I list a number of books on The Online Books Page that are relatively recent copyrighted books put online with the permission of the copyright holder. I am very thankful to the authors and other rightsholders who have agreed to share their works with the world.
But although I’ve been avidly collecting such listings, along with a much larger number of pubic domain listings, for nearly 20 years, the vast majority of copyrighted books have not been made freely readable online by their rightsholders. One of the more significant reasons is that many writers (particularly those who depend on writing income for a living) hope to earn money from selling their work rather than giving it away. Indeed, as the market for selling ebooks has grown, I’ve occasionally needed to delist titles where the author or publisher withdrew their free copies in favor of selling Kindle or Nook editions. Such sales can provide some income, but at the cost of a reduced audience. Meanwhile, many other books remain both offline and out of print, not available at all except in a limited number of used and library copies. This situation isn’t good either for many readers (who may have a hard time finding or reading the book) or for authors (who, at least in the US, make no money from used book sales or library loans).
Eric Hellman and his colleagues at Gluejar think they can improve matters for both readers and writers: Find a way to pay authors or other rightsholders to make their books freely readable (and possibly adaptable) online. In particular, use the Internet to pull together a crowd of supporters for books no longer readily available, who collectively pay for the rights to make the work openly accessible. If they succeed, the author gets some more money, and the world gets the gift of a book to freely read and share. In such a crowd-funded market for freeing books, everybody can end up better off than they were before.
Projects like Kickstarter, in which online funders collectively supported more than 10,000 new creative projects last year, show that such crowd-funding can be valuable, viable and scalable. But every kind of market is different, and the dot-com boom and bust showed that certain kinds of online marketplaces were wildly successful, and others, not so much. You don’t really know what a new kind of market is going to look like until you have a go at creating it.
So I was pleased and intrigued when Gluejar launched Unglue.it on May 17, with campaigns to collectively buy rights to make five out-of-print books freely available to the world. The opening campaigns are still in progress, but after 11 days and a fair bit of publicity, we can start to get an idea of how this particular market is developing.
The first thing I notice is that the initial funding goals in many cases erred on the side of optimism. The goal prices for rights to the first batch of books, all of which appear to be previously published but now out of print, range from $7,500 to $50,000, but only one of the books has managed to raise more than $500 in its first 11 days. Unless pledges pick up substantially (or the goals are lowered, something that the rules appear to allow), most of these books aren’t going to get funded.
However, one of the initial Unglue.it books, Oral Literature in Africa, stands a decent chance at meeting its goal. Currently 34% of the way there with 24 days to go, it’s raised more money in pledges as I write this than all the other titles combined. You could attribute some of the difference to better publicity (being featured in Boing Boing certainly doesn’t hurt). But all of the titles have had a fair chance to get promoted, and other titles, like Riverwatch, have gotten special attention in other blogs.) I think it’s more likely that the nature of the book, and the terms of the offer, make a big difference in its ability to attract sponsors. Three particular things about this book stand out for me:
- The book addresses an ongoing interest in a way that is not readily substitutable. While oral literature in Africa is not the most popular subject imaginable, a sizable number of scholars and ordinary readers around the world take an interest in African culture and heritage. For such interested readers, the book occupies a unique niche. It is, according to its campaign’s description, the book that “single-handedly created the field of ethnography of language”. Such landmark books can remain valuable reference points even after their fields have advanced well beyond where they were when the book first came out. Furthermore, the book collects numerous examples of oral literature (and the unglued version will include more such material, in audio as well as textual form); these specific works can be important texts for study that cannot be readily overlooked. Someone who’s interested generally in horror novels or beginning readers can choose from many different books to fill that need beside the two books that are campaigning in these areas.. But someone who wants to understand African oral literature, and its analysis by English-speaking scholars, would have a hard time passing up this book.
- The book is offered with a license that maximally encourages reuse and enhancement. Three of the other initial Unglue.it books are being offered with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license. This lets people freely read the books, and pass them around as long as they don’t charge for them, but that’s about it; no adaptations, updates, sequels, fan-fiction, or the like. One other book, Cat and Rat, offers the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license, which does allow adaptation, but puts some restrictions on how version and adaptations of the book can be distributed or reused. Oral Literature in Africa, though, is offered with a license that’s more liberal than any of the other books. Its Creative Commons Attribution license allows for virtually any kind of adaptation, enhancement, or distribution, as long as proper credit is given to the original source and author. The ability to adapt and enhance a work is particularly important for nonfiction. As I noted last year when discussing the Digital Public Library of America, the useful lifespan of nonfiction works can go way up when they can be updated and adapted to new knowledge and needs. A license permitting that, and the promised release of additional material under similar terms, make the freeing of Oral Literature in Africa especially desirable.
- The book is offered with a realistic goal price. Despite being arguably the most attractive book in the first set based on the criteria above, Oral Literature in Africa was offered with a lower price goal than any of the other books. It’s not a trivial goal– as of this writing, nearly 2/3 of the funds still need to be raised– but it seems to be well-matched with its demand. According to Amazon, used copies of this book are being sold starting at just over $20. At that price level, it will take 375 readers– a reasonable number for an academic title– willing to pay an average of that amount to free the book. In contrast, the going prices for the other books are quite a bit lower. Three of the four other books are offered starting at $0.01 plus shipping; the fourth does not appear in Amazon’s used market, but is offered in a Kindle edition for $9.99. (Even at that price point, it would require more than 5,000 “buyers” to meet its current goal.) Personally, I’m more likely to support a book liberation campaign if I know my pledge is likely to make a difference, and the campaign is likely to succeed. Right now, that looks distinctly possible for Oral Literature in Africa, but not for the others.
Mind you, there’s no guarantee that any of these initial books will meet its goal. Oral Literature in Africa will make it if pledges don’t drop from the level they came in for the first 10 days, but will miss the mark if pledges drop off significantly. (I pledged $25 to support this book two days ago; since then it’s received less than $100 in additional pledges. However, this was over a holiday weekend; things may pick up again during the week.) If the campaign, or one or more of the others, does succeed, we’ll have our first baseline for this new book-liberation market.
But one book doesn’t make a market. The true test of the “ungluing” idea will be to see how many other books come after it. Will there be enough to make ungluing a significant new source of freely readable and adaptable copyrighted books? Will there be enough commission revenue from enough campaigns to support enterprises like Gluejar as businesses? That remains to be seen. I haven’t yet seen any other books join the initial 5 that Gluejar has offered, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if other rightsholders are closely watching these first campaigns, planning to decide based on how they turn out.
From what I’ve seen so far, if a rightsholder has a particularly distinctive, not easily substitutable book, offers licenses or other premiums attractive enough to interest a sizable support base, and is realistic about revenue expectations, they could well enjoy new revenue from books they’ve already written– and let new generations of readers enjoy and build on their work at the same time. We’ll see how many of them find that a worthwhile bargain.