This is Article 3 (following What readers want and What books want) in the “Lessons from Croatia Reads” series of articles on NSR, which aims to describe the experience of turning the country of Croatia into a Free Reading Zone in December 2016.
So what exactly happened with ebooks in Croatia in December of 2016? The first two articles in the “Lessons from Croatia Reads” series, which focused on why the project was immensely beneficial for readers and books (and the future of books), left some questions unanswered, owing largely to my affinity for describing life’s experiences (not just this one) not in a linear fashion but instead in the way in which they get stored in my memory. This often has little to do with chronology and more to do with how various lessons from the experience present themselves to me after the fact.
The Croatia Reads project, which I founded and managed, was many things to many people who are, in one way or another, affected by books either because they write them, read them, sell them, distribute them, or manage them. In retrospect, and perhaps more than anything, Croatia Reads was an attempt to present the library of the future in all its invisible glory. And this library is able to (finally) fully democratize the written word by virtue of becoming completely invisible, thus accessible to all people, all at once. This, as I’ve written in various other posts, is the vision I have both for the industry I love and have devoted two decades of my life to and for the world, which I’ve had the privilege of experiencing through life on three continents.
The idea came to me about a year ago in the midst of a meeting I was having with my (at the time) colleagues at Total Boox, the company behind the pay-as-you-read ebook model for libraries and direct consumers.
Total Boox’ disruptive model asks that readers pay for what they read, not for what they download or what they buy in advance. This radical departure from “buy first, then read if you want“ and move toward “download first, then read, then pay only if you actually read” requires publishers to think outside the box and embrace ‘incremental revenue,’ and many do, since close to 300 of them worldwide make their titles available for reading in the Total Boox catalog.
Although Total Boox entered the crowded ebook market as a consumer product (asking readers themselves to pay for what they actually read, the same way they pay when making a Skype call, for example), its model quickly became interesting to public libraries in the United States struggling with less-than-logical ebook lending practices (such as the one-copy, one-user model imposed on libraries by the Big Five) because, unlike others, it places no restrictions on reading (no holds, no waits, instant and continuous availability), with nothing ever expiring or disappearing from readers’ devices. But libraries have to sponsor each reading, every time. In the long run, however, they end up spending less than when buying titles in advance, while offering a lot more to their patrons.
We’d talked about helping libraries reach more patrons by going outside the confines of physical walls and creating ‘zones’ in their communities where people would be able to enjoy free reading through their library (e.g., hospitals, laundromats, parks, cafes, etc.). We’d call them Free Reading Zones, or, simply, FREZ. FREZ would do a lot of good for a lot of people, because it would open up books like never before and attract more people to the library (since they would need to get a library card to enjoy the free reading).
As wonderful as this idea of helping libraries be in charge of Free Reading Zones seemed, something was missing, I thought. The whole concept of free reading wasn’t really FREE; it was still restricted to physical libraries. It still asked people to go to where the books were. And those books, even though they were in digital format, were still thought of as ‘belonging’ to a physical entity. The process still involved authentication, library card PINs, and showing up somewhere and ‘registering’ (thus revealing a lot about oneself). There was freedom in it, but not complete freedom.
What if libraries simply sponsored the reading in these areas and then just got out of the way? I began to think. What if there were no strings attached for readers, even if they weren’t library card holders? And what if libraries could partner with other sponsors to support as much reading as possible, not for the sake of promoting the library or turning readers into patrons, but for the sake of sharing knowledge and endowing the world with culture and education? And what if libraries didn’t even have to be involved if they didn’t want to? What if others could step in and sponsor reading? Wealthy corporations with money to spend on improving their “we care about the world” image? Organizations supporting literacy? Governments willing to invest in their nations’ education outside schools? What if the freedom of reading in its truest sense took center stage and there was nothing and no one standing between books and readers?
Questions such as these got closer and closer to the new mission of No Shelf Required, which by that time had already become a portal aiming to educate those who work with books of the potential of the written word in digital format (i.e., ebooks) to transform the world from one where access to knowledge is a privilege (often tied to institutions, including libraries) to a world where access to knowledge is a right of every person regardless of his or her education, background, and location. Especially location.
Somewhere along the way, the original concept of Free Reading Zones, tied to libraries in the U.S. that already work with Total Boox, grew and became the Free Reading initiative led by No Shelf Required now going beyond the borders of the United States.
