Unglue.It: Books That Want to Be Free

February 6, 2014

Eric Hellman has the best-named blog ever. He’s also the creator of unglue.it, “the bookstore for books that want be free.” Part tech lab, part Kickstarter for authors, unglue.it is one of the most creative responses to the ebook revolution I've seen.

For those who haven’t heard of it before, the idea is this: Suppose you write a book. You are well aware that most books are not bestsellers. You’d be thrilled if you could make $2,500 from it. So you, the author, offer the book to unglue.it. Your book is described on the  website and donations are requested to make it into an ebook. Interested users make “pledges.” Once the pledges hit the $2,500 mark, success! You, the author, still retain copyright, but the book is released in electronic format through the Creative Commons license. It has been unglued and can be freely downloaded by anyone, including libraries, worldwide.

So far, Eric, his team, and a host of innovators have liberated just five books. But they’re all pretty good books and deserve the much wider readership that they now enjoy and might not have had otherwise(what library wouldn’t want the modern classic, So You Want to Be a Librarian, by Lauren Pressley?). The resulting readership bump, incidentally, makes it quite likely that the authors’ next books will be worth even more.

All by itself, that’s a fascinating phenomenon. The latest wrinkle takes the idea one step further, and makes it a little easier for libraries to play along.

In brief, a library signs up at unglue.it and buys a library license for each book it wants to offer its patrons. “This allows one patron every two weeks to have access to the book,” Hellman says. “Each book has a license inserted into the file; it tells users what their license period is, and encourages them to buy a license for themselves if they’re not finished with the book at the end of their two weeks.” In other words, Hellman says, “Buying an ebook replaces making a pledge. The supporter gets the immediate gratification of reading the book. Campaigns never fail, they just may take longer. Authors and publishers just have to sell their books. Libraries can just buy the licenses and lend the unglue.it ebooks. Meanwhile, a community of readers grows to support books that will become free to everyone.”

Let's be clear about the terms: Your patrons can check ebooks out, DRM-free, from unglue.it, which hosts the file and the circ transaction, but does not charge a platform fee. You buy a book so your community can borrow it. Patrons can buy it, too—but don’t have to. The license endures until the book is unglued, and then it’s forever. 

To participate, libraries need to:

  1. Sign a license agreement.
  2. Create a library identity on Unglue.it.
  3. Set up user verification. 

I believe every library in America should sign up for this. But you don’t have to be a library (or authorized to sign for one). You can register for this worthy cause as an individual, too. I did.

Right now there’s just one book in the program, a collection of science fiction stories from Africa called Lagos—2060. The price is set by the rights holder, and in this case, it’s available to libraries for $10—a far cry from the $84 per license that Random House charges per ebook bestseller. But the size of unglue.it’s total catalog isn’t the point, at least, not at this time. This is all about proof of concept—and a fresh look at libraries and their communities as a force for putting good books in the hands of eager readers and making sure the author gets paid.

Just like we’ve always done.