A world where books and knowledge flow freely in all directions, and nobody stands in the way

free-readingOn September 22, news broke out across the book industry that a well-known café in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, became the first café in the world turned into a Free Reading ZoneSM—an open virtual library that can be accessed by its guests and enjoyed free of charge. All they need is to log into a free reading app via an access code found on the receipt. Within seconds they have immediate, uninterrupted access to 100,000 quality books in several languages (including the native Croatian). Once they register via the access code, they may read at the café or continue reading at home.

The collection, which now grows by 1000 titles weekly, comprises the catalogs of a wide range of established brands,  300 and counting. The books are as diverse as the imprints on their covers—including everything from children’s literature and YA fiction to spirituality and self-help; from genre and literary fiction to poetry and philosophy; from science and technology to professional literature and study aids; from business and computers to travel and cooking.

How is this possible? How can a café with less than 50 tables on its premises provide free access to a virtual library bigger and richer than the city’s main library system can afford its patrons? How can this little business give Zagreb’s residents and tourists more knowledge than a government-funded institution? How is this even sustainable?

The Free Reading Zones (FREZ) initiative, which I have the privilege of running in cooperation with Total Boox, an Israeli/U.S. company known to publishers for its pay-as-you-read ebook model, is an effort to spread reading around the world to public and private places that want to be endowed with culture. Reading is supported by any business or organization that wishes to take part; it can but it does not have to be the library. Powered by the Total Boox technology, FREZ is an effort to maximize the potential of ebooks not seen before, especially not in or by libraries.

Just when we thought there was nothing left to say about ebooks other than that the book industry managed to beat the ‘bad tech guys’ (by making it difficult for most people to access ebooks unless they were willing to pay a lot for them, then using people’s disappointment as false proof that there was no interest in the first place), FREZ stands as a reminder that the book industry—and its dogged refusal to transform itself and the world through the power of the digital medium—ended up not serving anyone’s needs but its own, ultimately betraying itself and the reader.

FREZ turns beaches, hospitals, cafes, museums, airports, parks, trains, hotels, and airplanes, to name a few examples, into ‘zones’ where knowledge flows freely. Imagine that. Any business becomes an open virtual library. Imagine a world where knowledge flows freely in all directions. Hasn’t that been the promise of the digital book all along? To unleash the written word, detach it from institutions, and afford everyone free access regardless of their zip code, financial status, or education background? The kind of access that transcends publishers, libraries, bookstores, distributors, and even authors. The kind of access that places the power of the book in the hands of the reader and those willing to support the reading. FREZ is the fulfilment of that promise.

The reader decides

When Total Boox entered the ebook and library market over three years ago, the idea behind the model was quite simple—everything in its collection is always exposed for reading. Every publisher who signs with Total Boox makes its entire catalog available upfront for discovery. This was, and still is, a radical concept and a far cry from what libraries are used to (and really prefer)—purchasing ebooks in advance and making them available for reading under the conditions dictated either by publishers or the services they subscribe to and have, over the years, become attached to. Total Boox did not ask them to purchase anything in advance. It did not ask them to curate. It asked them to simply make the content instantly available and then get out of the way.

With the Total Boox model, nothing would stand between the book and the reader. Not publishers, not librarians. Its reading-centric approach meant that libraries would only pay for what was read (not downloaded or purchased in advance). There would be no restrictions of any kind. Readers would not be ‘triggering’ purchases by clicking on books in their library collections that they would then not read. Their reading would be monitored and available via a live dashboard every step of the way. And libraries would be able to control their budget while spending every cent of that budget on reading.

Total Boox’ disruptive ebook model finally gave libraries the tool to appear powerful in the digital arena, since it gave their patrons the illusion that the 100,000 ebooks (and counting) ‘belonged’ to the library (when in reality they were simply ‘staged’ for reading). And this same collection was available to a patron in a small rural library in the South and a patron in the affluent Northeast. Suddenly all patrons were equal because they could read and enjoy the same content. In essence, Total Boox asked libraries to embrace their patrons’ freedom of reading, to place the trust of what would be paid for in the hands of the reader wherever he/she may be, and not to rely on the faulty process of curation. It asked them to transform themselves from institutions that housed a very small percentage of the world’s books (even the biggest of them) to agents that enabled reading and empowered their communities through no-barriers access (even the smallest of them).

At the same time, publishers who signed with Total Boox understood that they, too, would need to embrace the people’s freedom to read on their own terms. They, too, were asked to place the power in the hands of the reader, whose reading would be measured and would determine the ultimate revenue, and this revenue no longer would depend on a sales person ability to charm the librarian. Total Boox also gave publishers the tool to monetize the backlist, bring long-forgotten titles back to life and in a virtual space that knows no ‘old’ from ‘new’ and allows backlist titles to compete with bestsellers. But most of all, Total Boox asked publishers to take responsibility for their ‘product’—to trust the product itself—because they’d be paid only if people ‘consumed’ it.

