publishing as an Alternative Model to Digital Publishing in Developing Countries

Introduction: The Digital Revolution and E-Publishing

The onset of the digital age, spurred by major advances in computing and communication technology in the later half of the 20th century, has undeniably touched and virtually transformed every aspect of our lives as humans–from the way we interact with another to the way we transact business. In the publishing world, the advent of digital publishing–the process of publishing contents in electronic formats–as a result of the infusion of digital technology into publishing systems and practices, has dramatically altered the way in which texts are developed, packaged and distributed . As described by Dunder (n.d.), digital publishing has taken the world by storm, with publishers adapting to various digital publishing ventures such as electronic book publishing, digital magazines and online journals, among others. These systems have not only given a dynamic tune to publishing, but has also greatly transformed the rate of access to information and user interactivity, while easing the cost and time of production, circulation and delivery of published contents.

The Potential and Challenge of Digital Publishing in the Developing World

The digitization of publishing is a breakthrough that can help overcome many of the hurdles associated with traditional publishing in the developing world, where industry-specific challenges, including high production and distribution costs as well as poor product marketing and external competition, have combined with other factors such as poverty and the lack of book culture, to create a huge knowledge gap with adverse impacts on the economic and social well being of the populace. However, with the rapid spread of the internet and mobile communication technology in developing countries, it has been expected that the adoption of digital technologies will both transform and complement the traditional, print-based system of publishing which is still the dominant form of publishing, with the potential to create and deliver information in larger volumes, at low cost, to a wider audience, while offering myriad economic opportunities and linkages that can contribute to national development. Indeed, recent studies, which will be discussed later suggest that digital publishing can serve as a viable platform for undertaking numerous ventures, including product marketing, sensitization and the provision of alternative education, particularly literacy and continuous learning to individuals and communities that would otherwise not be able to access traditional classroom instruction (Kamba, 2008). The UNESCO Family Literacy Program is one of such programs that are taking advantage of the penetration or growth of digital media through the use of computers and smart phones in the developing world to expand their reach. As well, many public and private sector organizations in the developing world, including universities, government departments and media houses, have began adopting various forms of digital technology such as online publishing, CDs and DVDs, along with electronic formats such as PDFs and HTML to enhance information production, storage  and dissemination, giving distant citizens the opportunity to access critically needed information (reports, breaking news, research findings, etc), while helping to increase government accountability and improving the culture of record keeping–something which is generally lacking in many developing nations. In sum, as echoed in a recent (2010) report commissioned by the International Alliance of Independent Publishers (IAIP), “the advent of new technologies present a great opportunity for developing nations, particularly in terms of diffusion.” These advantages, to reiterate, include low production cost, ease of circulation, increased published contents, etc.

Inspite of the numerous benefits that digital publishing is said to offer developing nations, the reality is that most of these gains have not been realized, and developing countries still lag far behind advanced nations in digital publishing, in terms of both output and impact. This situation has been linked to a number of challenges that inhibit the growth of digital publishing in emerging countries. These challenges include: lack of requisite technological infrastructure; low bandwidth availability; lack of financial capital; poverty; and low rate of access to electronic devices (such as IPad, Kindle, Kobo etc) related to digital publishing. Furthermore, the problem of payment on online platforms , related to e-commerce for paper and digital books, also comes up in many  geographical areas in the developing world, especially in Latin America, Sub-saharan Africa and the Arab world (Kulesz, 2011). The low penetration rate of credit cards, the lack of familiarity with online payment, the distrust of these practices, and the cost connected with carriage and customs contribute to the lack of success encountered by the sale of books and other published materials over the internet.

It is obvious that these challenges have limited the potential of digital publishing and these issues will take a long time to be fully tackled. In addressing these challenges, developing countries need to do no more than wait for the successful models of other developed countries  to arrive at their doorsteps from developed nations as has been the dominant practice. Local players have to avoid pure and simple imitation of western approaches, but to innovate in terms of whatever is most appropriate in the context they know to enhance  the penetration and survival of digital publishing. This calls for the need to develop alternative models that suit what is available in the developing countries.

The Prospects of Mobile Phones as an Alternative Model for Enhancing Digital Publishing in the Developing World

In the wake of the many challenges affecting e-publishing in developing nations, particularly those related to the high cost of reading devices such as the tablet computers, e-readers, laptops etc, one alternative approach that seems to be gaining increasing attention is the development of electronic publishing models through the use of the mobile phones. The concept of  mobile phone publishing refers to digital publication of texts (e.g., books magazines, journals etc) in formats that are accessible through the use of mobile phones.

