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Unglue.it Builds a Supply Chain for Free Ebooks
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Posted On April 19, 2016
Contrary to the Big Five publishers’ declarations of shrinking ebook sales, Technavio just released a report, “E-book Market in the US 2016-2020,” which “predicts the e-book market in the US to grow at an impressive CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of approximately 14% until 2020” and reach a striking $13 billion. It is obvious that ebooks are here to stay (at a variety of price points, including free). One of the most innovative ebook sites is Unglue.it.

‘Ungluing’ the World’s Ebooks

Unglue.it launched with five titles in May 2012, using a crowdfunding model similar to the site’s current Pledge Campaigns. To meet the challenge of being “a place for individuals and institutions to join together to make ebooks free to the world,” and “support authors, publishers, or other rights holders who want their ebooks to be free,” Unglue.it uses Creative Commons-licensed books and three different campaigns to generate funds to “unglue” the ebook versions, thereby offering these titles for free. Besides Pledge Campaigns, it has Thanks-for-Ungluing Campaigns and Buy-to-Unglue Campaigns. Currently unglued titles number in the thousands.

Thanks-for-Ungluing Campaigns enable creators to request thank-you fees from users “on a pay-what-you-want basis” to unglue their books. Creators may join for free, and they receive a percentage of the proposed price.

Buy-to-Unglue Campaigns allow creators to set a revenue goal, which will release the book for free when it’s reached. The ungluing date, calculated based on Unglue.it’s formula, is displayed on the campaign page for all to see, and interested users can contribute toward the revenue goal.

Pledge Campaigns are directed at already-published books that readers would like to see made available as free ebooks. They aim to generate enough interest and funding from fans of a particular title to convince creators to unglue it.

Eric Hellman, president of the Free Ebook Foundation and founder of Unglue.it, explains the genesis of the site:

Unglue.it started with the idea that we could crowd-fund books into the public commons. We launched in 2012 and had a number of successes, but it became clear that the number of books amenable to “ungluing” would not be enough to sustain the site. We decided to refocus our efforts to rebuilding a supply chain for free ebooks. We started building our database of Creative-Commons licensed ebooks, currently more than 2,000. We developed syndication feeds, using OPDS and MARC, to feed these ebooks to libraries like NYPL. We joined the GITenberg project, to help make public domain books more useable and maintainable. And last year, we moved Unglue.it in to a new non-profit entity, the Free Ebook Foundation.

Creative Commons and Other Partners

Creative Commons’ innovative approach to providing creators with options for copyright compliance for users is an integral part of the Unglue.it model. According to Jane Park, Creative Commons’ director of platforms and partnerships, the organization “supports any effort to increase access to the number of texts, especially those texts whose authors and publishers would benefit from wider distribution, resulting in a greater audience for books that might not see the light of day due to copyright restrictions. Platforms like Unglue.it are not only encouraging greater access to books under CC licenses, but working to increase discovery of books through partnerships with libraries and related institutions.”

Recent announcements reflect the overall philanthropic aspect of this now-nonprofit organization. For example, Unglue.it features a compilation of the prize-winning stories from the first Texas Author’s Short Story Contest. Users may thank the creators with a contribution on the book’s webpage. All proceeds for the book will benefit DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) Texas’ literacy programs.

Additionally, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded a project the Unglue.it team helped develop. With the University of Michigan Press and Open Book Publishers, the Free Ebook Foundation plans to work on “Mapping the Free eBook Supply Chain.”

In another effort, Hellman and colleagues will attempt to place 10,000 Creative Commons-licensed ebooks into libraries, as well as expand and enhance the database of available free ebooks, with help from the Knight News Challenge. Park says, “If this effort gets funded, [Creative Commons] would work with them to make sure that such a database was discoverable and useable by libraries and web users, complete with CC license metadata and user interface display of the licenses.”

Unglue.it in Libraries

Unglue.it is a no-brainer for libraries currently struggling with how to collect and lend ebooks. It not only removes many format- and e-reader-related barriers, it also helps librarians provide a more robust service offering to their patrons without breaking the bank.

Unglue.it offers libraries the option of creating an Unglue.it library page, on which they may do the following:

  • Purchase “buy-to-unglue” ebook licenses
  • Allow library users to borrow “buy-to-unglue” ebooks
  • Allow library users to purchase “buy-to-unglue” ebooks for the library
  • Manage lists of unglued and public domain ebooks for users

MARC records are also available for libraries to use for their collections of unglued books.

Libraries can sign a Library License Agreement to become an “approved” library, allowing its users to download and “buy” Library Licenses for any ebook with a Buy-to-Unglue Campaign. Then patrons can check out ebooks using Unglue.it’s free distribution platform. The library license gives download access to one library member at a time for 14 days each, in multiple formats, from Unglue.it’s or the library’s platform.

Although 18 libraries have downloaded MARC records for Unglue.it books, unfortunately to date, only two institutions have become Unglue.it participating libraries. However, Hellman remains optimistic about the ultimate success of Unglue.it. The direction may have shifted, but “while the crowdfunding tools are still there, and we still think they will be important in the future, we’re working on making today’s free ebooks work better for readers and for creators.”


Corilee Christou is president of C2 Consulting, a firm that specializes in leveraging and licensing digital content of all types to traditional and internet-based companies using new and innovative business models.

Email Corilee Christou

Related Articles

1/30/2012New Crowdfunding Initiative to ‘Unglue’ Ebooks Launches in Alpha
5/21/2012Unglue.it Officially Launches With Five Ebook Campaigns
8/13/2012Amazon Forces Unglue.it to Suspend Crowdfunding for Ebooks
4/4/2013De Gruyter to Offer 100 Titles for Open Access Through Unglue.it
6/20/2017Print Books vs. Ebooks: Who's Up, Who's Down, and Where Are We Headed?


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