Mr. Himanshu Giri, the CEO of Pratham Books (India’s largest non-profit children’s book publishing house), has more than two decades of work experience in the field of educational publishing and travel services with an expertise in operations, sales, marketing and outreach. He holds a Post Graduate Degree in Marketing and Sales and has extensive exposure to book production and distribution in markets of India and Asia-Pacific regions.
Having worked on many public and private educational projects for setting up libraries for underserved children in India, his expertise includes strategic partnerships, OSMU (one source multi use), program implementation and so on. Mr. Giri is one of the key team associates to help set-up ‘Scholastic’ in India (world’s largest children’s book company) and has worked with them for more than a decade.
Reading is many things, but it always begins with access to the text. In India, there are critical supply shortages for joyful reading resources for children – not enough books, in not enough languages, compounded by poor access and issues of affordability. There were a number of organizations that were working to improve literacy skills, but there was also a need for good content. This is when Pratham Books was set up to create high quality, affordable supplementary readers in multiple languages. Pratham Books publishes storybooks as Indian as the children who read them. As a not-for-profit publisher, our dream is to see a country where every child wants to read, is able to read, and has something good to read. Having published 2335 storybooks in 18 Indian languages and distributed over 16 million books and 14 million story cards, we still have a long way to travel to reach every child. Our search for an answer led us to explore the realm of open licensing.
In 2008, we started experimenting with licensing our content under Creative Commons licenses. We were producing content in multiple languages but in a country like India, this was still not enough. We did not want to be the gatekeepers of our content and wanted anyone to have access to it and use it according to the needs of the children they were working with. This could range from translating the book to printing it on their own, from recording an audio version of the story to converting it into a Braille book.
These early experiments laid the groundwork for our libre open access platform, StoryWeaver. StoryWeaver is an open access, digital repository of multilingual children’s stories from Pratham Books. StoryWeaver was launched in 2015 on International Literacy Day and is a gateway to a never-ending stream of stories. When StoryWeaver was launched, our goal was to create a participatory framework where content creators and users could collaborate to create stories in multiple languages. On StoryWeaver one can read, create, translate, download, print and share all stories for free. We believe that placing all our content under CC-BY4.0, one of the most liberal Creative Commons licenses, and giving people the power to create, translate and share content would have a multiplier effect and address the scarcity of multilingual reading resources that exist in India and across the world. StoryWeaver was launched in 2015 with 800 stories in 24 languages (Indian and international). As of 2017, there are over 2800 stories in 62 languages. Almost all the new languages were added to the platform being requested by users.
We addressed a number of challenges during the creation of StoryWeaver. For instance, all the text on the platform is Unicode compliant, which means the text is can be easily transported across different devices and every word of every story is searchable – in the language of the story. The decision to be Unicode complaint was not trivial but has made it possible for us to add any language to our platform with relevant ease. Another example was the process of migrating Pratham Books’ content to the digital medium. We had to create and test digital templates to ensure that the user had the best possible reading experience whether it was on a laptop, desktop, mobile or tablet. And finally, after content migration, we undertook the painstaking task of proofreading all stories in all the languages prior to online publication.
In a country as linguistically diverse as India, creating joyful reading material for all children in all the languages and dialects spoken is a daunting task that no one publishing house can undertake. Through StoryWeaver, we have empowered our community with tools, helping them create, translate and share the resources they needed in the languages they were fluent in. Over the past year, StoryWeaver has enabled passionate educators, language enthusiasts, and language advocacy groups to create joyful reading material in tribal languages (Kora and Santali), minority languages (Konkani and Tibetan) and endangered languages (Southern Kurdish). Through StoryWeaver, we have also identified fresh talent from the community. For instance, community member Sreedevi Gopakumar’s ‘Mangoes for Moidootty’ was one of the runaway hits on StoryWeaver soon after the platform was launched. The story has been selected by a leading Indian Children’s Publishing House.
Over the past year, we have identified and nurtured relationships with community translators, some of whom have been engaged by Pratham Books to translate stories after successfully passing our rigorous vetting and reviewing process. All these cases validate our belief that StoryWeaver can be a space to nurture talent in the children’s books segment.
At Pratham Books, we constantly seek new and innovative ways to disseminate stories. Our decision to launch a pilot program for the ‘Missed Call Do, Kahaani Suno’ campaign is an example of this approach.
Mobile phones, by virtue of being available to a significant proportion of India’s households, can be a powerful and scalable distribution medium. India has approximately 720 million mobile phone users of whom 320 million reside in rural areas, representing roughly 38 percent of the rural populace. The term ‘Missed Call’ is recognized across languages and demographics. The campaign was premised on a simple idea: initiating a missed call triggered a free incoming call to the user, offering the option to hear a story either in English or in a selection of Indic languages. After listening to the story of their choice, the user could choose either to replay or listen to another story. After the call, an SMS containing a link to the story’s online version of StoryWeaver was delivered. The user incurred no cost during this process.
The Missed Call Do, Kahaani Suno campaign was first to run in February 2016 as a closed pilot with 21 Pratham centers in Delhi. Stickers with the number to call were distributed to 2500 children and teachers demonstrated the 'missed call' program. The response was outstanding. The children’s enthusiasm was evident when they gave missed calls from their parents’ phones and listened to stories after school on day one of the campaigns. We received over 35660 missed calls from over 3500 unique mobile phones within a week, validating our belief that there was significant demand for such an initiative.
We also chose audio stories as the concept of reading aloud to young children to draw them into the world of language is missing in many households. Audio stories are a great way to fill this gap and help develop the culture of reading within the home environment of the child. While planning the project, we anticipated children not having direct access to phones and having to use their parents’ devices. The project’s success was dependent on the parents’ willingness to participate. To ensure parents’ involvement, we adopted two measures: conducting workshops for teachers and students at the pilot centers and informing parents about the workshop during parent-teacher meetings. We encountered an unexpected problem when, out of their eagerness to listen to stories, children began placing missed calls prior to the official start of the project. Of course, this was a good problem to have :)
Technology is a great enabler and equalizer, channeling knowledge/information to those who might otherwise not have access. Mobile penetration is on the rise across the country and even the most basic of the smartphone can help connect people to the world and to ideas. However, always keep in mind issues of bandwidth and the possible lack of infrastructure. Create simple, easy to understand and use interfaces that take into account the ground realities. Always keep your target audience in mind and think of how the product can best serve them. Cater for multiple iterations on design and UI/UX and always act on feedback.