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 firstname.lastname@example.org.