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 firstname.lastname@example.org.