Mobile phones offer numerous possibilities with regards to the penetration of digital publishing in developing countries, compared with other digital publishing platforms. Several reasons account for this. First, relative to the high cost of other reading aids–e-readers, Ipads, laptops, etc–mobile phones are much cheaper and are readily available in developing world markets. According to Zell (2013), Africa is the fastest growing region for mobiles in the world with a penetration rate of about 89%, while Hodgson (2010) notes that Asia has the largest cell phone market in the world, with over 2.5 billion subscriptions. Second, despite being relatively inexpensive, mobile phones offer similar functionalities as other reading devices, as can be seen in the table below. Thus, mobile phones can be substituted for high-cost reading devices in developing countries, given their relative accessibility and greater potential for reaching a greater audience.

PriceWaterhouse Coopers (PWC).(2010). Turning the Page: The Future of eBooks, pg.11

Added to the above, mobile phones also offer greater and more reliable internet connectivity compared to other reading devices such as personal computers and tablets, which require major infrastructural investments that are simply not available or underdeveloped in many developing nations.  On the other hand, many cell phone providers in the developing world now provide data for browsing at relatively affordable rates that are also more stable, compared to traditional internet service providers.

To add up, in many countries of Africa, as in other developing nations, mobile phones already incorporate electronic payment systems, giving publishers a privileged commercial platform. The mobile phone network is particularly beneficial for local publishers who have the formidable advantage of being on the ground and in contact with authors that publish in that same language, in addition to being much more familiar with the public’s needs (Kulesz, 2010).

With all of these benefits, observers now seem to agree that mobile phone platforms are probably a more fertile ground for new approaches to digital publishing in developing nations, promoting books and other materials at relatively modest cost to a much wider audience than was hitherto possible, and allowing new and innovative ways to deliver content to users. As Kulesz (2010) has noted, mobile phones, which has developed rapidly, have created new and highly diversified modes of communication especially to young people. For digital publishing it is clear that overcoming the lag in equipment – computers and tablets – will take a long time; hence, the use of mobile phones being economical, and a “soft”–temporal–solutions will be favored, since young people are very attached to their mobiles. In the words of  Vosloo as cited by Hemery (2011),“If what the youngsters have is mobile phones, then that is what we have to work with.”

Again, as mentioned above, UNESCO has identified mobile phones as an attractive and easy means to maintain literacy skills and gaining constant access to information. In their view, mobile technologies facilitate distance learning in situations where access to education is difficult or interrupted because of geographical location or due to post-conflict or post-disaster situations.Through its Mobile Phone Literacy project that was launched in 2011, it has developed partnerships with Nokia, which clearly draws on the principle that a mobile phone is not only a device, but a door to greater education and information and offers extraordinary opportunities.

Other examples of Innovative use of Mobile Phone Publishing in Developing countries

Although the possibility of mobile phones as an alternative platform for digital publishing in developing countries has not been widely researched, a number of concepts which employ the use of mobile technology to enhance digital publishing, mainly ebook publishing, have been developed to test their effectiveness with successful outcomes. Examples of these in Africa include the m-book series, launched in 2009 by MXit, a South African chat service provider with about 27 million subscribers, which sells books in chapters to customers in micro-payments. Similarly, 4MLit, another South African-based an online distribution site which provided a mobile novel, has since 2010 hosted with Yoza, a virtual library, and other texts to provide e-materials specifically for mobile phone users. In Egypt, the Kotobaria platform has also began distributing e-books via mobile phones.

Similar approaches have been developed and commercialized in Asia. In India, for example, traditional publishing houses such as HarperCollins India or Penguin have joined forces with mobile providers such as Reliance Communications Operator to  market their products. In China, due to the suitability of the sinograms for e-publishing on mobile phones, the content for mobile phones accounted for as high as 40% of total digital publication in 2009, reviving the taste for literary genres, including short novels and poetry (Hemery, 2011).

Related Challenges and Recommendations

Notwithstanding the numerous advantages mobile publishing offer over other mainstream digital publishing platforms in developing nations, the approach is fraught with several challenges, too. Among these include: the small size of screen display, issues of user-friendliness, and the ability to locally generate contents on a regular basis and translate these into various languages, which are few of the challenges affecting the development and penetration of mobile publishing model in the developing world.