A tech company on a mission

Why wasn’t this enough for Total Boox? To simply continue supporting the mission of libraries to be the institutions that give us knowledge while allowing publishers to expose their entire titles for reading and paying them for it? Why bring cafés like Velvet into the picture and give them the power to morph into open virtual libraries bigger than their government’s? After spending the past four years helping Total Boox work with publishers and libraries, I can give at least 20 reasons why it’s logical for such a company to stretch its legs beyond government institutions and most of these reasons are not sympathetic to either libraries or publishers.

Here is a basic one to start, and I say it respectfully but without hesitation: through its Free Reading efforts, Total Boox’ mission becomes ‘bigger’ than that of libraries and ‘bigger’ than that of publishers and bookstores. Does that mean that people will stop buying print? Of course not. Those of us who’ve stepped outside our airless industry to explore the possibilities afforded by the digital medium know that that’s never been the case, and that’s not the point. This is: it will actually enhance it. But more than that, it will finally open the last create medium online not available for free consumption: the book. And with the support from sponsors, millions of books that no one can keep up with anymore—not libraries, not bookstores—will be set free to find their readers in a virtual space that does not discriminate. This is nothing short of revolutionary. And now that the technology can support it, there is no stopping it.

The win-win-win-win model behind FREZ is, in fact, so effective Total Boox does not need to rely on the presence of ‘the Big 5’ content in the collection to justify its worth. I will go on record here to say that libraries often base their decisions on the presence of ‘the Big 5’ bestsellers to determine what ebook services to buy, even if the service itself is an inferior solution. They will often chose a dysfunctional model (supported and controlled by the Big 5) over an all-access model even if it makes patrons wait for months before getting to a title. I will also add here that the only reason an all-access model does not have ‘the Big 5’ content is because it does not play by ‘the Big 5’ rules. FREZ does not need or want to be caught in the middle of dysfunctional relationship between ‘Big 5’ publishers and libraries, both of whom have equally contributed to the mess they found themselves in with ebooks. Put simply, it has outgrown it. And as I’ve had the privilege to uncover, the world is full of progressive, forward-thinking publishers of all types and sizes eager to go beyond the traditional one copy/one user approach. The world is also full of gifted independent authors of all backgrounds whose voices will not remain silent.

FREZ simply leverages technology to reduce the cost of reading to zero, and it’s doing this outside libraries. This is the first time that long-form reading has ever been supported through sponsorship. And this goes beyond even ad-supported music, since songs are short and the ads are sandwiched between them. It also goes beyond publishing short stories in ad-supported magazines.

A Free Reading Zone gives users the ability to read a book from cover to cover without interruption. Thus, the experience of reading books is not shattered by the distraction of an ‘ad.’ The benefit for the sponsor is likewise superior, because it can get its brand name in front of the customers without offending them. Implementing FREZ empowers the sponsor to provide a benefit of true value. It is a gift of culture for its customers, and everyone’s customer is a reader in one way or another. For publishers and authors, too, the benefit is unique and multilayered. They can get their books in front of multitudes of people who would otherwise never get past the decision-point barrier of buying or not buying. They can help them create monetary opportunities not afforded to them in physical environments where authors get a few seconds, it seems, to make an impression before their books are replaced with titles from the ever-in-demand ‘new’ catalog.

A café on a mission

Velvet is a very special cafe that residents of Zagreb associate not only with first-rate coffee and cake but with celebration of human creativity in every form: paintings, photographs, pottery, antique furniture, flower arrangements, and books. It is a well-regarded literary establishment that has hosted countless publishing events over the years. It is not the place where books are curated or managed. They simply are there, waiting for the reader to find them on wooden shelves and on every table. And now books are also waiting to be read inside the guests’ mobile devices. Velvet does not ask its visitors to become members of their establishment. It doesn’t pre-order titles for them by guessing what they’d probably like. It gives them the freedom to choose what matters to them at the point of their need or want. And it places its trust in the collection in the reading app to deliver quality literature for all tastes and ages.

Velvet will not stop serving excellent coffee and cake. It will not stop paying attention to all the other details its guests already admire. It will not remove books from the tables because of the virtual library. It simply wants to support even more reading and add another layer to the ‘Velvet experience.’ FREZ helps this café grow its brand. It helps it expand its horizons but remain true to its character. Velvet sponsors their guests’ reading but does not stand between them and their choice of books.

It took one hour with the café’s owners for them to agree to turn Velvet into a Free Reading Zone. It took a week to sign a short agreement, and another week to set it all up. It takes many months of excruciating back-and-forth with government employees to get one library to sign a deal with a vendor like Total Boox. Likewise, it can take years to court and sign a publisher hesitant to work with ebooks without even being able to articulate why. Much of my work the past four years has involved dealing with unanswered emails, unreturned calls, cancelled meetings, lifeless webinars, uninspired panels, and endless entertaining and small talk at book and library shows where everything matters but reading. Even authors are treated as pop culture celebrities to be worshipped rather than simply writers whose work we admire. A publishing executive once told me he didn’t care if the books were read as long as they were sold. Dear publishing executive, many of your colleagues do care, including authors. Have you taken the time to talk to them about it?

