Book Boom Rides Growing Economies and Cities

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


Along with growing economies, the global South is seeing growing numbers of readers and a newly flourishing publishing industry. The creative economy – of which book publishing is part – is experiencing a jolt from a combination of expanding economies and urbanizing cities. Just as the first settled cities of ancient Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) spawned literature and learning, so the rapidly urbanizing South is changing dynamics and creating the space and demand for books.

The creative economy is seen as the “interface between creativity, culture, economics and technology in a contemporary world dominated by images, sounds, texts and symbols” (UNCTAD). It has been shown to be an effective way for emerging economies to leapfrog into high-growth areas in the 21st century world economy.

Telling stories about local conditions and people’s rapidly changing lives is proving a commercial success formula. Fast-growing India is forecast to become the largest market for English language books within a decade. India’s economic boom, which saw 6.7 percent growth in 2009, and its expanding middle class are driving demand for books. India saw the number of literate people pass 66 percent by 2007.

“It is a forward-looking generation,” said Manish Singh, country manager for publisher Harlequin Mills and Boon, to The Guardian newspaper.

Estimates of India’s book reading market put the number of readers at just 5 million out of a population of over 1 billion people. But according to Anantha Padmanabhan, the director of sales in India for publisher Penguin, “that is set to increase dramatically.”

A survey by Tehelka ( found Indians are favouring stories about local conditions and set in the places where they live.

India’s most popular current writer is Chetan Bhagat, a former investment banker. He has sold more than 3 million books in the last five years. His latest, Two States, sold a million copies in four months.

Bhagat writes about the country’s aspiring middle class. His publisher, Rupa (, believes he appeals to a “pan-Indian, pan-age group.”

Bhagat puts his success down to the way the stories are written. “This is not like the mature English literature market,” he said. “It needs an English that is highly accessible, simple, and with stories that are still interesting and relevant.”

Book prices in India have stayed affordable for the middle classes. A book can cost from US $1.85 to US $2.65 for a paperback – still a high cost for the poor, however, who live on a dollar a day.

In Egypt, around 30 percent of the population is illiterate and book reading has been historically very low: it has been claimed an average literate Egyptian reads a quarter of a page of a novel per year. From this low base, a best seller only needs to sell a few thousand copies.

However, in Egypt small-scale independent publishers are starting to make an impact. Mohamed Hashem – founder of the Dar Merit publishing house ( – has built from scratch in 12 years one of the country’s most critically acclaimed publishers: all from a tiny apartment in a rundown Cairo building.

“We can’t compete with the big firms in terms of profits,” he told The Guardian, “but the new wave of authors will always be sitting here. Yes, we have poverty and limited resources. But we also have the future.”

Launched to counter what Hashem felt was an unimaginative book market, his stable of authors have shaken up the Arabic fiction world. The global success of Alaa al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building ( is proof Hashem’s gamble on edgy talent was correct: rejected by two government-run publishing houses, the book went on to be a hit in English and Arabic and has been made into a film.

Hashem is being credited with unleashing a wave of new talented authors that has pushed literature out from being the preserve of a select group.

One of its successful authors, Hamdi Abu Golayyel – winner of the country’s top literary prize, the Naquib Mahfouz medal – believes “Merit has changed the way pioneering literature emerges in Egypt.”

“Before, you had the innovative writers – there are normally no more than five or six in a generation – meeting together in mutual isolation, because popular opinion rejected them.”

Merit “had the drive and ambition to support and distribute new and younger authors properly. Today innovative writing is wanted by the people.”

Hashem’s secret in attracting talented writers has been more than just business savvy: he also gives them “the freedom to write in my own way,” according to writer Ahmed Alaidy.

The writers also have a credibility advantage: they are writing about their circumstances rather than just imagining what it would be like. Writer Hani Abdel Mourid comes from Cairo’s traditional garbage-collecting neighbourhood; another author, Mohamed Salah Al Azab, has written a book named after the folding seats on Egypt’s lively minibuses.

Demographic changes and Cairo’s relentless expansion are being cited as the catalyst for the new writing.

“The fact that the city has grown the way it has,” says Samia Mehrez, a literature professor in Cairo, “the fact that what we used to call the periphery is now the centre, that is very important.”

