An Interview with Mirela Roncevic, Founder of the Free Reading Zone Project

Published Mar 28, 2017 by Len Epp

Mirela Roncevic is a writer, editor, and the Editorial Director of No Shelf Required. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Mirela about her career, and in particular about “Free Reading Zone” project, which recently opened a virtual library of books to the entire country of Croatia.

This interview was recorded on January 31, 2016.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Len: Hi, this is Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this podcast episode, I’ll be talking with Mirela Roncevic. In addition to being a writer, editor and publishing industry consultant, Mirela’s the Editorial Director of No Shelf Required — an online resource for book industry professionals to help speed the spread of literacy and open access to knowledge, and which has a special focus on subjects related to ebooks and digital content.

Mirela is also the Founder and Director of an organization that seeks to create free reading zones, and in December 2016, turned the entire country of Croatia into an open virtual library — including over 100,000 books freely available to download, without requiring that anyone have a library card or any type of access code.

In this interview, we’re going to talk about Mirela’s career, No Shelf Required, and her experience with setting up free reading zones. In addition to her work, I should mention, [in addition to work she has published] at noshelfrequired.com, you can also read content by Mirela on her website at mirelaroncevic.com, and you can follow No Shelf Required on Twitter @noshelfrequired.

So, thank you Mirela for being on the Leanpub Podcast.

Mirela: Thank you for having me.

Len: I always like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your history — how you became interested in the publishing world and in the library industry as well, and some of your experiences that led you to where you are today.

Mirela: Well I always knew that I — growing up in Croatia, I was born in Croatia; I moved to New York when I was a teenager, and I always knew growing up that I would be a writer, that I would be involved with writing and books. So it was no surprise that I ended up at NYU studying literature and journalism and combining the two.

So getting that first job in publishing was a natural progression of my work at NYU as an undergraduate student, and then as a graduate student of comparative literature. So when I ended up in publishing, I was a standard editor. The first two years of my work in publishing involved classic editorial work. Simply, I worked with books.

Later I landed a job at Library Journal, where I wrote about books and reviewed them, and wrote articles about the publishing industry.

It was a very natural progression that started during my college years. And from there it just grew. And little by little I ended up on the digital side, which was a surprise. It wasn’t something I was pursuing. I fell into it.

At first I was very resistant. I was in my, at the time, mid- to late 20’s, and the job of the person who would handle ebooks at the time, was simply given to the youngest person on staff — which was me. But I ended up discovering, not only discovering the potential of ebooks to transform the world in ways we haven’t seen before, but I also became an avid ebook reader.

And so that’s where I am today, the advocate of reading in digital format, and someone who’s very passionate about — despite my traditional publishing background — as someone who’s very passionate about what digital books can do for the world. And what they can do for the world beyond libraries, beyond institutions. So this idea of one day — perhaps not in my lifetime — but one day, the world becoming an open, virtual library — is something that I’m naturally very drawn to.

Len: I’d like to talk to you about that in a couple of minutes. But before moving on, I think people might be interested in hearing about what the classic duties of an editor were in the publishing industry, and maybe how they’ve changed in your time — especially over that transition to digital?

Mirela: Well I didn’t spend as much time editing books in my career, as I did working as a book review editor for a magazine — especially Library Journal, where I spent 12 years. But I did spend a significant number of years as a classic book editor, managing editor and acquisitions editor.

How things have changed? Well, things have gotten really hectic. They’ve always been, but it does seem to me that books are produced at a faster pace, simply because books used to be printed, and now they’re printed and digitized at the same time. So there are a lot of people involved with the production of every book.

And then of course there’s the onslaught of self-publishing, which has been — it’s a phenomenon we cannot ignore. And that has challenged traditional publishing in many ways.

So in many ways, publishing is not really much different than it used to be — except that a lot more is being produced.

I think I read somewhere that over a million new titles are produced or published every year — half of them are self-published. That’s a lot of books to keep up with, and a lot of people involved in that process.

Len: And do you see that growth in ebooks, or in self-publishing, sorry — to continue along its current trajectory?

Mirela: Yes, yes. And that’s the other [thing]. If I could single out two things that I focus on at No Shelf Required, the first would be — obviously — my passion for free access to books. But the second would be my increasing interest in self-publishing — coming from a traditional editor, from someone who’s spent 12 years of her career being a book review editor, and being a firm believer that books need to be vetted, and that there needs to be a strict filtering process in place. And that no book that isn’t professionally produced inside a reputable publishing house could ever be as authoritative and as good as a book that’s published by somebody on their own.