Working with this café (and other places and businesses we are now turning into Free Reading Zones) has given me and my colleagues at Total Boox and all others participating in this endeavor a new purpose. We aren’t in this business to beat the competition. If anything, we want to find ways to partner with it because what FREZ has to offer is bigger than all of us combined. If there is an all-access model out there that can support free reading like Total Boox and help us enhance the offering in Free Reading Zones, please step forward and let us join forces. We have the privilege (and responsibility) to make the world a better place now—and in this world people simply read, and those of us who make it possible do not perish because of it. Like Velvet Café and all others helping us spread free reading, we have a mission, and we accept it — and part of this mission is to create a world where books and knowledge flow freely in all directions, and nobody stands in the way.


Mirela Roncevic is Director of Free Reading Zones and Managing Editor of No Shelf Required, non-profit portal advocating for free access to books in digital format. She was formerly Book Review Editor at Library Journal, editor of ALA’s journal eContent Quarterly, instructor of ALA’s course, What Librarians Need to Know About Ebooks, and contributor to a wide range of publications. She divides her time between New York and Zagreb, Croatia.

News Roundup [October 7]


Watching Pirate Streams Isn’t Illegal, EU Commission Argues (Torrent Freak)

Google experiments with book discovery…and fails (The Average Joe)

Amazon Removes Titles from Kindle Unlimited in Japan, and No One Knows Why (The Digital Reader)

New Research Article: “Is the Digital Talking Book Program Meeting Librarian and Patron Expectations?” (Infodocket)

More Than 500,000 Books From Benson Latin American Collection (U. of Texas Libraries) Now Available via HathiTrust (Infodocket)

Comixology Is Starting Its Own Line of Exclusive Comics (io9)

First Book Partners with Reading Rainbow to Offer Acclaimed Skybrary to Educators Serving Kids in Need (PR Newswire)

‘Spoken Editions’ Section Makes Official Debut on iTunes (Macstories)

Amazon is Now Collecting 15% Tax on eBooks Sold in New Zealand (The Digital Reader)

TeleRead, the world’s oldest ebook news and views site, makes the Library of Congress Web archives (Teleread)

Kindle Unlimited a Victim of Its own Success in Japan? (The Digital Reader)

Hachette Audio Partners with Booktrack on YA Audiobooks (Digital Book World)

Bowker Now Cites at Least 625,327 US Indie Books Published in 2015  (Publishing Perspectives)

Amazon introduces Prime Reading…and hits a sweet spot for many consumers (I Love My Kindle)

Smashwords Enhances Coupon Manager Tool (Digital Book World)

Introducing Prime Reading – The Newest Benefit for Prime Members (Amazon)

New York Public Library Digitizes 137 Years of New York City Directories (Library Stuff)

E-Book Retail Platform Offers Choice of Watermarking or DRM (Copyright and Technology)

ProQuest Makes English Book Archive Available for Japanese Researchers (InfoToday)

News Roundup [September 30]


eBooks Die While Used Print Book Sales Live On (It Didn’t Have to be That Way (Digital Reader)

Explore 5,300 Rare Manuscripts Digitized by the Vatican: From The Iliad & Aeneid, to Japanese & Aztec Illustrations (Open Culture)

New Data on Use of Public Libraries, Reading Habits, and Bookstores in U.S. (Infodocket)

Stop Kidding Yourself: The ABA Does Not Represent Indie Booksellers (The Digital Reader)

Mozilla trolls the EU’s nonsensical copyright laws with classic memes (The Next Web)

U.S. Copyright Office Seeks Additional Comments For Section 1201 Study (Infodocket)

Reading by Ear (Why audiobook listening expands, rather than derails, our access to literature) (No Shelf Required)

Revealed: How one Amazon Kindle scam made millions of dollars (Zdnet)

Academic Ebook Sales Flat, Preference for E-Reference Up (Library Journal)

Smashwords Coupons Enhanced to Enable More Flexible Book Promotions (Smashwords Blog)

Institutions as a market for digital magazines (Talking New Media)

Materials From Negro Leagues Added to New Baseball Hall of Fame Digital Archive (Infodocket)

Bestseller analysis: Amazon doesn’t need tradpubs…much (I Love My Kindle)

Edition Digital to offer NGOs free use of its Smart Digital Publishing System (Talking New Media)

For many legacy news organizations in Europe, digital disruption comes with new ideas but few answers (Nieman Lab)

Kobo Expands Into Taiwan (The Digital Reader)

Research: Movie Piracy Hurts Sales, But Not Always (Torrent Freak)

AAP: eBook Sales, Publisher Revenues Down in First Third of 2016 (The Digital Reader)

Book of the Week: Didn’t Get Frazzled by David Z. Hirsch

No Shelf Required is an ardent supporter of independent authors around the world producing their work on their own terms and with their own resources. In an effort to draw attention to quality independent literature (fiction and nonfiction published by independent authors and indie publishers), and in agreement with BlueInk Review, NSR highlights reviews of a wide variety of titles published on BIR’s site each week. Enjoy this week’s pick, a debut novel by a Maryland physician.

