Seen on BoingBoing the other day: an update on crowdfunding site Unglue.it, which has launched five campaigns to crowdfund the free Creative Commons release of specific books. The site has successfully released one book, receiving $7,578 from 259 supporters to “unglue” Oral Literature in Africa by Ruth Finnegan for a CC-BY release—meaning that people can make whatever use they want to of the work as long as they include attribution of who it was originally by.
The BoingBoing post linked to the blog of Joseph Nassise, author of the book Riverwatch that was the subject of one of Unglue.it’s campaigns. On June 12th, Nassise posted that “we’ve a LONG way to go if we are going to make the goal before the campaign expires,” and he had thus reduced the goal from $25,000 to $15,000 in the hopes of making it more likely to hit success. Nassise saw Unglue.it as offering a possible alternative to piracy that would let creators make money from their works being available on the Internet for free, but for that to happen the first few campaigns would need to succeed so it could be seen as a viable method.
At the time, Nassise said that the campaign only had 17 more days to run, which means it should be over by now. However, I see no indication on the campaign page itself or on Nassise’s blog whether or not it has been successful, or how much money has been pledged so far. I do see there are only 72 “Ungluers” listed, as opposed to 259 for the successful release that only sought half as much money as the adjusted goal, so my suspicion is that the campaign didn’t come off after all.
Likewise, on the front page of Unglue.it, I see that the three campaigns that are still running have received funding commitments of 8%, 1%, and 2% of their goals. Something tells me those campaigns aren’t going to end up being terribly successful either.
The thing is, I don’t know if the Unglue.it model is viable, at least for the books it wants to release so far. Oral Literature in Africa did succeed, but then again it is considered a “classic” and has long been out of print, and used copies run $20 or $36 on Amazon. As Paul pointed out in May, Riverwatch is available as a cheap Kindle e-book. Thus it necessarily relies on people wanting to unglue it out of ideology, rather than out of a desire to read it.
We saw something similar with “The Consortium” Kickstarter project that aimed to release to public-domain the third book in a self-published series, also available cheaply in Kindle. (The first two had already been released to public domain gratis, though don’t seem to be available for free download anywhere yet.) Its campaign ended unsuccessfully with $5,747 pledged out of the $30,000 goal.
It seems to me that the people behind these projects have been doing a pretty poor job at gauging actual demand. “If you build it, they will come” only works in the movies. We do see plenty of successful book- and e-book-related Kickstarter projects—indeed, projects that are successful beyond the wildest dreams of their founders—but these projects are based on properties that are not only popular already, but also have extant (large) communities available to get the word out. And they by and large are taking money for making something new—not attempting to make free a version of something that’s already available cheaply.
Most novels, no matter how well they sell, are bought by individual people who don’t network with each other. (If we joined a community for every single book we read, how busy would our lives be?) That’s a big handicap right there in terms of getting the word out to people who might be interested.
That could be a fairly big obstacle, as it doesn’t seem as if Unglue.it itself is doing a very good job of reaching its target audience. Apart from the campaign percentages, the front page of the site lists several books such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or A Brief History of Time that site visitors have suggested and others have voted for. The fact that only 147 people have bothered to express interest in crowdfunding a free release of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, arguably one of the most popular books of all time among the biggest Internet-using demographic, suggests either Unglue.it isn’t reaching enough people, or not enough people are even interested. Or both.
But the bigger obstacle, and the one that I think is really killing these projects, is that people treat the desire to read something as an itch they can scratch—and once they’ve scratched it, they don’t have that itch anymore. If people want to read something legitimately, and it’s available cheaply, they’ll buy it. (Or if it’s in a library, they’ll check it out.) If they don’t care about legitimacy, and it can be found in peer-to-peer, they’ll pirate it. Either way, they’re satisfied; the itch has been scratched.
You’re not going to find very many of them who will then want to kick in money toward releasing the work for free, because the only possible reason they would have is subscribing to the make-it-available-for-free ideology—again, they’ve already scratched the itch that made them seek the work out in the first place—and the sad truth is most people just don’t care about that ideology enough to kick in extra money for it. I’m not saying that it’s good they don’t care, or that the ideology is bad—I’m just saying that’s how people are.
My suspicion is that Unglue.it might be a lot more successful at ungluing books that have long been out of print and have no e-book versions available. That way, the itch and the ideology would coincide. But I’m certainly willing to be proved wrong.