By Beth Kephart
People, Eric Hellman is fond of saying, have a funny relationship to books. They’ll cram them onto shelves, stuff them several layers deep. They’ll talk about their love for them, defend them, take them to bed. They’ll buy several copies of their personal favorites and parcel them off to friends. Maybe books aren’t people and people aren’t books. Still: The line is thin.
But what does book love look like in the age of “e?” And how can the love be spread when favorite titles go out of print and are still in queue for Kindle? What, finally, would happen if beloved e-books were free — if downloading your favorite book was as easy and as expense-less as to tuning into NPR?
These are some of the questions that have lately preoccupied Hellman, a technologist and entrepreneur who heads a new company called Gluejar, Inc. Hellman was a physicist at Bell Labs before e-journals and libraries, OpenURL linking software and knowledge bases caught his attention. He blogs provocatively at Go to Hellman. He makes complex ideas sound not just intriguing, but simple.
This, for example, is what he means by “unglue,” the concept that lies at the heart of Gluejar: “unglue (v.t.) For an author or publisher to accept a fixed amount of money from the public for its unlimited use of an e-book.”
Hellman wants us to consider, in other words, a world in which those who hold the rights to books agree to license them through a Creative Commons arrangement that protects author/publisher copyrights, enables the rights holders to maintain or pursue additional licensing agreements, and at the same time creates an environment in which public funding helps “unglue” the books for digital distribution.
Crowdfunding — something already in play within organizations as diverse as the Nature Conservancy, NPR, and Kickstarter — provides the fiscal fuel, making sure that both the creators of the book and Gluejar get compensated for their efforts.
Essentially, then, it goes something like this: A book lover identifies a book that she loves and campaigns for its ungluing at unglue.it. If the conditions are right — that is, the rights are available — Gluejar will add the book to its database of desired books. Once the author or publisher sets a fixed price for “giving the book to the world,” individuals pledge toward the book’s release — offering ten dollars, twenty, five hundred or more: however much they wish to invest to make that book available, for free, to readers around the world. Unglued books can be read on any device — not just the Kindle, iPad, and Kobo, but on the Mac, Windows, and Linux.
According to Hellman, the e-book doesn’t go public (that is, become free) until the rights holder’s price has been met. A very popular author might set the price at a million dollars, he says, whereas an author that just wants to cover digitization expenses might set the price at a few thousand dollars. Gluejar only collects its percentage if the price is met and the book is released into the public commons.
An idyllic approach? A feasible one? So far, Hellman has amassed a number of true believers, not least of all his team, which includes Amanda Mecke, the former vice president and director of subsidiary rights for Bantam Dell; Raymond Yee, the author of a well-known book on web mashups; and Andromeda Yelton, who was named an ALA Emerging Leader in 2011.
Hellman says that librarians — eager to find a working, equitable model for lending books in the “e” age — have also responded with enthusiasm. “In the USA, libraries circulate more books than are bought,” he says. “A lot of our hopes for this business model are bound up with the conversations we are having with librarians who see, in unglue.it, the opportunity to expand and circulate their e-collections in a way that fairly compensates authors and publishing houses.”
Other key backers of the idea are based in those countries where e-versions of US books remain hard to find.
Finally, with the launch of the unglue.it site just a few weeks away (the site is currently in Alpha), Hellman and his team are busy contracting with rights holders who are intrigued by the concept. “This is a no-risk model for authors,” says Hellman. “We aren’t asking them to speculatively invest in an e-book whose readership cannot be quantified. We find the model is currently appealing to those whose publishing houses have gone out of business, for example, leaving the author with the rights. Academic books with widespread library appeal are also an ideal match at this stage.”
Beth Kephart is the author, most recently, of You Are My Only, named a best of the year by many bloggers. Her 14th book, Small Damages, is due out from Philomel next July, and she is at work on a book about the Berlin Wall. Please visit her blog.