Didn’t Get Frazzled

About Author

frazzledDavid Z. Hirsch is a practicing physician in Maryland who uses a pen name; he notes that he prefers to keep his professional work and writing life separate and feels that there is  more freedom with writing anonymously. Didn’t Get Frazzled is his first novel.



About BlueInk Review

BlueInk Review was founded by Patti Thorn, former books editor of the Rocky Mountain News, and Patricia Moosbrugger, literary agent and subsidiary rights specialist. It offers serious, unbiased reviews of self-published books. Reviews are penned largely by writers drawn from major mainstream publications, such as The New York Times and Washington Post, and editors of respected traditional publishing houses. Select reviews appear in Booklist magazine.

Reading by Ear (Why audiobook listening expands, rather than derails, our access to literature)


This post introduces an ongoing series discussing audiobooks as a medium through which contemporary readers are invited to explore literary culture, performance arts, and multimodal literacy capacity building. We begin with addressing why audiobook listening expands, rather than derails, our access to literature.

Part 1 of 3: Who’s the Model Reader?

We seem to be in the throes of a season of debate about whether audiobook listening can be equated with reading print. Several readers who enjoy listening couple that statement with another that notes they feel “ashamed” or “guilty” for taking pleasure in such literary participation. Print readers who advertise how they are “against” audiobooks note that they themselves read print books with no other accompanying activity while only listen when otherwise engaged; that they don’t attend to detailed passages when they are “only” hearing them. There are even the overly self-confident naysayers who forthrightly declare that those other people who suggest listening to books is participating in literary culture are either pranking themselves or spreading a vile cancer upon the literary landscape.

It was ever like thus, with only the artificial line drawn between different noncombatants throughout literate history. Reading silently was deemed crazy when St. Ambrose dared to do it (4th century C. E.) because the only “real” way to read was aloud. Newspapers weren’t worthy of being read if you were educated; they were for the unwashed masses (19th century). Moving pictures would kill off any popular interest in reading, followed shortly by radio doing the same (early 20th century). Reading comic books, we heard from Dr. Wertham, who conducted his research on the matter only among residents of a Connecticut juvenile delinquent facility, leads to delinquency (mid-20th century), and, oh by the way, if you read aloud to yourself, or even mouthed the words as you read, you weren’t really reading because reading must be silent. Of course, television killed off the capacity to read at all, just as the invention of the automatic transmission led to the disappearance of the left leg among the general populace where such cars were sold (Yes, I heard that particular carp with early onset childhood disrespect for the speaker).

When I share my own love of reading, and of the writers who make my reading interesting, engaging, and educational, my attention is on how that person with whom I am sharing a book, or an author, or a line of knowledge or imagination, might best enjoy participating in what it offers. It’s not about whether I am the model upon which another’s reading values must hang. I read print while I eat lunch—whoops, engaging in a second activity while absorbing print! I remember entire passages of audiobooks which I heard years ago while travelling on planes and trains—whoops, just sitting there, no other immediate activity on my part, and oh, look, the meaning and the expressive choices of the author have staying power although my eyes were closed.

There is no “right” way to read in terms of applied physical sense; it’s about what happens when the work hits the other’s brain and heart. Excellent narrators—of whom, happily, numbers continue to grow—can amplify and supplement the author’s narrative magic. On the other hand, I prefer reading graphic novels and comics with my eyes because the images matter for meaning and I personally become overwhelmed by the sound effects and audio theater interpretation some excellent graphic audio companies are now producing. That’s my issue, not the fault of the recording choices made. Maybe someday, with some audiobook. It doesn’t matter; the matter is that I am lucky enough to be able to choose and want others to feel fine about choosing which senses they use best to share in the abundance of stories and information we have encoded to share cultures, ideas, histories, fantasies, and hopes.

Educators are joining librarians in weighing in to note that the evidence of reader engagement with literature as heightened by choice in general and well performed audiobooks in particular. There are educators who limit their endorsement of audiobooks to declaring them to be simply stepping stones to ”real” reading and who demand that listeners simultaneously look at the printed page—a kind of chewing gum while climbing the stairs that some can do and some can’t comfortably, making the requirement yet another potential roadblock on the route to literary participation. I choose to see this position as an evolutionary moment, not the end of the story of the audiobook’s educational potential in its own right.

Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, I am delighted to see, is gaining attention in the rounds of popular journalism. His blog post ”Is Listening to an Audio book Cheating?” lays it straight out: the whole “debate” arises from asking the wrong question. So let’s talk about the richness audiobooks can deliver to the literary experience instead.

Next up, we’ll take on the issue of prescribing audiobooks as a print reading support versus listening to audiobooks as a way to build information and aesthetic experiences and critical thinking about auditory experiences in their own right. I’m looking forward to our conversations!

Francisca Goldsmith, a librarian and reviewer for over 30 years, has handled audiobook advisory and staff development training in many venues since 1997. Among her current work roles, she serves as a Contributing Editor at AudioFile Magazine and works with the Audio Publishers Association’s Sound Learning initiative.

