Interview with Colin McElwee, co-founder of Worldreader

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As co-founder of Worldreader, Colin focuses on developing and growing key partnerships, putting to good use his for-profit and non-profit experience across the globe.

Most recently, Colin was the first director of marketing at ESADE Business School in Barcelona, where he helped establish the school’s reputation as a world-class business education provider. Prior to that, he started his career as an economist for several Brussels-based lobbies to the European Commission, and later worked in global marketing in the consumer goods sector for Scottish & Newcastle PLC.

Can you describe Worldreader’s mission for people who haven’t heard of your work yet?

Reading is transformative. Our goal is that everyone on the planet has access to the power of books to improve their lives.

Worldreader provides children and adults with a free digital library available on e-readers and mobile phones. Since 2010, over 10 million people across 49 countries have read from our digital library of over 34,300 local and international e-books.

We work with device manufacturers, local and international publishers, government agencies, education officials, and local communities to help readers worldwide.

It’s not uncommon in the UK for people to compare e-reading unfavourably with reading ‘real’ printed books. What’s your response to this?

The developing world needs access to the world’s books and literature. We’re working in parts of the world where access to printed materials is limited or simply nonexistent. Often the printed books that are available don’t reflect the world that these readers live in. We know that the only way to get people reading is to give them access to high-quality, culturally relevant books.

We live in rapidly changing times. The increasing ubiquity and decreasing cost of digital technology, such as e-readers, tablets and mobile phones, enables Worldreader to give access to a library of thousands of digital books in the most effective and inexpensive way possible, giving millions of more people the opportunity to become a reader. We’re not advocating for digital books to replace printed books. But they do an excellent job of complementing them.

Can you describe some of your proudest achievements with Worldreader?

Worldreader is 9 years old — a lot can happen in 9 years! We’ve helped over ten million people read local and international books on mobile devices around the world. We’ve helped publishers create digital versions of their work, allowing them to sell into global markets and keep up with an increasingly digitized world. What’s more, our work has begun to mainstream the idea that digital reading can reach millions more, even in some of the world’s least-developed areas.

I’m particularly proud that Worldreader, in partnership with KNLS, brought digital reading to all 61 public libraries in Kenya, promoting a reading culture across the country. We launched the Anasoma collection, Worldreader’s first-ever women’s empowerment collection of books, written by young, local African authors which is available to millions and promotes the empowerment of women. Worldreader, in partnership with Pearson, reached over 200,000 families in the Delhi region with a library of digital books via the Read to Kids app on their mobile phones, encouraging parents to be their children’s first

We’ve already affected many lives but our greatest impact is yet to come!

What are the benefits for publishers who participate in Worldreader’s schemes?

We realized early on that the success of any reading program relies on the strength and self-reliance of the local book supply chain. Ever since, we’ve worked closely with local publishers and authors to build this supply chain and support their capacity-building as both business and learning partners. Since 2010, Worldreader has paid over $2 Million to publishers in Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Jordan for their content. Learn more about this in a recent study we conducted to understand the state of digital publishing in Sub-Saharan Africa.

How can we get involved with Worldreader’s work?

If you’d like to join our digital movement and help us spread the word on the power of digital reading to improve lives. Follow us on Twitter or Instagram for regular updates. Also head over to our website to explore other ways that you can get involved and help us create a world of readers.

What do you hope to achieve in 2019?

In the coming year, among many projects, we look forward to expanding our work in India to reach more school-aged children with culturally-relevant digital libraries. We’re also furthering our work around women’s empowerment through our recently launched InspireUs project in Ghana. And we are improving the way we use our large-scale data capacities for good—to get millions more people reading.

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