A few weeks ago, crowdfunding platform Unglue.it announced the release of its first e-book, Oral Literature in Africa, via Cambridge’s Open Book Publishers. While the scholarly tome by Ruth H. Finnegan likely didn’t set the publishing world ablaze upon its initial publication in 1970, and its e-book release in 2012 didn’t unseat any bestsellers, its return to “print” after more than a decade is cause for celebration. More good books in the public domain is always a good thing. This is the raison d’etre of Unglue.it, a small company that seeks to reward rights holders who make their works available as e-books under creative commons licenses and without DRM.
The brainchild of entrepreneur and library technology vet Eric Hellman (he of Go To Hellman blog acclaim), Unglue.it’s aim is to increase the number of good, free e-books available to the public. After leaving library technology nonprofit OCLC in 2009, Hellman put his thinking cap on about the big issues facing the library world.
“It seemed like the transition from print to digital was finally coming through in the book world,” says Hellman, speaking on the phone from his home in Montclair, N.J. “There was a lot of concern about how libraries would work when patrons wanted books on their e-book readers.”
Hellman realized that the business models for e-books and libraries was a challenge, particularly one of available content.
“What I decided was important was to find a new way for books to enter the public commons,” says Hellman. “Because copyrights last so long, things aren’t coming into the public domain in a timely way.”
Hellman looked to the success of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter for inspiration. “I thought that one possible way for books to enter the public commons was for people who care about them, people who want to share those books, to pay the rights-holder” to make them available through a creative commons license.
Unglue.it launched in May with five campaigns. One of those, Finnegan’s Oral Literature in Africa, took off and was published in on September 12. (Download it here.)
Hellman says Unglue.it’s focus is on backlist titles, those whose rights have reverted to their authors. He adds that academic books are a good match for Unglue.it “because people write them not to make money but as part of their academic work. It’s a good fit with the authors’ motivations. There are a number of publishers who are starting to experiment with open access in that market, and those markets tend to be easy to reach,” says Hellman. “The communities are relatively close-knit and we can reach them without too much difficulty. It’s hard to know what other areas might work. We really don’t know yet.”
Unglue.it’s main challenge at present is finding a new payment processor after Amazon Payments discontinued working with the small company, claiming it was no longer “boarding fresh crowdfunding accounts at this time.” (Amazon processes payments for Kickstarter and had been doing the same for Unglue.it.)
The company’s adopted an “onward and upward” attitude toward the dust-up, proclaiming on its blog:
“The silver lining behind our Amazon Payments thunderstorm is that over the past year, some new payments alternatives have emerged. We got red-carpet treatment from three California payments startups, each of them awesome in their own way, each of them a step up from Paypal or Amazon Payments. We’ve chosen one of them to try first, and we’re well along on the way towards implementation in Unglue.it. And best of all, the company’s CEO is strongly behind us, so there won’t be the agonizing uncertainty around business approval that we had with Paypal, or the rug-under-pulling we experienced with Amazon.”