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Book Dash: Flooding South Africa with Books

The problem

A fundamental requirement in raising literacy levels is the availability of enough appropriate reading material that is affordable and of a high quality. Quality here refers to material that is culturally relevant and available in local languages. However, in South Africa, books are expensive and families prioritize necessities like food and clothing over books. This leads to a tiny book-buying public and the absence of a widespread reading culture.

The low levels of book-ownership contribute to the shocking literacy levels crippling our education system. Low literacy levels carry a huge cost on the economy, and reputable studies show that improving levels of book-ownership for low-income children is a low-cost, high impact way of addressing the problem. But traditional publishing models aren’t designed to create affordable books for all. In response to this dilemma, Book Dash developed an innovative, contracted, 12-hour publishing model in 2014 to start flooding the country with more affordable books.

The Book Dash model

Our vision is for every child to own one hundred books by the time they turn five. To do that, we need to drastically reduce the cost of books without compromising quality. To produce high-quality, cost-effective books for all, Book Dash draws on the goodwill of a community of highly-skilled creative professionals. Everyone creating books at one of our 12-hour Book Dash events is a volunteer who freely gives their time and professional expertise. This includes writers, illustrators, designers and editors. They work in teams over 12 hours to produce 10 brand new, original African storybooks for very young children – and the grown-ups who read to them. They are driven by a passion to get free books to children who need them most. This passion often stems from their own positive experiences of beautiful books growing up, or because they themselves were not able to afford books and want to make a change.

Everything created during the Book Dash event is a gift to the world, and all the books produced can be read at Anyone can freely access, translate, alter, print and distribute the books in any way they see fit because the books are open-licensed. The books are used across 50+ reading platforms worldwide including the Global Digital Library, StoryWeaver, WorldReader, onebillion and Bloom. In just four years, we have created 117 books using our model, at 12 Book Dash events. And they have been translated into a library of more than 500 titles.

Book Dash’s vision is founded on research that shows the influential power of physical books in the home and book ownership on literacy levels and future educational achievement. To this end, we have printed and distributed 420,000 free copies of our books for children to own. The innovative model itself is also openly licensed, and we’ve had organisations and individuals across the world, from Nigeria to France to Cambodia, replicate what we do to produce great content for young children.

Case study: Many a little makes a mickle

One of the challenges in making books affordable is to print large enough volumes of one title to get the benefit of the economies of scale. We have experimented successfully with a mechanism we call a “collaborative print run.” This is how it works.

Grant funding from a donor is used as the base from which to leverage the print run. Together with the funder, we select a few titles from our library. An important step here is to maintain a good balance between a variety of titles and volumes per title. This should be informed by the funding available and the tipping point of volume versus price. For Book Dash, we aim never to pay more than R10.00 (71 US cents) per book. That means we need to print approximately 2,000 copies per title. Any less and our unit cost goes up.

The next step is to make the circle bigger. We invite all the literacy organisations we partner with to send us orders for the selected titles they would like. Sometimes these orders are as small as a hundred copies. If the organisation were to print the books in isolation, they’d be looking at about R50 ($3.65) a copy. After a cut-off date we collate the multitude of small orders, and voilà! Suddenly we have a massive order and we can offer all parties an exceptionally low unit cost because of the volume. Everyone wins.

Case in point – in 2018 we used a US$35,000 grant as the core of a print run. We invited our partner organisations to submit orders. Once all had been added, we could print 156,000 books for a unit cost of approximately R3.50/book (24 US cents). Without collaboration we would have paid R5.00 (35 US cents) per copy. A total savings of R234,000 ($10,850), just by thinking ahead and working together!

A good start to flooding the country with beautiful, affordable books!

Video clips of Book Dash events:

Research about the effects of book ownership on literacy: What we do at Book Dash is big and bold, but it is also evidence-based. Research findings shape what we believe, what we do, and how we do it:

Books in the home are the single biggest indicator of academic success, more so than parents’ education. – McQuillan, J. 1998. “The Literacy Crisis: False Claims, Real Solutions”.

Having books in the home gives children a measurable advantage at school, equal to 3.2 more years of schooling. – Evans, et al., 2010. “Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations,”

Access to books impacts positively on the reading achievement of economically disadvantaged children. – Newman, S., et al., 2000. “America’s Child Care Crisis: A Crime Prevention Tragedy,”

Children who have a book of their own are 15 times more likely to read above level. – National Literacy Trust, 2017.

Young learners with their new Book Dash created books.


Julia Norrish, Programme Director, Book Dash