“The year we started, we published five titles and the number of people interested could be counted in the dozens,” he told The Guardian. “Now we have 600 titles under our belt, and thousands are interested. It’s my duty to try and expand that circle. We’re chipping away at a wall, and slowly we’re making progress.”

Published: May 2010


1) Creative Economy Report 2008. An economic and statistical assessment of creative industries world-wide as well as an overview of how developing countries can benefit from trade in creative products and services produced by UNCTAD and the Special Unit for South-South Cooperation in UNDP. Website:

2) Global Creative Economy Convergence Summit 2009: The summit is about the successful and emerging creative technologies and initiatives that are driving economic growth locally, nationally and internationally. Website:

3) A directory of Indian publishers. Website:

4) Full Circle Publishing: A successful Indian publishing company. Website:

5) Jaipur Literature Festival: Described as the ‘greatest literary show on Earth’, the Jaipur Literature Festival is a sumptuous feast of ideas.The past decade has seen it transform into a global literary phenomenon having hosted nearly 2000 speakers and welcoming over a million book lovers from across India and the globe. Website:

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator. 

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Illiterate Get Internet at Touch of a Button

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


Quick access to information is crucial for development. The remarkable spread of information around the world via the internet has been one of the greatest achievements of the 21st century. The astounding take-up of mobile phones is another. For those who can afford it or get access to a computer and electricity, the new technology is a powerful tool for economic and social advancement. But what about people who are caught in the technology gap, or who are illiterate?

What about those who have a mobile phone, but are too poor to own a computer – or live in a village without electricity? Or those who can’t read or write? In India, there are 42 million Internet users, 3.7 per cent of the population. But the country is also home to the largest number of illiterate people in the world: 304.11 million (Human Development Report).

A unique solution in rural India is developing a way to connect the illiterate to the internet. The Open Mind Programme’s Question Box Project, opened its first Box in the village of Phoolpur in September 2007.

The idea is brilliantly simple. An intercom-like white tin box with a phone inside is placed in a village’s public areas. Using the existing phone networks, the user just has to hit a simple button to get an operator at the other end. The operator sits in front of an internet-enabled computer. The user just asks their question, and the operator turns these questions into search queries. When the computer’s search engine gives back answers, the operator selects the best one and then replies in the user’s native language and in layman’s terms.

The operator’s role goes beyond simply typing questions into Google – the operators use intelligent software that aggregates frequently asked questions (FAQs) to speed up time. FAQs include: school scores, job opportunities, football/cricket scores, and definitions and terms. Operators will also send emails for the users.

The service also has a role to play for the literate who lack Internet access. Students once had to travel to get their exam results, but now they can just ask the Question Box.

The Question Box operates in normal business hours for now. A second Question Box was put into operation at the beginning of 2008 in the village of Ethida, several hours’ drive from New Delhi, and there are plans to expand the Question Box to 30 units connected to 20 operators.

At present, organizers are looking into raising revenue for the service by advertising and sponsorship. Operators are typically homeworkers and well-educated. Mostly female, their parents are happy to have them work from home.

During this first phase, the project team analyzed the results and refined the structure of the service. They are also exploring viable business models to be able to take the service across India and keep it sustainable.

Professor of Psychology Ritu Dangwal from the NIIT Institute, is in charge of working with the villagers to monitor the project. She is also involved in a start-up called Hole in the Wall, which provides internet kiosks to rural villagers. Dangwal’s research has starkly correlated the relationship between distance from a big city and decreasing quality of education, a graphic example of the damage done by being cut off from good information resources.

The Question Box is based on an idea from Rose Shuman, a business and international development consultant. Shuman had become frustrated that with all the clever people and vast sums of money going into information technology, few were developing low-cost ways to take the power of computers to the people.

“The best thing about this project is that it’s very tangible,” she told the Daily Telegraph newspaper. “It’s not a big infrastructure. You have a box you can see and touch, and a call log of every question.”


  • Photographs of the project launch and the Question Box:

Published: April 2008

Question Box in Southern Innovator Magazine.
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© David South Consulting 2022