What readers want [and what we are not giving them]

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For the past many months, I’ve had the privilege of stepping outside the confines of the publishing and library industries (as well as the borders of the United States) to engage in projects that bring books and knowledge to people. There comes a point in every person’s career when we crave to turn our professional jobs into missions, and it simply isn’t enough to earn a paycheck, even amidst the most challenging circumstances. We take a leap of faith and jump.

And jump I did, from New York all the way to Croatia, where I would (not immediately upon arrival but soon thereafter) embark on the project of my life and turn an entire country into an open virtual library (available to all its people without a card and access code and regardless of status, geography, background, citizenship, etc). In early December 2016, Croatia (the country of my birth) became the world’s first free reading country (i.e., an open virtual library) for one entire month.

During that time, anyone in Croatia, including residents and tourists, could read (online and offline) freely over 100,000 books from well-known publishers (some old, most brand new releases), in several languages, via a free reading app, called Croatia Reads. Here I want to shed light on the most prominent lesson learned from this experience. And it has to do with understanding what readers really want from ebooks and digital content.

The pilot wasn’t just an attempt to ‘free’ books from the confines of library walls and expensive ebook platforms and bring them to people in rural areas and places with no bookstores or libraries. It was an attempt to prove to the book and library industry on both sides of the Atlantic that there is genuine interest among consumers to read ebooks when the right conditions are created for them, just as there is genuine interest in engaging with all sorts of information in digital format. With all due respect for all our arguments about the emotional attachment to paper, ebooks hold the promise of a future in which paper books do not perish but knowledge flows freely to all who want it, while publishers and content creators get their fair share.

Long story short: readers will read books in digital format enthusiastically when they are offered to them for free. Does this mean that publishers will not get paid? Of course not. The whole concept of the Croatia Reads project was designed around the idea that publishers always get paid for everything read (that’s the Total Boox model was used, which pays publishers only for the content read). But more importantly, the reading is always sponsored by a third-party, in this case it was No Shelf Required. In other words, the burden of paying for the reading is transferred from the reader onto the sponsor.

The sponsor can be any organization willing to participate in the mission, including libraries, but also including, for example, banks, insurance companies, government entities, etc. Why detach ebooks and knowledge from libraries (that usually do this, if they are able to do it) and various government or non-profit institutions of learning? To this I can only ask back: why not? Why not allow anyone out there with money to spend on literacy, education, and spreading of knowledge and culture to participate for the greater good of the entire society? We see wealthy corporations sponsor all types of lifestyle activities every single day, so why shouldn’t we expect them to do the same for literacy? Can you think of anything more important than sponsoring the spreading of knowledge to every corner of the globe? Just think of the possibilities.

Consider this: within hours of announcing the app in the media on St. Nicholas Day (December 6th), thousands of people registered all across the country and began reading, many of them located in small, rural areas or on the islands in the Adriatic.

In a country where the average salary doesn’t amount to more than $800/month, where the vast majority of people don’t purchase a single book a year, where a typical paperback doesn’t cost much less than it does in the U.S., tens of thousands of people read voraciously on their phones and tablets, and read not only in their native language, but even more in other languages (English, French, German, Spanish, Italian) — the kinds of books they had never before been exposed to; the kinds of books their bookstores didn’t offer and their libraries could not afford, including professional literature, gay fiction, how-to literature, spirituality, genre fiction, academic monographs, etc. etc.

Our team of volunteers monitored every aspect of the pilot from Day 1 and not a day went by without us communicating with readers directly. We managed a Facebook page where they could ask questions every day, and we also made ourselves available via phone and email. Some needed technical assistance, others wanted to offer suggestions how to improve the app. Some were highly educated, others called us from mountain villages or small islands making no excuses about the fact that this was their first time reading ebooks. Many were still in high school, and just as many were of retirement age. Many wrote just to say thank you. Some expressed concern early on about the pilot ending too soon.

If I could single out some key findings about what the readers’ actions showed us and what their feedback taught us, it would be these:

  • digital content wants to be read anywhere and does not need to be guarded (readers are very savvy and able to censor the content they consume)
  • readers enjoy reading ebooks a great deal and are often pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to browse through them and how much the technology of reading apps has improved in recent years
  • readers do not care to get ebooks through libraries; like other digital content, they simply want to access ebooks freely and without a cumbersome process
  • ebooks have the potential to stimulate more reading among people who don’t read much; many said the app made it convenient for them to read on the go, which increased the amount of overall reading; some even reported the app turned them into readers
  • readers do not want to pay for ebooks and do not see them threatening the survival of print books in any way
  • readers also want to read freely; and they can only achieve the true ‘freedom of reading’ through ebooks (and outside libraries and bookstores). When they enter a virtual library free for all people (as in the case of Croatia Reads), they are able to read discreetly whatever and however they want; there is no ‘clerk’ keeping track of what they were borrowing or buying; nothing needs to be put on hold or given a deadline; they are simply left alone to read on their own time and own their own terms
  • the majority of readers understood that Croatia Reads was a major step toward democratizing the written word in digital format and encouraged our efforts to continue beyond the pilot
  • the vast majority of readers were pleased with the reading experience (truth be told, the app itself was not a new version but a replica of one already in existence for nearly five years; and we did have challenges with it along the way) and do not require a lot of bells and whistles to enjoy reading and browsing.

A wide range of regional corporations showed interest in sponsoring the reading upon seeing reading stats, as did the Croatian government. Alas, it has not yet taken definitive action to turn the pilot into a long-term initiative, but I remain hopeful that Croatia Reads will inspire government officials to remain open to new possibilities.

We are at a point in the story of the book where exciting new opportunities are on the horizon, the kind we haven’t explored before. We just have to be courageous enough to embark on them together. The future of the book in digital format is, I believe now even more than before this project, ‘sponsored’ reading and ‘free’ reading for the people. Free in every sense of the world. Croatia Reads now stands as an example of that.

The promise of the ebook to make the world a better place is profound. It is the reason I was inspired to embark on this project. It isn’t about putting publishers out of business or devaluing libraries. It is about joining forces with them and empowering them through the use of technology. More than anything: it is about the fairness we can achieve when we level the playing field. But to achieve that, we must do more.

I was born in a small town on the Croatian Adriatic, population 7,000. No bookstore. Tiny library with a handful of paperbacks, barely able to keep its doors open. I was fortunate to eventually make it all the way to New York (well before the age of the Internet), where I pulled alnighters as an NYU student at the Bobst Library and searched for books I couldn’t find there at NYPL on Fifth Avenue. My parents had to move mountains to afford me the education I dreamed of as a kid. People who still live in my hometown, and whose kids have dreams as big as I once did, don’t have to anymore. The world is on their screens. Books should be, too. That’s what it’s about. That’s what readers want. And that’s what we must give them.