I’ve come a long way in that thinking. I’ve really opened up. And — again — ebooks had a lot to do with that. I opened up to self-publishing in recent years, because I became more educated about it. I took my time with it, to understand what is really out there. And discovered that there is a lot of good stuff out there.

There are a lot of dedicated individuals working on various books, not all fiction — many non-fiction titles — even independent academics. People are really investing a lot of time and energy into crafting books that are worth our attention. So, we use No Shelf Required as an outlet that promotes independent publishing.

In fact I don’t like to call it “self-publishing”. I much prefer calling it “independent publishing”. There’s just something more honorable about that. Because there’s a lot of discipline involved, and the more I read about these books and the more I…. As someone who spends a significant amount of time now producing content on her own, it’s hard work, and there are a lot of people out there doing it with a lot of dignity, and we have to pay attention to that, and they will not go away. These new emerging technologies are really making it easier for them to publish their work.

And not to mention — going back to the earlier question — what is different about publishing? One of the challenging things about publishing has always been how much good stuff is simply never selected to be published in the first place. The competition is fierce, publishers can only take in so much.

So now we live in a world that allows for all of that expression. And there’s nothing to be afraid of, we simply have to embrace it, and I do believe that the good stuff finds its way to the surface — and that the world in general is pretty good at censoring, self-censoring and deciding for themselves what they ultimately gravitate towards. It’s a pretty organic process.

Len: Speaking of new-ish technologies, I suppose in the self-publishing space, the giant in the room is Amazon. I was wondering what your opinion is about the relationship that Amazon’s developed with self-published authors, and seeing where they may be going?

Mirela: This will be one of those questions I wish not to answer, simply because I don’t know much about it. I tend not to be so focused on the business aspects of self-publishing. I am more drawn to it from an editorial perspective and the freedom of it, the ideology behind it.

I don’t have any reservations about Amazon, as problematic as it’s been, its relationship with the publishing industry overall. I tend to be more focused on alternative models, and the different things that we can do beyond…. To me, Amazon is another version of — it’s just a much bigger version of how things have always been sold and packaged. It’s not radical enough, it’s not showing the true potential of the digital medium yet. I mean it’s certainly making books more affordable — I’ll give them that. But that has its own problems, doesn’t it?

Len: Yes.

Mirela: Certainly for the author. I’m not sure the solution is to devalue the book to the point where you can buy it for $2 or $3. I’m not sure what to make of that.

Len: Speaking of ideology and the radical potential that you speak of, I think I came across a bio of you on No Shelf Required, or it may have been somewhere in a blog post where you spoke about how, when you were growing up, you really didn’t have a great deal of books around. Pardon me if I’m wrong about that.

But it struck me because — one of the dividing lines I’ve found anecdotally in my experience talking to people about the potential of ebooks, is that the access people had when they were young, or when they began to thirst for knowledge — those who felt that it was limited, are often those who are much more quick to see what the potential for ebooks represents.

Mirela: Absolutely. I grew up in a very small town on the Croatian Adriatic. I did write about that, you’re right, it was in one of my blog posts. The first time I walked into NYPL in New York, and the first time I walked into the NYU library, I remember being overwhelmed. I mean just to see so many books in one place, it was — it’s one of those things you never forget in your life.

We quickly forget how many people on this planet still don’t have access to literature. How many people don’t live in urban areas, or affluent areas? How much, how limiting that access always has been with the print book, as glorious as all these urban libraries out there are.

As much as we like to worship them, and we do, sometimes I wish we would spend less time doing that, admiring the physical, and more time focusing on — okay, so if this physical [library] has to stay where it is, what can we do digitally? What can we do virtually to level the playing field?

And that’s where ebooks come in. That’s where my excitement comes in. And that’s what No Shelf Required, these days is about. We live in a world now where we already can do so much more than we do. And in that world, there are a lot of very wealthy urban libraries with unbelievably rich collections, that are not accessible to anyone beyond the right zip code.

We can do better than that. We can do much better than that. And I think libraries have to wake up to that potential as well. Even within a country like the US, there’s a lot of discrepancy between what a major urban library can offer, versus a small library in rural Texas.

So to me, that’s what ebooks are about. They’re about democratizing the written word, the way even Gutenberg couldn’t pull off. Print never really gave us that full democracy of the written word. It was always tied to the library, to the physical entity, to the city, to the affluent urban area. The ebook can be accessible to anyone anywhere, period. That holds so much potential, and it really is difficult to ignore that.

The more you get into it, the more you experiment, as I have in recent months. The more you experiment with ebooks….

