In an earlier post, I wrote about a very cool publishing model used by a bible publishing company in the U.S. in which they were able to aggregate user demand by laying out the pricing curve for developing an electronic version of a book. This made me think about Siyavula, the Foundation‘s project to develop free, curriculum-aligned, education materials for South African students. A big challenge for the project is how to get actual print copies of the free textbooks into the hands of teachers once they are available. If there were a way of aggregating demand from potential purchasers in a dynamic, effective manner, then one might be able to significantly drive down the cost of printing.

PoD Demand Aggregation BrainstormingThis thought led to a brainstorming session with Mark Horner, project manager for Siyavula, in which we thrashed out a model for online aggregation of demand for publishing. The image at right was the result. I’ll try and give a narrative description of what we came up with. We imagined an online space with an individual graph for each book in the demand aggregator. Each graph would map the number of books on the Y axis and the unit cost of the book on the X axis. A curve would then be plotted on the graph representing estimated printing costs based on book dimensions, quality, number of pages, etc. Obviously greater numbers of books ordered translates into a lower unit price per book.

Users can login to the system, view the price curve for a particular book and make a conditional bid for a book, entering a price, a quantity, and an expiry date for the bid. The bid would then appears as a column on the graph and all other users of the system would be able to see the bid on the book graph. As more bids are entered, the system aggregates the total quantity of books represented by all of the conditional bids and maps that quantity against the original price curve. This appears on the graph as a line intersecting the curve at the price required for all bidders to get their orders fulfilled.

Mockup GUI for PoD aggregationThe idea is a little clearer on the mockup of the graph at the left. On it you can see that there are three bids for 400, 200, and 100 books, making an aggregate demand of 700 books. This translates to a price of $4 dollars on the price curve. You can see that this is represented by the vertical yellow bar on the graph. At this point a user should be able to experiment visually with their bid seeing what they effect of increasing/decreasing the quantity of books and/or unit price of their conditional bid. Each time a user adds or changes a bid, every bidder would be informed of the addition/change so that they can decide whether to change their bid accordingly. Users should also be able to issue “challenges” to other bidders to compromise on price or perhaps simply propose that everyone buy into the current optimum price. Also, if any existing bid is due to expire, other bidders would be alerted to the possible opportunity loss.

Once sufficient bids have been received to make a viable print run, the price is locked in. At this point, all users on the system would be alerted and offered the opportunity to buy into the print run at the set price. Additional aggregation of demand at this point could further drive down the cost of the book at that savings could be passed on to the original bidders only (to encourage bidding) or kept by the operator of the system to cover overheads. There are many possibilities.

Siyavula would make a perfect test case for this kind of interface but there is no reason why it couldn’t be expanded to any publication with an open license. For example, if I were prepared to pay $10 dollars for a print copy of Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks, I should be able to point to the print-ready PDF and create my own bid. If I wasn’t in a hurry, I could allow demand to accumulate over months.

Thinking much further ahead, on the back end of this, you could create an equivalent system for printers to bid on print runs for books, creating perhaps multiple curves on the graph that were optimal at different quantities based on different printing technologies or approaches. But that is getting ahead of things. Initiallly, simply putting bids out for quotes would work just fine. As things stand the Shuttleworth Foundation is going to prototype this idea and see where it goes. Stand by for more.

This is an OpenConcept

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data