News Roundup [September 23, 2016]


How a café in Croatia became an open virtual library (and what it teaches us about the future of books) (No Shelf Required)

Kindle Unlimited Funding Increases Slightly in August 2016 (The Digital Reader)

Research Tools: USDA Releases New Database with Nutrition Info For Over 80,000 Brand Name Food Products (Infodocket)

Kobo Aura 2016 vs. Kobo Glo HD vs. Kindle Paperwhite (comparison) (Password Incorrect)

The Kindle Reading Fund will make books more accessible around the world (Ebook Friendly)

Creative Commons licenses under scrutiny—what does “noncommercial” mean? (Ars Technica)

Download our new #Frankfurt @Book_Fair preview magazine free (Publishing Perspectives)

2016 Trend Report: What publishers need to know (The Average Joe)

Copyright Is Not an Inevitable or Divine Right, Court Rules (Torrent Freak)

e-Book Cover Design Awards, August 2016 (The Book Designer)

Comic Book Readers Still Prefer Print Over Digital (InfoDocket)

Facebook begins using artificial intelligence to describe photos to blind users (The Verge)

NSR Post: A time to soar above the level plain of tradition (No Shelf Required)

New Partnership between EBSCO and Mackin Makes Accessing eBooks Easier for Schools (Library Stuff)

Google Books will now make better suggestions on what to read next (Techcrunch)

Former Disney Digital Boss Says He “Loves Piracy” (Torrent Freak)

Keio University Offers “Introduction to Japanese Subcultures Post-1970” Online Course For Free (Crunchyroll)

Stop Piracy? Legal Alternatives Beat Legal Threats, Research Shows (Torrent Freak)

Students and universities set to reap the benefits of market-leading e-book pilot (JISC)

Aberystwyth University share their digital storytelling experiences (JISC)

How a café in Croatia became an open virtual library (and what it teaches us about the future of books)


No Shelf Required announced on Thursday that Café Velvet in Zagreb, Croatia, opened its doors on September 22 with a new mission: to not only serve first-rate coffee and cake but to allow its guests to access a Virtual Library of 100,000 (and counting) titles in several languages and to read to their hearts’ desire (using an access code) without paying for any of it. In other words, Café Velvet is the world’s first Café turned into a Free Reading Zone.

How do I know it’s the first? Because I run this initiative, and this was the first time we turned a café into a Free Reading ZoneSM —the kind your local library simply wouldn’t be able to pull off without the right technology. Allow me to share the story behind how it all came together and why I think the Velvet story serves to remind us that books are asking (begging, in fact) to be read freely online, just like we enjoy all other creative mediums in digital format for free (music, articles, news stories, etc.). And that the whole world, it seems, is waiting for us—the book industry—to get our act together so that books in digital format can realize their full potential.

In the beginning

As fate would have it, I met Yoav Lorch, CEO and Founder of Total Boox, in 2013. At the time, Total Boox was a new entrant into the ebook market and a company from Israel on a mission to change the world of reading. How, I asked him. Simple, he said. “We will make all of the world’s books available for reading upfront (by asking publishers to give us their entire catalogs; no buying in advance), we will expose them for reading, and we will pay publishers for what was actually read. We will charge readers (or whoever pays for the reading) only for what was read (not downloaded).” In other words, books and knowledge will flow in all directions, and readers will be in charge of what they want to read (not publishers or libraries).

I remember our meeting like it was yesterday. We set in a café right across the street from the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and he offered me the job of helping Total Boox build a collection of titles that would be always available for reading. No restrictions. No barriers. No expirations. Little did we know then that a few years later, we’d be turning cafes around the world (like the one we were siting in that day) into Free Reading Zones and open virtual libraries using the brilliant ebook model he came up with. And little did we know that neither of us would be in New York to do it.

The Total Boox story

Total Boox entered the book and library market with a mission to change the ebook game. The book industry had at that point been stuck between a rock and a hard place with ebooks (and slowly losing interest, it seemed) and Yoav’s powerful no-barriers-to-reading model—I was certain then as I am now—would forever change the way we think about books and reading. I accepted the job offer and spent the following three years orbiting the planet (with Yoav and other colleagues from Total Boox), attending library and book shows and convincing publishers that the Total Boox model was the future. Meanwhile, my colleagues were busy promoting Total Boox to libraries.

As libraries began to provide Total Boox to their patrons, several immediately took interest in working with us to go beyond the library walls and make titles available in the collection in areas outside the library (the ‘zones’ would be great places for libraries to attract new card holders). That’s when it hit us: Why only the U.S. and why always the affluent areas? What about the rest of the world? And why only libraries? Why not any public or private space that wants to be endowed with culture? We’ve got this ebook model that allows people to read instantly and simultaneously while paying publishers and authors, and with the support from businesses willing to ‘sponsor reading,’ we can take this mighty collection anywhere.