But that’s the key word. You have to be willing to experiment. Publishers have to be willing to experiment, libraries have to be willing to experiment.

We don’t know exactly what the right, or if there is the right, the perfect model that can accomplish all that we want to see with ebooks. But with all due respect to all my colleagues in publishing, I don’t think as an industry we’ve done enough, because we still rely on that old mentality. We buy, we sell, we borrow, we lend. That seems to be where we’re stuck. And with ebooks, it really does not have to be about — just about buying or selling or borrowing. It requires a completely different frame of thinking.

Len: Speaking of that different way of thinking and experimenting and trying to improve things, this seems like a good moment to ask you about the free reading initiative — and how you got things set up in Croatia, and what it was all about.

Mirela: So the Free Reading Zones project actually initiated in the US, with a company called Total Boox. It’s a company that I consulted for about three years. It’s an Israeli company that entered the US market about three years ago with a brand new model for reading ebooks and I was very drawn to it from the very beginning, because it was so radical.

It wasn’t about buying or selling, but simply about paying for only for what you read. Not per page, not per view, but for what you actually read, similar to how Skype works. If you load up your balance, and you read only a percentage of a book, you are only charged for that percentage.

Total Boox became a good model for libraries, because it offered instant, simultaneous access to books, which has been a major issue with public libraries in the United States — dealing with waiting lines, all kinds of restrictions placed on reading.

So the libraries that work with Total Boox had the option to make those books available instantly in places other than libraries. For example, parks. Any physical, any geographical area could be turned into a free reading zone where — with your library card, you can read.

So it’s basically going beyond the library walls to turn public spaces into these areas where culture is abundant, if you will. And it was a great way for libraries to attract more library card holders, and encourage more reading.

And then it dawned on me somewhere along the way — why do we have to only ask libraries to sponsor this reading? Why don’t we go beyond libraries? Why don’t we make reading available to people without restriction? Even asking them to put in a library card still means that you’re preferring library patrons in a certain area, so it’s still not 100% free.

That’s where the idea was born, the idea that the next step should be free reading anywhere, where reading is welcome. If a bank wants to sponsor people’s reading, or an insurance company or any kind of government entity or organization that supports literacy — it can.

And I felt that the Total Boox model was a really good one, again, because of that instant access, because there’s no buying and borrowing, and the books simply are always available and exposed for reading. So the idea then becomes — we transfer the cost of reading from the reader to the sponsor.

The first project I did, that did not involve a library, it was actually turning a cafe into a free reading zone. And the cafe was here in Zagreb in Croatia, the capital of Croatia, which worked the same way. Any person on premises, anyone who visited the cafe could go into a virtual library bigger than the collection available at the biggest library in Croatia — the library, the National Library of Zagreb — and browse and read thousands of books in several languages. And as long as they stay at the cafe — and I think they were able to — they could also finish the reading at home through the end of the day.

But that was more of a pilot. It was more of a staging for what would come next. And what came next was what I call the project of my life, the turning of the entire country [into a Free Reading Zone] — we went from a cafe to the entire country.

The reason it happened in Croatia was really simple. I was at a point in my career, after finishing my work with Total Boox, where I was looking for a change, and I had spent most of my life at that point living in New York. There comes a point in your life, in your career when you seek a change, and you decide it will be a good idea perhaps to reconnect with the source, if you will.

So going to Croatia was a personal decision for me. I certainly, at the time, had no plans to turn the country into a Free Reading Zone. That was not on my to-do list. It was mostly to travel on trains and visit relatives that I haven’t seen in years, and just give myself and my family a year away from New York.

The cafe project was fun. I did it with a group of people, local enthusiasts who helped, and the cafe owners, who were really interested in the project, because the cafe itself was not a regular cafe. It’s kind of literary, it has a history of literary events and it’s always been like a cultural hub where people gathered to discuss arts and literature. So it was very natural, it was a very natural place to do that.

The big country project kind of snuck up on me. And I honestly — looking back, I’m not even sure at what point I decided that I was ready for it. But it all kind of fell into place. And I was fortunate enough that I had the company Total Boox backing it, they were interested in it. And I explained my idea, I explained that it would be only in Croatia.

Here’s why: it was small enough that we could pull it off. Croatia’s not a big country, it’s got less than 5 million people. More people live in Queens in New York than in this entire nation. It’s a touristy country with 15 million people visiting it a year. So that’s three times as many than residents.

So all kinds of languages are spoken all over the place. Which is good, because the collection we would expose would be multilingual. It would include thousands of books in English and French and German, Italian, etc. The smallest number of them were actually in Croatian. Because we added them at the last minute.