To overcome some of these challenges, local publishers could develop partnerships with institutions and bodies that churn out content on a regular basis to supplement the generation of contents on a regular basis. These partnerships could also be extended to other phone producing companies in countries that do not have already existing partnerships to ease up the price of mobile phones and produce phones with the ability to  translate languages. Finally, the cost involved with digital publishing could also be subsidized by governments to enhance the production and reduce cost of publishing contents.

In conclusion, mobile publishing is foreseen to be a fertile terrain for new experiments in digital publishing that can spur many other innovations, including the exploration of other digital publishing models that do not even exist in developing countries (Oswald, 2011).


Bain & Company study (2011). Publishing in the Digital Era

Dunbar C., (n.d). The advantages of Digital Publishing

Hemery C., (2011.) Which way should digital publishing set its course in developing countries?

Hodgson A., (2010) Regional Focus: Asia Pacific – the world’s largest mobile phone market

Kamba M., (2008). The Changing Role of Researchers in Nigeria : The Internet as an Alternative Future to Modernity

Kon M., (n.d.) A new Digital future for Publishers

Kulesz O., (2010). Digital publishing in developing countries,,,

Kulesz O., (2011). Digital Publishing in the Developing World: Imitation or Autonomous Evolution?

Larkai V., (2014) Electronic Book Publishing: Where is its place in Developing Countries?

Oswald G., (2011) Africa in the study on Digital publishing in developing countries

Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PWC).(2010). Turning the Page: The Future of eBooks

UNESCO (n.d.). Mobile Phone Literacy – Empowering Women and Girls

UNESCO (2006), Using ICT to develop Literacy

Zell H., (2013). Print vs Electronic, and the Digital Revolution in Africa

3 Replies to “Prospects of Mobile Phone Publishing as an Alternative Model to Digital Publishing in Developing Countries”

  1. This is a very interesting study of publishing potential in developing nations. In particular I found the reflection on the movement of technological trends and advancements from more developed countries to be compelling. The push for a new, alternative model for literacy, use of mobile phones which are already an extant technological reality rather than waiting for technological infrastructure to make their way to these nations, seems to be a viable solution. This method not only opens an avenue for publishers to market and sell their products, it also makes content available and will work to sustain and expand literacy to a much larger population. Another point that I found particularly compelling is the idea of mobile phone publishing creating a space for dissemination of information and creating a more aware populace and a more accountable political reality.

  2. I really like your exploration, Velma. It was interesting, succinct, thoughtful, and clear. And this idea that digital publishing will help developing countries is great! You can see something like One Laptop Per Child and the piece of hardware that packs in 500 books definitely increasing literacy.

    I have no knowledge of the publishing industry in developing countries, so I am very curious as to what high production & distribution costs, as well as poor marketing and external competition mean (especially poor external competition). In Canada, we have the same issues. So I’d be very interested in how our industries actually compare.

    I think this argument would benefit by exploring one publishing house in a developing country, because if they’re not surviving, how can they possibly survive making very little money off of digital publishing. Sure, it’s great for the people because they’re getting it for a low cost, but for the publishers? At the end you put that the cost of digital publishing could be subsidized by government. Is the government subsidizing print publishing? If not, why would they support digital? And if so, and the publishing industry is in bad shape, then wouldn’t the government support have to be HUGE to make this extra cost work?

    It’s interesting that people cannot access traditional classroom instruction, but can access digitally published material.

    I like your idea that the citizens of developing nations need to tackle this problem themselves within their own context because our practices are not relevant to their problems.

    Mobile phones are growing that fast, hey? That’s very interesting and a good idea to take advantage of. Will people read published work on their phone though? Your stats show that in China, publishing on phones is huge, which is crazy! But where are the stats to show that people are actually reading short novels and poetry on their phone? Who would want to read on that tiny screen? Those who have no other option?

  3. Hi Alina,

    Thanks for your comments and suggestions. The essay provides an alternative to developing countries that are still struggling to find a foot with digital publishing. Publishing through mobile phones is one medium which seem to be very feasible with regards to available resources. It is not necessarily to impose this model, but to serve as a temporal solution while other measures are being put in place to help developing countries catch up with other digital publishing technologies.

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