Somewhere along the way it hit me more than it hit others on the team: this collection of 100,000 quality books by the world’s top publishers—which grows weekly by 1000 new titles and which I stand behind since I helped build it—can be accessed by anyone, anywhere! Let’s go global with it. Let’s spread reading wherever books are welcome. Let’s find sponsors who will be willing to support ‘free reading’ in their communities. I loved the idea of a kid in a small developing country having free access to the exact same collection of books as a kid in New York. I loved the idea of turning remote rural places around the world into Free Reading Zones. I also loved the idea of turning businesses (like hotels, cafes, etc.) into places where culture is abundant and knowledge free to all. Most of all: I loved the idea that when it came to access to books and knowledge, we could all be equal. No shelf required. No pass required. Pure availability of books. Pure reading.

The Velvet story

Café Velvet in Croatia’s capital was not a random choice when selecting the first café to be turned into a Free Reading Zone. Croatia is the country of my birth (even though I spent most of my life outside it) and Zagreb has always been home away from home, which, for 23 years, was none other than the center of publishing: New York. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Zagreb lately, and I’ve fallen in love with the city, particularly its arts and literature scene.

Café Velvet is a very well-known hangout, located on an iconic street in the heart of Zagreb’s Old District. The minute you walk into the café, you notice immediately that Velvet celebrates art and human creativity in every form imaginable. Impeccable attention is given to every detail. It’s a café that’s also a gallery displaying the artwork of Croatia’s well-known artist and florist, Sasa Sekoranja, and it is also a literary establishment that hosts author signings and readings, several of which I attended last winter. Velvet has a history you sense before you know anything about it.

It only took one meeting with the cafe’s owners for them to agree to work with us. And in that meeting, I promised to add top Croatian books to the collection even though at that point we had none. A few weeks later, everything fell into place quicker than I could have imagined. Top Croatian publishers (among them my own favorite: Fraktura) welcomed the idea and quickly signed contracts with Total Boox. The team at Total Boox worked around the clock to set up daily access codes, welcome newsletters for registered users, pop ups, and built a new app designed for Free Reading only (which is different from the app Total Boox uses in libraries). We dealt with an onslaught of metadata overnight as publishers rushed to send us titles in epub to be available for the big day.

Local celebrities and influential figures—including well-known actors, writers, journalists, and artists—joined forces to support the opening of the First Reading Zone in their country and agreed to be photographed for the media and publicly support the project. The goal here was to get the public excited and to show people what was possible with the book in 2016. Important to note: once the news got around that this was going to be a special project which would create a lot of value for a lot of people and make the whole city and country proud, everyone I got in contact with was happy to support it. They also understood that Velvet was essentially the pilot that would set an example for all other Free Reading Zones to follow throughout the region.

Around the same time, I opened a page on Facebook called Free Reading Zones: Croatia and began educating people about ebooks and what they can do for the world.  Within 7 weeks, we had over 10,000 likes and people from all over the country (and the rest of Europe) shared their thoughts about ebooks, digital reading, tablets, cost of reading, libraries, etc. Most of their comments could be summed up as follows: “I love paper books, but I also love the idea of an open virtual library. I wish someone would teach me about ebooks and what’s possible with them. Most of all: I wish I could read books online for free.” In short: the people of Croatia embraced the idea of reading books freely and immediately recognized that the reason for the Facebook page’s existence was not only to raise awareness but to show potential sponsors that they, the people, were ready for this. The Facebook page was also our PROOF to potential sponsors that people wanted this.

It was, in fact, all of the activity on the Facebook page that made me realize what few of us in the book industry dare say out loud: it was US, publishers and libraries, stifling the progress of the digital medium all along. We are the reason ebooks haven’t transformed the world by now into a place where knowledge flows freely. We have been protecting too many internal interests and resisting new possibilities. And we have shown little interest in educating the public about what is possible. As it turns out: people want to read ebooks. They just don’t know how.  And we’ve made it very difficult for them. It is more important to us that the bottom lines of our institutions and organizations are protected (even when there is no substantial proof that sales of print books are threatened) than that the books we produce in nauseating quantities are actually read.

The Velvet lesson

So what is the ultimate lesson here? Simple: we now have the technology to turn a small private business (like Café Velvet in Zagreb) into an open virtual library—the kind of library that allows users to have access to knowledge in ways people couldn’t imagine before. This same technology can turn any space into a zone where people read freely (thanks to the sponsors willing to support it): a park, a hospital, a train, an airport, an entire city. And thanks to the Total Boox’ technology we are now able to create a circle in which everyone benefits:

  • the sponsor of the ‘zone’ (who has the privilege, and responsibility, in fact, to support literacy and access to knowledge)
  • publishers and authors (who are compensated for every reading and are given an opportunity to bring a lot of unread books back to life)
  • the technology company (in this case Total Boox, the company behind the app and the business model)
  • the people (who get to consume content for free just like they consume everything online for free)
  • the society (because conditions are created that allow knowledge to detach itself from institutions in ways not seen before)

This is what the future of reading looks like, folks. And in this future, books will flow freely to all who want to read them and they will not need a library card to access them. In this future, there is no more buying or borrowing. There is simply free and uninterrupted access. Also, in this not-so-distant future, the book will reach its highest potential. Our society will go through a READING revolution—the kind Gutenberg couldn’t pull off (but he gave us a hell of a start). The kind that levels the playing field for all mankind. The kind that allows us to ‘FREE’ THE BOOK FROM THE PRESS. And that, dear colleagues, is the ultimate democratization of the written word.