And then also, it’s a rural country. It’s a country of a thousand islands scattered all over the place. Very few urban areas. A country where ebooks never, never even took off. Nobody’s interested in them. Most publishers don’t even digitize their books. Those that do, many of them only have them in PDF.

Which made it perfect for this experiment, because if I’m going to prove that, if we create the right conditions for people to read ebooks, they will embrace them; and if we can prove that in a country like Croatia, then that’s going to be a powerful statement. It’s going to make all that much more believable, and it will have that much more weight.

It was a process, it didn’t happen overnight. I certainly put my personal life on hold for it. It had many more challenges than I expected. I exposed myself publicly, I went on national TV, which, for a writer and editor, it wasn’t exactly a natural atmosphere.

But we understood that we had to build the momentum, that we had to explain to people what was about to happen. The uniqueness of the project, the revolutionary aspect of it — that no other country really, to the best of my knowledge has ever attempted something like that. That one day in early December, they will wake up and the whole country will be an open library. And they will be able to read and go into this free app and just read for one month, and well, we didn’t say for one month, we were hoping it would last longer. But it ended up lasting for a month.

There was a lot that went into it. I certainly couldn’t have done it by myself. So I organized a group of people who helped, from IT specialists to publishing consultants, to family members who cheered me on. It was intense. It was an intense six months leading up to the big finale, which was the actual launch.

And then there was also another component, and that was speaking to potential sponsors and government officials. That was the most important and exhausting part. It wasn’t just about the pilot. We secured the funds for the first month. We knew that the reading was covered for the first month, and that would work. That would work out fine.

What I was really interested in is for somebody to pick it up, so that it would not stop — so that it would continue. So I spent a lot of my time talking to government officials, going to presentations, going into banks — all kinds of corporations, presenting the project, asking them essentially to sponsor it, but presenting it in a way that it wasn’t a humanitarian action. That was very important to me. I wanted it to come across as this exciting new way to support literacy and culture through sponsorship — advertising, if you will? But keep in mind the library itself was not going to be flooded with ads.

There was going to be a simple greeting by the sponsor upon the entry into the app, and that was it. And then the reader would be left alone. So, it was a very discreet way of branding and allowing organizations and corporations to sponsor something that I think is beyond big. Because it doesn’t involve — as I would explain to them — it does not involve, like it always does when you support a cultural event, you’re essentially supporting the organizer.

You’re supporting the author, you’re supporting the festival. So it’s always the creator. But in this project, you’re actually supporting the end user. So that is like culture at it’s highest level, benefiting everybody, complete — coming full circle.

And to make the very, very long story short — the government officials that we spoke with in the end showed the most interest. We had several meetings with the Minister of Culture here, the Ministry of Tourism, as well as education. And we are still in the process of waiting to hear from them, and hope — I really hope — that this inspires them to continue, because the project was a huge success.

Thousands of people registered within hours. Tens of thousands of people read every single minute of the day. The support was enormous. People thought it was too good to be true. The only negative comments we ever got were at the very end, when we had to notify them that the pilot was put on hold until a sponsor was ready to continue. Why a sponsor? So that we could pay publishers. Because that’s what made this so special.

Len: I’m very curious about that aspect of it. As I understand it, there was a pre-existing app — and by the way, what a wonderful story, and congratulations on your success with it — so, as I understand it, there was an app that pre-existed, and then a really big part of the work that you did, I imagine, was convincing publishers to allow their books to be distributed through that app?

Mirela: Right, that was the work I did for Total Boox, the Total Books model, the pay-as-you-read model only pays publishers for what is read. And this is a very radical concept. I spent three years of my life as a consultant to Total Boox, convincing publishers to sign. And I was pretty successful at it. We created a very robust collection, over 300 publishers represented. Very, very, very well-known brands. Brands like Lonely Planet, Berlitz, Source Books, F&W. A number of Canadian publishers too — ECW, etc.

So this model basically — the contracts that publishers signed with Total Boox, said, in a nutshell, you will get paid not for the price that you set every time somebody downloads. Let’s say it’s $20. If I download that book, but I only read $2 worth of it — I only read a few pages, we owe you $2 of it for that particular book. But we will pay you every time anyone, anywhere reads — so it’s incremental revenue.

This is a departure from what publishers are used to, because they are used to making predictions, and getting the $20 for every book they sell — whether people read or not is really not the concern. But all of a sudden with this new model, it becomes very much part of the game.

So in all honesty, many publishers are still not ready for that — that they will only be paid if people read. It’s almost like we’re holding them, in a way, responsible to earn, based on what is actually read.

