A time for publishers and libraries to soar above tradition and fail (if they must)

Dear reader,

As you may have noticed, the focus of No Shelf Required has been shifting in recent weeks and months. What once was a blog covering ebook news in the publishing and library market has expanded into a mission-oriented portal with the purpose of not only keeping up with the vast ebook and econtent ecosystem but also of educating, enlightening, and inspiring book professionals of all walks of life (including writers, editors, publishers, librarians, developers, etc.) to recognize the power of the written word in digital format  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.). But ‘open’ and ‘freely available’ does not mean that there are no financial benefits for content producers and all others in the ecosystem. It means that knowledge flows to the user with minimal or no restriction, while rewarding those making it possible. And how could that ever be possible, you ask. To that we say: have we made honest efforts to make it possible before claiming it is not? Have we pushed ourselves in the direction of innovation and disruption enough to fail and learn from our failures?

NSR is here to draw attention to not only what is happening with ebooks today but, just as important, what is clearly on the horizon for our industry tomorrow, and what’s on the horizon looks a lot like what is already happening on the Internet every day: free consumption of content. This is not to say that we don’t recognize that there is a vast and growing industry of publishers and other companies (successfully) selling books and content to libraries and individual consumers. We do, of course. In many ways, every one of us who works with books belongs to that ecosystem. But we also recognize that a shift is taking place that will soon propel us to a new way of thinking about what ebooks can do for the book industry and the society in general.

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 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 we choose what to cover carefully.

Our mission is to dig deep for answers about why things are the way they are with ebooks in all segments of our market: trade, academic, K-12, and professional. We also aim to celebrate books and authors (particularly independent authors), highlight opinions by various professionals with inspiring thoughts on the present and future of digital books, and bring attention to projects and initiatives from around the world pointing to how individuals and institutions are going beyond what is ‘normal,’ ‘expected,’ and ‘traditional’ with digital content.

And let’s define what we mean by ‘free.’ By ‘free,’ we mean no strings attached for the user. We mean: institutions acting as enablers and initiators (not absentee middlemen), no free ‘sampling’ to encourage print sales (which, we believe, do not decline when people read content in digital format), and no humanitarian efforts that serve more for PR purposes than to promote genuine missions to free knowledge from the confines of physical entities. We simply mean: every person is able to read what, when, and how they want to online.

Book publishers and librarians: 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 a quote 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 (while managing to profit from it). We are trailing behind other industries, and we can only hold ourselves responsible.

Now is not the time to comfort ourselves with reports pointing to ebook reading declining or reaffirming people’s emotional connection to paper (something we have repeated ad nauseam). Now is the time to recognize that we—the people privileged to produce, sell, and manage knowledge in all forms—have been standing in the way of books reaching more readers. 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 more ebooks and econtent freely available to people everywhere, regardless of geographic restrictions, and in a way that benefits our industry in the process.

Now is also the time to ask some much-needed questions about our professional identities, goals and perspectives. Now is the time to consider:

  • Have existing ebook models created a lot of chaos for us all and driven readers away from embracing ebooks?
  • Are we aware that most of the world’s books in digital format are never discovered?
  • Can libraries keep up with all of the e-content being produced in nauseating quantities online?
  • How often do we wake up to the fact that 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)?
  • Are we aware of the growing inequality among library institutions themselves?
  • Are we ready to acknowledge that independent authors and self-publishing services are here to stay, and here to flourish, and they are not being served or given proper credit.
  • Are our fears that making ebooks free in any way automatically harms print sales justified?
  • Have we done enough to educate the public about the wonderful benefits of ebooks and the constantly-evolving technologies that support their development?
  • Does it make sense to be borrowing anything from libraries in the 21st century, especially something intangible as digital content?
  • Isn’t it our collective responsibility (perhaps even our moral imperative) to make knowledge available to everyone, everywhere and in a way that isn’t confined to institutions?
  • Are we failing to see that consumption of digital content is all around us and that it flows freely in a way that transcends borders and ‘rights’ and that books are the last medium still ‘locked’ away from humanity?
  • Have we considered all viable options when it comes to how writers can share their work with the world beyond packaging it and turning it 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 willing to chart new territories even at the expense of failing, and failing hard?

These are some of the issues we wish to explore on No Shelf Required as we forge ahead. We hope NSR’s mission and vision inspire you to think beyond whatever your current role may be. Regardless of how you identify yourself or your institution today—an accomplished author, an independent author, a small publisher, a Big Five publisher, a rural library, a major urban library, a university with a big endowment, a start-up catering to publishers and libraries, or an established player in the library and information science field—expect to be challenged the very moment you step outside the comfort zone of all that we now consider ‘standard’ with ebooks and econtent. Everyone who attempts to soar above the level plain of tradition must be challenged.

And may we all have strong wings in the process.