But don’t worry: the print book isn’t going away. It was never going to go away. It was US—the people who produce, sell, and distribute books—who feared it might, and this is why for the past 20 years we’ve been stuck. Inside the Velvet Café there is a beautiful old-fashioned library full of books, and on every table, there is a book next to the menu. One of the joys of visiting Velvet is reaching for the book on the table and wondering if the book you find there has any special meaning for you. If Velvet does not want to decide between print and digital and is choosing to embrace both formats and make them available for free reading to their guests, what is our excuse? If Velvet says “give them ALL of the experience of reading,” what is our problem?













Mirela Roncevic is Managing Editor at No Shelf Required and Director of Free Reading Zones. For all NSR-related news and reviews, follow her on Twitter @noshelfrequired. For her creative writings, follow her on Facebook. Contact her directly at mirelaroncevic@gmail.com.




Croatia is home to the First Café in the world turned into a Free Reading Zone


No Shelf Required is pleased, honored, and thrilled to announce that Café Velvet in Zagreb (Croatia’s capital) is the first café in the world turned into a Free Reading ZoneSM. Guests of the café (located in downtown Zagreb, on the iconic Dezmanova Street) can log into a Virtual Library (via any iOS and Android smartphone and tablet) and access thousands upon thousands of books in several languages, including English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Croatian, among others. The locals may enjoy literature in their native language while countless tourists who visit the country’s’ capital each day can read in other languages. All they need is to log in using an Access Code provided by the café.

The technology is powered by Total Boox, ebook service known to U.S. publishers and librarians for its revolutionary ebook model which makes ebooks instantly available, with no limitations, holds, or expirations, while paying publishers for reading. Readers may browse Total Boox’ collection of 100,000 titles, which includes books in all categories—from literary and genre fiction to poetry and philosophy; from cookbooks, arts, and photography to sports, entertainment, and travel; from children’s books and YA literature to professional and scientific literature. Publishers represented include an array of world-class brands from around the globe, including, to name a few, Lonely Planet, Workman, Sourcebooks, F&W Media, O’Reilly, Other Press, Elsevier, New World Library, Marshall Cavendish, Berret-Koehler, Lerner, and Berlitz.

The Free Reading Zones initiative was launched in 2016—under the leadership of Mirela Roncevic, Managing Editor of No Shelf Required, and in cooperation with Total Boox—with the goal to spread reading to various public and private spaces beyond libraries and endow them with culture. These ‘zones’ may be sponsored by private and public institutions, corporations or government entities and include, among others, parks, hospitals, trains, airports, schools, universities, cafes, etc. When Free Reading Zones are sponsored by libraries, users inside the zone access the collection via their active library card; when sponsored by private entities (as in the case of Velvet Café), readers simply log in using an access code. They may also continue reading once they leave ‘the zone.’

“It’s truly an honor to lead such an important initiative, and to take it outside the United States,” said Roncevic. “It’s strongly aligned with the mission of No Shelf Required—to educate, enlighten, and inspire everyone inside and outside the book industry about what ebooks and digital content can do for literacy. In short, they can transform the world into a place where access to knowledge flows freely in all directions. There is a way. And we are paving it together.”

Read Mirela Roncevic’s editorial on how it all came together here.



Zagreb, 06.12.2014 - Praznicki ukraseni kafici



Book of the Week: A Pigeon’s Tale by S.A. Mahan

In an effort to draw attention to quality independent literature (fiction and nonfiction published by independent authors and indie publishers), and in agreement with BlueInk Review, NSR highlights reviews of a wide variety of titles published on BIR’s site each week. Enjoy this week’s pick.

A Pigeon’s Tale

About Author



S.A. Mahan writes children’s books and stories for young adult readers, gaining  her inspiration from hiking in the Rocky Mountains and her love of adventure. In addition to being an author, Mahan is a fiber artist, barista, and rancher. She lives in Colorado with her husband. This is her third book.

About BlueInk Review

BlueInk Review was founded by Patti Thorn, former books editor of the Rocky Mountain News, and Patricia Moosbrugger, literary agent and subsidiary rights specialist. It offers serious, unbiased reviews of self-published books. Reviews are penned largely by writers drawn from major mainstream publications, such as The New York Times and Washington Post, and editors of respected traditional publishing houses. Select reviews appear in Booklist magazine.

A time to soar above the level plain of tradition


By Mirela Roncevic

As you may have noticed, the focus of No Shelf Required has been shifting in recent months. What once was a blog covering ebook news in the publishing and library market has morphed into a mission-oriented portal with the purpose of educating, enlightening, and inspiring book professionals of all walks of life (writers, editors, publishers, librarians, reading app developers, etc.) to recognize the power of the written word in digital format—namely its ability to transform our world into a place where access to books and knowledge is open and free to all individuals regardless of their location, affiliation, or background.

