On 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.