- The simple idea was this: any institution, agency, corporation, or organization—public or private—can sponsor book reading in a designated area and/or geographic location for a pre-determined period of time.
- The simple goal was this: to “endow” geographic areas (e.g., public spaces, private properties, etc.) with culture through the act of reading. Reading is always instant, simultaneous, and unlimited. Publishers and suppliers of books are paid for each reading, based on the amount read.
- And the simple mission was this: to form a ‘circle’ in which everyone benefits: people (because they are given open access to knowledge and the written word); sponsors (because they are given an opportunity to support an extremely valuable project benefiting a lot of people); ebook platforms (because their innovative technologies are used to enable reading); publishers (because they are paid for all reading and given an opportunity to revitalize their backlist, thus generate more revenue); and authors (because conditions are created for their work to reach more people than ever before).
So how exactly did the small country of Croatia enter the picture to become the first big Free Reading project for NSR? As I wrote previously (see Article 1), Croatia is the country of my birth, so there is a special connection to this project going beyond the many other benefits and advantages I recognized along the way, worth noting here:
- it’s a country small and compact enough to be turned into a free reading zone in its entirety (since the budget for reading was modest) and as such, it could (hopefully) become the project the Croatian Government would take interest in long term because it involved and benefited all its citizens, even its tourists and visitors
- it’s a country visited by 15 million tourists annually (more than three times its population), so there would be interest in the multi-lingual offering in the collection (most books were in English, but many in other European languages as well) and, as a result, the benefits would be significant for the Department of Tourism (not only for the Departments of Education and Culture)
- it’s a country with many remote areas where access to books and knowledge via libraries is limited at best (especially on the many islands in the Adriatic) and through this open library books would reach people who normally don’t have easy access to books and libraries
- it’s a country where buying printed books is a privilege which many cannot afford; the average printed book in Croatia costs about $15-$20, while the average monthly income of most Croatians is a fraction of what it is in the United States (less than $800/month)
- it’s a country where libraries function on limited budgets and have not taken any serious steps toward offering ebooks in their communities, so the project would directly support libraries and other institutions of knowledge and learning
In short, on December 5, 2016, with the help of a small team of local enthusiasts (not librarians) that I had the privilege of befriending during my stay in Zagreb (Croatia’s capital), and in cooperation with Total Boox, whose application was used for reading, Croatia became an open virtual library for one month. To help NSR readers gain more insight into some technical aspects of the project, below is a list of Frequently Asked Questions compiled for users in Croatia, which should fill in some of the blanks not discussed in previous articles.
Please note: this project did not involve Croatian libraries (although we reached out to them for support on more than one occasion). Likewise, it did not involve any government (local, regional, or national) entity. It was solely funded by No Shelf Required, in cooperation with Total Boox, whose responsibility was to provide the technology and pay the publishers based on actual reading. An army of volunteers in Croatia joined forces to help me and my small team of volunteers turn Croatia into an open library.
Please also note: Although the Total Boox model was the first tested for free reading by No Shelf Required, the effort in Croatia by no means implies that Total Boox is the only model suitable for free reading zones. It did, however, prove effective because large numbers of contemporary titles were available for instant and simultaneous reading and the cost of reading, in retrospect, was reasonable (thus attractive to potential sponsors in Croatia beyond the pilot).
Now that the first successful Free Reading pilot is behind us, NSR would like to invite all interested libraries, publishers, and ebook vendors to consider participating in other ‘free reading’ endeavors. My hope is that what we accomplished in Croatia will inspire others to initiate similar projects in their communities and countries, wherever they may be. Our team planted seeds in Croatia we hope to see grow all over the world. It was never about Croatia, as special as the project has become to me personally. It was and remains about free access to books for all mankind [you may say I’m a dreamer, but…]…
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Croatia Reads?
Croatia Reads is an attempt to turn an entire country into an open library—a zone in which reading books in digital format (ebooks) is accessible to all people inside Croatia’s borders free of charge. As long as you remain inside Croatia (and as long as the initiative is supported through sponsorship by third parties), you may download and read any of the books in the collection. You will never be asked for a library ID or an access code. Regardless of whether you are a resident or a tourist, whether you live in big urban areas or remote rural ones, you will be able to access any book instantly and read without restrictions. In short, Croatia Reads is an attempt to fully democratize the written word, make it accessible to all people, and forever revolutionize how we read books in the 21st century.
