Imagine this: a site that wants people to donate money for a book they love so others can read and enjoy it. It’s an altruistic public-broadcasting kind of model called Unglue.It that its founder says can work for making ebooks more accessible. Unglue.It hopes to offer a win-win solution to readers who want to read and share their favorite books conveniently and to rightsholders who want to be rewarded for their works.
Eric Hellman, the founder and president of Gluejar, Inc., the company behind Unglue.It, says, “eBook distribution is even cheaper than radio, because you don’t have to pay for transmitter power, and you don't have to own a frequency license. It’s the monetization machinery that costs money: the ecommerce systems and the DRM. If the producers of ebooks had some way of covering their fixed costs (with profit to make it worth their while), ebooks could work just like free radio.”
Unglue.It is free for users to join and explore. Anyone can go to the website and create a list of books they’d like to be “unglued.” Supporters pay only if they choose to support campaigns, and the amount is up to them. Unglue.It takes a small percentage from successful campaigns, with the remainder going to the rights holders. The books will be issued with a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license. This license will make the edition free and legal for everyone to read, copy, and share, noncommercially, worldwide—i.e., unglued.
Here’s how Hellman says it works: “In the Gluejar model, the ebook doesn't go public/free until the rightsholder’s price has been met. A very popular author might set the price at a million dollars; an author that just wants to cover digitization expenses might set the price at just a thousand dollars. In any case, Gluejar only collects its percentage if the price is met and the book is released into the public commons.”
A book page on Unglue.It will feature the following: links to the book, where available, at Google Books, Open Library, GoodReads, and LibraryThing; social sharing options; tabs with user comments and more information; and an explore bar linking to other books and users. The user list is dynamically generated, reflecting others interested in the same book.
At this point in its alpha phase, Hellman says it is “not running live campaigns (though you may see some fake campaign data for testing purposes). However, most of the other features of the site—such as searching for books, adding them to your wishlist, and personalizing your user profile—work.” In the first week, the preview site signed up 133 users. It is working on loading Project Gutenberg titles. Hellman and his staff are talking with academic publishers and literary agents. Unglue.It already links to free ebooks on Google Books. The site uses Open Library metadata and will let the Internet Archive manage distribution and archiving.
Hellman says, “Once we’ve fully tested our payment processes and user experience, we’ll have a beta launch. At this point we’ll announce our founding rights holders, run live campaigns, and invite everyone to join the site.”
Hellman says he doesn’t know yet which books or markets might work best. It could be university press monographs, backlist romance novels, obscure historical works, medical self-help books, etc. “We’re going to try a lot of things.”
Hellman says, “We want libraries to help us—it’s a good model. They can’t afford a pay-for-use model. Libraries have to shift their missions from managing scarcity (print) to managing abundance (digital).” Libraries will be able to put in a big list and put money on the list, rather than on individual titles. The notion of books funded directly by libraries in fact sounds a bit like open access publishing.
Sanford Thatcher, retired academic publisher and former president of the Association of American University Presses, says, “I know Eric hopes that OA publishing will become a reality, and he is helping test that idea with his new company Gluejar. But I think we are quite a distance yet from publishing as a whole converting itself to that model.”
Hellman is a technologist, entrepreneur, and writer. After 10 years at Bell Labs in physics research, he became interested in technologies surrounding ejournals and libraries. His first business, Openly Informatics, developed OpenURL linking software and knowledgebases, and was acquired by OCLC in 1996. At OCLC, he began the development of OCLC’s Electronic Resource Management offerings. After leaving OCLC, he began blogging at Go To Hellman. He covers the intersection of technology, libraries, and ebooks, and has written extensively on the Semantic Web and Linked Data. Hellman has assembled an interesting and talented virtual team of people that “come from the worlds of entrepreneurship, linked data, physics, publishing, education, and library science, to name a few.”
Blogger and “digital book militant” Mike Cane is excited about Unglue.It. He says it has the potential to save public libraries. He notes that writers dumped by their publishers or those with the rights to out-of-print books could find new life for their publications and reach new readers. His proposal for libraries is quite intriguing.
What if all public libraries pooled into one fund each year 1%-2% of their budgets for this? They could compile a list of books they’d like to get and have their patrons vote for them. Patrons could also add to the fund out of their own pockets. Such active participation in public libraries could save them.
Author and blogger Beth Kephart waxed poetic on Publishing Perspectives about Unglue.It and Hellman: “He makes complex ideas sound not just intriguing, but simple.” She encourages “authors who own the rights to books that have not yet been digitized to take a look. There’s opportunity here.”
Edward Nowatka, also blogging at Publishing Perspectives, was a bit more cautious in his assessment of publisher’s reactions. “So what could motivate them to work with Unglue.It? There are some situations where this makes sense, such as a small publisher who needs to acquire working capital, or perhaps when a publishers going out of business and will be willing to strike a bargain. But a healthy, viable, profitable publishers [sic] may be far less likely to be enticed, at least until the model proves to be a boon in a way that we can’t yet foresee.”