So that is the model. That’s the same model that we used in Croatia. We did not have to go back to those same publishers and say, “Are you going to participate in this pilot?” Because no matter where people read inside that app, they will always be paid. The only difference is, in Croatia — this was the first time, that in Croatia it did not come from any individuals. It came directly from the sponsor.

So somebody picked it all up on their behalf. That’s basically the model that I designed. Let’s transfer the burden of paying for the reading from the reader to the sponsor — whoever that may be. And it can still be a library. Except in Croatia — and by the way, this is also something that libraries in the US may not be so aware of — libraries outside US, the vast majority of places I’ve been too, not just in Croatia but all around Europe, truly don’t have the funds to even consider working with ebooks.

Libraries in the US have made tremendous progress with ebooks. As chaotic as it’s been to us — and I’ve been critical of some of the ways things have turned out — but still, in comparison to the rest of the world, the US is in a much better shape. My point is, if we’re going to spread reading around the world, we cannot rely on libraries outside the US. They simply don’t have the means to do it. They need all the help they can get.

So in Croatia, we just used the collection that Total Boox already has, and that it already makes available for reading. It did not affect publishers. I don’t know if I’m making sense? I hope I am.

Len: Yes.

Mirela: So that’s really all we did. We used the same, exact existing app. But we gave it a new name, it was called Croatia Reads, and it looked exactly the same as the Total Boox app. The only difference was that there was no one keeping track of your balance. Inside Croatia, there was no balance for the individual user.

Len: That’s very interesting — how was the app aware of where the user was?

Mirela: There’s several ways to do it. There’s the easier way and the more expensive, more evolved way, which is through GPS, which is something I’m working on right now. The simplest way to do it, is to limit the app to a certain area or country — in this case, Croatia — in the App Store.

If you make the app only available in the App Store for certain countries, as well as in Google Play, it will only be available inside that country. But that makes it a little bit more challenging for tourists. Because in that case, if a tourist arrives from the US, he still has the US App Store in his app. So in that case, it’s — and GPS is a better option — but Free Reading Zones can work several ways. It can be via IP address, GPS coordinates, or simply by limiting the app to a certain country inside the app store.

Len: Thanks for that, that’s a very clear explanation. I think I’m getting a much richer understanding of what you’re up to. I wanted to go back to libraries again.

Mirela: Okay.

Len: You said some things in your blog post that I found created an original pattern, and all the reading I’ve done around ebooks and print books and libraries and things like that — and so, I’m going to quote you a little bit. This goes back also to your wonderful point about actually doing experiments, and how this Free Reading Zone in Croatia was a big experiment to see how people would respond.

And you say, quote, “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.” — end quote. You also talk about how there is no clerk keeping track of what they were borrowing or buying.

And one of the reasons I found these observations so — these results so fascinating, is that it gets at the heart of a kind of contradiction in the print/ebook discourse that I’ve seen, where, on the one hand, people will be critical of, say, big companies like Apple, or like Amazon, for gathering data on us, in order to let us know recommendations better than they would otherwise for the next book to read.

But the very same person will then argue, on the other hand, the main value of something like an independent book store, is that the staff know you personally — and know you so well that they know better than you, what you want to read. And what you’re getting at, is just, it comes from a totally different direction, which is people just want a friction-less experience.

They don’t want a clerk getting in the way. As you were saying before, the internet has figured out pretty good ways of — if you know what you’re looking for, separating from your perspective wheat from chaff. I mean, if you do know what you’re doing. And that people just really desperately want to read, and if you just get out of the way, they’ll do it.

Mirela: Right. Get out of the way. I wrote about that this morning in my post, in which I write about what books want. That one, which you’re quoting was the article about what readers want. There’s something really, really delicate about this, and that’s what I was trying to get at.

The beauty of, the wonderful thing about the word, “free,” is it’s got two meanings. Free as in free to read, no charge, no pay. But the other one, which is more important for this project — which was the freedom of reading, and the complete, no restrictions. The way you read when you are inside a virtual library, affords you the kind of privacy that — people say that everything in digital is not private. Because if it’s digital, if it’s in a virtual environment — somebody is always keeping track.

Well in this case, we keep track to pay the publishers, but it’s in aggregate. No personal information is ever revealed, and it’s not kept track of.

But what’s really special about this — there are so many books out there that people simply cannot get through libraries or book stores. In a place like Croatia, I have never in this very conservative Catholic country seen various types of books in book stores.

