• 03.09.12

Unglue.It: Crowd-Funding A Revolution In Libraries

If e-books are the future, are libraries the past? Brick-and-mortar book lenders haven’t gotten on the e-book bandwagon because publishers make digital rights too expensive. Maybe we can help them out.

For the last few years, publishers have been leery about selling e-books to libraries, arguing that e-lending poses too much of a threat to book sales, and is really a different animal from the traditional library model. Because one e-file will last indefinitely, once the library has it, they’ll never need to pay the publisher again. Four of the country’s six largest publishers currently don’t allow libraries to lend out their e-books. And, as a result, many titles simply aren’t available electronically.


A new site hopes to change that, though, by squaring the circle between the legitimate right of people to access books, and publishers’ need to get paid for them. Called Unglue.It, the crowd-funding vehicle allows individuals and institutions to pledge cash in small amounts, so titles can become part of the Creative Commons, where anyone can read them.

“It’s like public radio or public broadcasting,” says founder Eric Hellman. “There needs to be a public segment of the book market, and with digital media you can do that. You can have free segments, if you finance them in a different way.”

Unglue.It is still in alpha mode, so people can’t start pledging yet. But Hellman says it should be ready in the next few weeks. During the last few months, he’s talked to publishers and agents about selling their rights on the site; he says rights will start at $1,000, rising up to the “low-five figures.” The site makes money by taking a 6% cut.

To start with at least, most of the titles will probably be academic and out-of-print books. But Hellman says it should be possible to encourage rights owners of more popular titles to come on board, if the site gets a large enough following. Users can already make wish lists of books they would like to “unglue.” And current favorites include Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and classics like To Kill a Mockingbird.

“Our goal is to free up a good chunk of literature. We don’t want to just do a book here, and a book there,” Hellman says. “We think that academic books and non-fiction books are good candidates for this model. But we want fiction of all types. I think that poetry might work well.”

Hellman, who trained as a physicist, worked as a researcher at Bell Labs, before starting a company that built linking technology for libraries. And he’s now hoping libraries will help promote Unglue.It, and perhaps contribute to the campaigns. “Libraries are our secret weapon, because there’s a library in every community, as well as overseas,” he says.

It will be interesting to see if the crowd-funding idea works as well for e-books as it has for other public causes. Hopefully so.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.