We think that it is only a matter of time before books are open to the world online the way other mediums have been ‘open’ for years (think music on youtube, news and magazine articles, etc.). We are here, therefore, to draw attention to what is on the horizon for our industry, and what’s on the horizon looks a lot like what is already happening on the Internet every second of every day: free digital reading.

Countless sites give us up-to-the-minute news about emerging ebook technologies, new companies entering our restless market, and new partnerships forming between libraries, publishers, and vendors. There is also no shortage of press releases and advertorials coming at us from all sides on a daily basis. Even the most informed among us are finding it hard to keep up with the sheer amount of information released each day.

We do not wish to add to this clutter, and this is the reason you now only see NSR covering news on Fridays in Paul Biba’s News Roundups. The rest of the week is devoted to celebrating books and authors (including independent authors), highlighting opinion pieces by various professionals with inspiring thoughts on the present and future of the book, and bringing to your attention stories about projects and initiatives from around the world pointing to how individuals and institutions are going beyond what is ‘normal,’ ‘expected,’ and ‘traditional’ with books in digital environments. And, again, those initiatives look a lot like what is already happening on the Internet every second of every day: free digital reading. And by ‘free,’ we mean no strings attached. We mean: no institutions acting as middlemen, no free ‘sampling’ to encourage print sales, and no humanitarian efforts needed to enable free access. We simply mean: every person is able to read what, when, and how they want to online.

Book professionals: now that we have two decades of ‘trial-and-error’ behind us, now that we have had a lot of practice about how to make ebooks available to readers, now that we have done so much respectful disagreeing among ourselves, the time has come to “soar above the level plain of tradition” (to borrow the words from Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening) and catch up to other industries that have long been exposing their content online for all to see, use, and learn from. The truth is plain to see if we are willing to see it: we are trailing behind, and we have no one to hold responsible but ourselves.

Now is not the time to comfort ourselves with meaningless reports pointing to ebook reading declining or reaffirming people’s emotional connection to paper. Now is the time to recognize that we—the very people producing, selling, and managing books—have been standing in the way of books reaching readers (and there would be no stopping them online if we just got out of the way). Now is the time to recognize that reading matters more than containers. And that those containers we love to hold and display on our personal or library shelves have never even been at risk of disappearing. Now is the time to learn from our setbacks and embrace the only logical next challenge in the evolution of the medium we are all devoted to, and at the heart of this challenge lies but one simple question: How can we make ebooks and econtent freely available to all so that we all benefit from it?

Now is also the time to face some issues about our own professional identities. These include, among others:

  • Libraries cannot keep up with all of the e-content being produced anymore.
  • Existing ebook business models have created a lot of chaos for us all and they have only driven readers away from embracing ebooks.
  • Most of the world’s books in digital format are never discovered or read because no one knows they exist.
  • Most of the world’s population does not live in prosperous urban areas where people have access to well-funded libraries (the only ones with sizable ebook collections).
  • Independent authors and self-publishing services are here to stay, and here to flourish, and they are not being served.
  • Many of the world’s publishers haven’t even started digitizing their backlists due to the cost involved.
  • Are our fears that making ebooks free will harm print sales justified?
  • Have we done enough to educate the general public about ebooks and ebook technologies?
  • Does it really make sense to be borrowing anything from libraries in the 21st century?
  • Why don’t we care more to embrace the idea of people reading openly and freely and without the rules we impose on them?
  • Isn’t it our collective responsibility (perhaps even our moral imperative) to make knowledge available to everyone, everywhere?
  • Are we failing to see that consumption of digital content is all around us and that it flows freely online and that books are the last medium still ‘locked?’
  • Have we considered all viable options when it comes to how writers can share their work with the world beyond packaging it and turning into a physical object?
  • What is a book anyway? How much of our thinking about the book is driven by tradition rather than the many possibilities afforded to us by new technologies?
  • Are there enough leaders among us not afraid to chart new territories?

These are some of the issues we wish to explore on No Shelf Required as we forge ahead. If you have thoughts on these and similar topics, we invite you to submit an opinion piece. We hope NSR’s mission and vision inspire you to think beyond what you now perceive as your role. And regardless of how you identify yourself today—as an accomplished author, an independent author, a small publisher, a Big Five publisher, a rural library, a major urban library, or a start-up catering to the book business—expect to be challenged tomorrow. Everyone who has ever attempted to soar above the level plain of tradition has been.

Thank you for reading and contributing to No Shelf Required. We look forward to learning and growing with you.

Mirela Roncevic is Managing Editor at No Shelf Required. For all NSR-related news and reviews, follow her on Twitter @noshelfrequired. For her creative writings, follow her on Facebook. Contact her directly at mirelaroncevic@gmail.com.

Portal on all things ebooks and econtent and for all reading, writing, publishing, curating, and distributing books and other content in digital format, including publishers, librarians, content developers, distributors, retailers, and educators. Managed and edited by Mirela Roncevic, with contributions from professionals and thought leaders in the United States and around the world.