For example, gay fiction — we had a collection of 3,000 titles from Riptide — Riptide Publishing. And the other publisher of gay fiction — I’m forgetting the name now — those types of books are not available in bookstores. They simply are not. They’re not even available in libraries. People may, even if they were — may not be as comfortable buying them or checking them out. Or books about domestic violence. Or any kind of sensitive topic, that for whatever reason, a person wants to keep to themselves in private.

The wonderful thing about reading in a virtual environment, is that nobody stands in the way between you and the book. And I’m a big, big proponent of that. This idea that everybody gets out of the way.

And coming from a former book review editor — we need to get out of the way too. Our job is to produce, create and make available. Once we do our jobs as publishers and librarians, we all need to get out of the way. I really believe that we overthink vetting and filtering. We overthink recommendations.

One of the big, one of the most important feedbacks we received was how much people enjoyed browsing. You cannot browse like that in a physical environment. You simply cannot. And this isn’t — I don’t like to — I’ve always, since day one, believed that one format did not compete with the other, and I still believe that. I just like to focus on the strengths of those formats — print and digital.

And these are the strength of the digital format. That wonderful privacy that it gives you to explore. The way you cannot explore in a bookstore or a physical library. And going in and out of books, and reading parts of books and creating your own shelves. This was the wonderful feature of the app that allows you to build your own shelves, and then share them with others if you choose.

That exploration part, browsing — I think that all reading matters. I don’t believe that you have to read everything cover to cover. I think that we learn, even when we read in fragments — I think it all matters.

The perfect library of the future is that virtual — that river of knowledge that flows any way it wants to. And books have a way of finding readers on their own.

And so it’s a wonderful process, and I think that we don’t explore — we don’t allow for it enough. There are so many people in the middle, so many middlemen. So many. And with Croatia Reads, there was none of that. There is nothing waiting for you there, but this wonderful library. And all you have to do is download and read.

You can read and look at other people’s shelves and recommendations, but inside the library there’s none of that. People later said, “Why don’t you have the social media component, where people can discuss books?” And I said to someone, “Well I kind of like that this older app did not. Because it really was just a library.”

We live in a world where everybody’s a critic, everybody has something to say. It’s overwhelming. So there’s something really wonderful about a digital library, without the comments section. There’s the book, and there’s the shelf. And you get to go in and out of books, and that’s pretty much it. You’re on your own. It’s very quiet in there.

Len: Speaking again of being on your own, I wanted to go back — before we move onto discussing the future perfect library, which I’m very interested in hearing about — the point you made about locality. This is a concept that — and privacy — this is a concept that people often, I think, romanticize. “I should read local authors, and I should read the limited selection of books that my local bookseller chooses to make available to me.”

And I think — again — people who perhaps grew up totally in sync with their environment or, alternatively, with a sense of total abundance, and no sense of lack — are often very insensitive to what it’s like to have needs like the ones you described. Say, for a book on domestic violence, in a place where you might want to keep that private — or where those books aren’t even available in the first place in that locality. Restricting one’s self to one’s locale can actually be a kind of prison, rather than a warm and fuzzy activity.

Mirela: Right, right. Yes, I have nothing to add to that.

Len: Yeah, sorry.

Mirela: You just said it nicely, very nicely. I have all these different ways of saying it too, not just negative and sad things. Like a woman walking into a library kind of wanting to help herself. Or being in a difficult situation. But also like, the lighter — the lighter more enjoyable metaphors like — I have two PhD’s, and I’m on vacation, and I just want to read a trashy romance novel. Just wanted to sink my teeth into it.

Just allowing people to have the widest array. Because I think one of the wonderful things about the — what we can do with monitoring reading and having the data that shows, in aggregate again — very important — not what people read, but also how people read. People have the widest interests.

Would you believe me if I told you that the most popular books are not the most read? [Here are two articles on this interesting topic: If You Sell the Book, Will They Read It? & People are Not Reading the e-Books they Buy Anymore- eds.]. That the books that are the most well known in the Total Boox collection are often the most downloaded, but they are not the most read. People often download books impulsively, because they want to be part of a cultural phenomenon. This is all part of that PR machine that the publishing industry drives all over the world.

Len: I see.

Mirela: So I will frantically download, 50 Shades of Grey, because I want to read it, because I somehow have to — because if I don’t, I’m not part of this, I will not be able to keep up with the cultural dialogue. Even though really, it doesn’t interest me that much. So when I’m in that virtual environment, this is why that incremental revenue makes so much sense. Because people read all kinds of things.

They stop, they read, they start. They start reading a book, they stop. Bestselling has never meant most read. It’s just that we never took interest in that. The publishing industry has never really been interested — are people actually reading what they’re buying? And very often, they don’t. But in a virtual environment, you can take a book that’s 20 years old and discover it for the first time. And to you, that is a brand new book.

