TEDx Talk

Social Motion Publishing founder Andrew Chapman’s TEDx Talk on social-impact books

Full transcript:

More than 8 million people in the Dominican Republic live in darkness at night due to a lack of regular electricity, making it difficult for children to study and adults to work. Worse yet, this darkness brings with it a greater risk of theft and violence, not to mention deadly fires and toxic fumes from lanterns and candles.

The Dominican Light Project has come up with a solution that gets free safe solar-powered lanterns into the hands of Dominican families — giving them life-changing light for up to five years.

But sadly, there’s no book telling the story behind the Dominican Light Project.

Nor is there a book about the Ujima Bakehouse, which was created specifically to take its profits and use them to pay for free eye care for poor people in Kenya — literally giving some of them their eyesight back.

What I’ve discovered is that there’s an astonishing lack of what I call “social-impact books.” Books that share the stories and ideas behind social entrepreneurs, change-makers, and causes bringing innovation to the world’s problems. Stories and ideas that can inspire and guide the rest of us to do our own form of social good. Stories and ideas that need to be told right now, because our media seems obsessed with focusing on the dark side of society.

To put this lack of social-impact books into perspective, consider that Amazon.com carries more than 8 million individual book titles in more than 13,000 categories. There’s a book category for Arctic & Antarctic History, with more than 4,000 titles, and a book category for Dollhouses, with more than 2,000 titles. But yet there’s no category for social entrepreneurship, change-makers, or social innovation. Even Amazon’s largest and most relevant category — Nonprofits & Charity — only has 8,138 titles, a tiny fraction of Amazon’s overall catalog. And keep in mind, these are all the books related to nonprofits and charities, including management books, legal guides, and how-to books.

So, why is there this lack of social-impact books?

Well, it’s not for a lack of overall public interest. Look at the news. Mention of the term “social entrepreneur” increased ten times between 2001 and 2011. And when books on the subject have come to market, there have been notable successes. Two examples in recent years are Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie and The Promise of a Pencil by Adam Braun — both of which sell in the top two-tenths of one percent of all books on Amazon, selling approximately 60-100 copies each and every week.

And this lack of social-impact books isn’t due to a lack of books being published overall. In fact, more books are being published than ever in history, with more each and every year. ISBNs are International Standard Book Numbers, which are basically like social security numbers for books, each identifying a unique book title. In 2002, about a quarter-million ISBNs were issued, but in 2012, that number shot up all the way to nearly 2.5 million. And remember, these are the numbers of ISBNs issued for each of those years… not a running total.

So, there’s an abundance of social-impact stories to tell and interest in them, and an abundance of books being published, but the two are not coming together.

It’s my mission to bring more of these social-impact books to the world by working to address the following five questions.

One — What if we shifted the focus from revenue to impact?

It’s not widely known outside of publishing, but books aren’t really a great way to make money just on their own sales. [Laughter] There must be some authors in the crowd here! [Laughter] But the great thing is that when the objective is to get the stories and ideas to spread more widely, then you can shift the focus from making a dollar to making a difference. And now that it’s possible to publish a book for free, the old publishing paradigm of having to earn back thousands and thousands of dollars no longer exists.

Two — What if we made social-impact books more free?

I mean this both in terms of making them free of cost as well as more freely available. Since the purpose is changing the world, what we want is more exposure, not necessarily more sales. Social-impact books can be sponsored just like many documentaries on PBS are. Social-impact books can be paid for through strategic partnerships, allowing them to be more freely distributed. Or… you can put a price on the books and sell them, but give away copies for each one sold. Seth Godin is doing this with his latest book, It’s Your Turn, which he sells specificially on Amazon in bundle packs so you can keep a copy and give away the others to other people.

Three — What if we made these books more like a social network?

Part of making social-impact books more freely available means using technology to free them from their confines. Imagine a digital book that brings together the best of an ebook, blog, and social network in one portable and sharable file. Imagine a book that doesn’t just communicate ideas, but embodies the very interaction between author, readers, and each other to transform those ideas into action. Current ebook formats have some interaction, but are still closed systems with barriers between authors, readers, and each other.

Four — What if we recognized and honored these books on their impact?

Outstanding writing, design, and sales have long been recognized through book awards and best-seller lists. But these books need to be recognized and honored based on impact — a book that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight the exploitation of girls and women, a book that increased literacy rates in inner cities by 10 percent, a book that brought safe drinking water to a remote village. So, I’m not talking about some vague definition of “impact,” but rather a demonstrable and measurable difference a book has made.

And lastly, this is where you might come in.

Five — What if we simply wrote more social-impact books?

If your heart is set on writing the next great novel or how-to book, then by all means go for it. But if you’re like a lot of people who want to write a book but don’t know about what, consider a social-impact book. Tell the untold story of someone quietly — or loudly — making a difference. Or dare to share your own idea for making the world a better place, no matter how crazy that idea might be. Or consider how your book can be a tool to raise money and awareness for a relevant cause.

To this last point, it so happens that we have a tremendous example of what I’m talking about right here locally. What Spins The Wheel was written and published by Len Forkas, who lives only a few miles away, a distance he could probably run without even breaking a sweat. I say that because he’s an extreme-endurance athlete, and his book shares the lessons he learned biking 3,000 miles across the U.S. in only 11 days. Do the math. He won that race, but he didn’t stop there. He’s now turned his book into a platform to raise money and awareness for his nonprofit, Hopecam, which connects children undergoing cancer treatment with their schools, teachers, and classmates through video technology. It helps them to avoid isolation. That is the perfect example of a social-impact book.

Technology and social change have come together to present us with an absolutely incredible opportunity. Twenty years ago, even less, it took thousands of dollars and considerable expertise to publish a book. And even then, there was no guarantee it would end up in a bookstore — and most of the time, it didn’t. But now, as easy as online banking, we can publish a book and put it out to millions upon millions of people all over the world at no cost and zero risk of failure. Writing a book is never easy, but publishing a book has never been easier.

Let’s not squander this opportunity. Let’s get more social-impact books out into the world. We owe it to the people whose lives will be made better as a result.

Thank you.