What is the basic idea of the Free Reading initiative?
When you are in a Free Reading Zone, the Zone’s sponsor pays for your reading. When you leave the zone, the benefit of free reading ends. Sponsors can be private entities (like large corporations and small businesses) or government entities (like public, school, and academic libraries, Departments of Culture, Education, and Tourism, Mayor’s offices, etc.). The Sponsor of the first month of free reading in Croatia is No Shelf Required, a non-profit portal that advocates digital literacy and free access to books and knowledge. Zones can be physical or virtual. They can be as small as single buildings or parks and as big as cities or entire countries (as in the case of Croatia).
Which devices are supported?
We support most Android devices, iOS devices (iPads and iPhones), and Kindle Fires. If your device is not supported (this may be the case with older models), you will not be able to download the Croatia Reads app from the app store. If you can download the app, then it should work on your device.
How are publishers paid for the ‘free’ reading?
Publishers are paid quarterly for all the reading of all their titles in the collection (not just in Croatia), since they have a contract with Total Boox. The amount they receive is based on what people actually read; the technology measures all reading and generates reports which show how much was read on any given day. Publishers, and therefore authors, do not make money if no one reads their books, but publishers make their titles available for discovery to anyone who wishes to read them. In Free Reading Zones, Sponsors pay for the cost of reading and technology up-keep (directly to the company hosting the reading, in this case, Total Boox), so that readers don’t have to.
Why am I downloading ebooks from the Total Boox website when inside the app?
This Free Reading Zones project is powered by Total Boox, the company that developed the technology that they run on. The Croatia Reads app is a replica of the regular Total Boox app normally used for reading in other countries, where readers pay for their own reading (or their libraries do, if they work with Total Boox). In the case of Croatia, the burden of paying for the reading is transferred from readers onto sponsors. This is why you are not asked to pay to set up a balance.
You can download as many ebooks as you want from a catalog of nearly 100,000 titles in many languages, for the entire duration of the pilot. The catalog grows weekly as new publishers come on board and new titles are added to the system.
Can I read offline?
Yes. You must be online to download books but you do not need to be online to read them.
What happens if I read offline in a Free Reading Zone?
If you go offline, you can continue reading for a while. Then you will be notified to go back online and refresh your device (we must do this for security reasons). As soon as you do that, your invisibile credit will be refreshed and you will be able to continue reading. Most people will never reach this point because they will likely go online throughout the day (while reading) so their reading credit is always refreshed. As long as you periodically go back online (and almost all people do), we will be able to see what you read while you were offline. This is how we ensure that all reading is always accounted for, so that publishers are compensated fairly.
How do you protect my privacy?
What happens if I change to a different device?
We will automatically load your books onto the new device when you install the app and log in with the same email and password. If you go back and forth between devices, your reading will automatically sync.
Can I download ebooks on my desktop?
You cannot read on computer screens but you can certainly log into your account and download books there. Some people prefer to browse on their desktops and download books that way. Your Library on your smartphone or tablet will automatically sync with what you downloaded on the desktop.
How diverse is the collection? What types of books and publishers are represented?
All kinds. From literary fiction to genre fiction; from creative nonfiction to professional literature; from children’s books to young adult literature; from arts and humanities to science and technology; from travel and cooking to crafts and spirituality. Our collection is extremely diverse and there are books in it for all ages and all tastes and interests. The collection is also increasingly multilingual.
What are some key features of the Croatia Reads app?
The free reading app is very intuitive and easy to use. You can search books by keyword or you can browse by category (and sub-category). You can also filter your searches by popularity, author, title, and language. You can create Shelves inside your Library and keep them private or make them public (i.e., share with others). You can highlight parts of the books you like, bookmark pages, increase and decrease font, adjust font settings, jump from one part of the book to another through Table of Contents or by using the percentage line at the bottom of the screen.
* * *
- What books want (and what we are misunderstanding)
- What readers want (and what we are not giving them)
- Croatia is the world’s first country to become a Free Reading Zone
Mirela Roncevic is Editorial Director of No Shelf Required. She is also the founder of the Free Reading initiative. Her full employment history is available on LinkedIn. Contact her directly at email@example.com.