I read The Power of Now three years ago. I was at a point in my life when it started to matter to me. When it came out, I think it came out in 1996, I was still in college. I had no use for that book at that time, and at that age. So to me, The Power of Now, 20 years later was a discovery, a revelation.

This is, again, another drawback of print books. They are not available to us at the point of need. And that need comes to us at different points in our lives. So there’s that too, there’s that element of — what is new? What is old? One of the most challenging things about the publishing industry is — how did it get so impatient with books? We publish so much stuff, books age quickly — so quickly, why?

Why do they age so fast? If you don’t get it within — publishers move onto the next catalog the minute that catalog comes out. And five, six years later, those books that are not available in bookstores — and very few are bought by libraries — obviously, are nowhere to be found. I mean you can order them online, but they rarely make money off of those books. At a certain point they stop making revenue.

When you make them, when you reopen them for discovery — people will not buy a book just because it’s available on Amazon. But if you open it up to them for discovery, like is the case with Total Boox — then you allow for that reading to take place. So that’s extremely beneficial for publishers. It’s beneficial for everybody. Readers benefit because it’s right there when they want it. And publishers always have a chance to earn, based on what people read.

And I really like that balance, I think it’s important, because I think books should not age that quickly. It’s always bothered me, how quickly publishers move on to the next list. It’s very, very difficult, even for librarians. And this is what I often tell them. “You cannot keep up anymore. You shouldn’t even have to. It’s really difficult, there’s got to be a better way.”

I think the future — for libraries, certainly — does not involve creating collections and hoarding books in print format, simply because the volume is impossible to keep up with. Even the best -

Len: Speaking of a certain type of hoarding — one topic that really interests me, partly because I know so little about it really — is the concept of territorial rights, which can often be a way — just on a general theme of open access — can often be a way of restricting access to things from one part of the world, where it might be available in another.

Currently a very prominent example of that in the film world, and television world, is Netflix, which has basically said it thinks there should be no territorial rights, and there should just be one territory — which is planet earth. And that there should be no negotiating of cantonized rights, and that this is basically a rent-seeking legacy from the past. I was wondering what you might have to say about this issue.

Mirela: I couldn’t agree with it more. I think that this is something that we deal with in publishing — we deal with this issue in publishing still. There are books, there were books from that collection of 100,000 books that people could not read in Croatia, simply because the rights were not there for this particular country.

The vast majority of books, I think — as we move toward the future — do grant, the digital rights are automatically world rights. So eventually it’ll phase out. It has to. It’s really difficult. It’s just illogical. It makes no sense. Digital content cannot function otherwise. It’s restricting it in ways that makes it impossible for it to flow. And we also live in a world where people travel all the time. All the time.

The minute I set foot outside of the US, half of my apps don’t work anymore. It’s annoying, and I’m a frequent traveler. And I live on two continents. Pandora — when I’m in the US, it’s I listen to Pandora. Once I get out, the rights are not there anymore. That’s what you get when you click on Pandora. It tells you, “Sorry, rights are not available to this country.”

So Netflix, interestingly enough, is available here. And I enjoy it every day. But not the same Netflix. So even they are dealing with these rights issues, and not all movies are available in every country and every time. But that is the future — that’s that river that I — I love the metaphor of river, the flowing river of content. That’s the river of the future.

It’s like — to me, books are in many ways not different than websites. They’re containers that house content of some kind. And the same way we can go on a website, and read the content there, we should be able to eventually consume all content that way, including books in digital format.

I have to say — to give credit where credit is due, it’s getting better. It’s getting much better than it used to be. It’s not as big of an issue as it used to be. I think it was a much bigger problem 10, 15 years [ago]. As new books are released, digital rights are handled in such a way that they’re pretty much automatically worldwide.

Len: Well that’s really great news.

Mirela: Well, that’s been my experience. I do want to say that I don’t — we still haven’t worked with the Big Five. It may be more complicated with some of their books. And the only reason we don’t have the Big Five content, that we haven’t used it in Croatia, is because the Big Five — some publishers, they simply are not ready for this experiment. They are very much adhering to the traditional one copy, one user model. And I would love nothing more than for them to open their doors to us. That has not been something I’ve been able to conquer yet. But I will keep trying.

Len: Speaking of an even better future and this river — I was wondering if you could talk, just for a few minutes about what, your current vision. I mean of course, there will still be experiments to do, but what is your vision of a global open virtual library. How would it work? Would it have a sort of single, central administration or — ?

Mirela: I have visions of it. Somebody asked me in an interview, “What is the ultimate Free Reading Zone?” That was the question. I remember that was the question. And I answered, “Oh, the world is the ultimate Free Reading Zone.” So not a particular country.

But I do think for many, many reasons — we have ways to go to get there. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s probably not going to happen in my lifetime.

It’s possible. It’s possible that it’ll happen sooner than we think. Is the technology already there? Absolutely. Can we make every book available to everyone on the planet right now? Absolutely. But there’s a lot at stake. There are a lot of — there’s an army of people who work in this industry, and families that need to be fed and supported. And business models to be protected. Institutions to be protected.

So the way to move forward, I think, toward that ultimate goal, is to — this is why I believe in free reading, this concept of zones, is because they are more manageable, financially speaking. They’re more manageable. So when you take a country like Croatia, you could get a lot of government entities involved to pay for its citizens to read. To take the money that they set aside for literacy and education and cultural budgets, to support what matters to them.

So when it’s community driven, it’s a lot easier to manage financially. Now, turning the United States of America into a free reading zone would be — it would be a huge endeavor, involving millions and millions and millions of dollars. So it’s not likely — it’s not going to happen. Croatia — again — is a small country. So it made a lot of sense. Many cities around the world have more people than the entire country of Croatia. But a lot of cities out there could be zones.

I think the way to get there is for libraries right now to rethink their presence. I like to say to librarians, there is tremendous power in being invisible. So this idea that if you are in the right zip code, you get to use the right library, should stay in the past. And I want to see libraries show more courage there, and more support for areas beyond the areas that they serve.

I mean it’s complex, we know it’s all tied to taxpayers’ money, etc. etc. But still I think we can aim higher. This is books, this is not Prada purses. This isn’t fashion we’re talking about. This is knowledge. This is the sharing of knowledge.

If MIT can educate millions of people for free by exposing its digital content online, without it hurting the whole physical experience on campus — I don’t know if you’re familiar, I hope you are, with MIT’s open courses online. Open to people all over the world.

Len: Yes, I’m familiar with that.

Mirela: Right. So there’s no reason that libraries cannot do something similar with books. Is this the only way to do it? Probably not. This is the way I’ve done it. This is my first attempt to try something beyond. It’s a bit of a scary phrase, but I’m starting to use it more. I notice when I speak about it. Detaching knowledge from institutions. That’s what this is about.

Detaching it not in a negative way, but in a way that it just gives it the wings to fly to wherever it needs to go. That’s what the future is about. That’s the next step for libraries. Libraries spend a lot of time — a lot of time, and this is universal, it’s not just in North America — defending the physical entity, the physical institution. This idea that you come to the building, you go where the knowledge is, is very old school to me. So the mentality there needs to be reversed a little bit, so that it becomes exciting that the knowledge goes out there. Not the other way around.

And this is my challenge. This is something that I write about. Sometimes more successfully, sometimes not so successfully. But I try to capture that. I try to capture this idea that knowledge does not want to belong. It really doesn’t. It’s the opposite from what libraries think, because it had to be guarded in printed format. But digitally, it requires a completely different way of thinking and going about it. So I challenge libraries that way. I challenge them to not be the guardians of knowledge in digital format. But to set it free.

Len: Well on that note — well no, please finish.

Mirela: That’s basically the gist of this project. This was basically at the core of it. This is what drove me to it. And I just want to say that — I said earlier, I don’t even know how it happened. And I really believe that these types of mission-driven projects have a way of finding you.

I felt at one point that this dream of free reading found me. I wasn’t going after it, I wasn’t chasing it. I didn’t have a vision in my head that it was my job or my mission to turn places into Free Reading Zones. It kind of falls into place, and it becomes a calling, and you feel that you are privileged enough and knowledgeable enough.

Because you’ve lived enough, and you’ve worked enough in that particular industry, that you can see beyond what’s there. That’s what’s required — going beyond what seems obvious. And that is the ultimate goal. That is, detaching knowledge, and knowledge flowing outward. And librarians actually holding the key, being the key to freeing that knowledge.

Len: Well thanks very much. On that note I think our time might be about up, and it’s time for me to let you be free.

Thank you very much for sharing your passion and your story with us. And I wanted to say, once again, congratulations on your success in Croatia, and I wish you all the best in what you do in the future.

Mirela: Thank you very much. Hopefully this is the beginning, and we’ll turn many other places into free reading zones very soon.

Len: Thank you.

Mirela: Thank you.


Originally published at leanpub.com.