Friday, October 29, 2010

Business Idea #4: Ungluing eBooks

It's been a while since I blogged a business idea for Gluejar. There have been at least three reasons for this hiatus.
  1. Blogging has been fun. Every article generates a bunch of ideas for me to pursue and I just love exploring new ideas and learning about new things. Not to mention the dialogue with readers which has been very stimulating. I've learned a lot.
  2. Since January, I've been working with architects and contractors on an extensive home renovation, which takes up a lot of time and mind share. This work is almost done, so it's time to think about new projects.
  3. Previous ideas smoldered and the heat dissipated. Same with a few other opportunities I looked at.
On the other hand, my recent series of articles on acquiring ebooks into the commons has led me to seriously consider making this into a business. The more I consider the possibilities and the details, the more convinced I become that the job is both viable and important. It's been over 2 months, and the hallucination has not worn off.

For your reference, here are the relevant articles:
The business model for this venture is simple- build, run and promote an ebook bounty market, and charge 5%-ish of closed transactions. The hard part is winning over mass markets of consumers, both individual and institutional. The first step, perhaps the hardest step, is explaining and advocating the concept to people who are only just getting a feel for what ebooks are. "Stealth" is just not going to get that done, so I've decided to be as open as possible about what I'm doing.

So here's a first draft of a home-page pitch/explanation. Let me know what you think.
Unglue Your eBooks!
Have you noticed that your eBooks are stuck inside your proprietary reading device?
Have you noticed that the printed books on your shelves are stuck there, instead of being available on your nifty reading thing?
Have you noticed how hard it is to lend an ebook to someone or to give it to your friends?
Have you noticed that you can't get the ebooks you want through your library?
The problem is glue. Not the kind of glue that binds paper together, but the legal kind that sticks intellectual property to its owners and licensees. Authors need a paycheck so they can devote time and effort to writing books; publishers need income so they can refine those books and make them beautiful. Their problem these days is that the book publishing industry is stuck on an old model of selling individual copies.
Gluejar offers a new way for people who love books to support the people who create books without putting all sorts of licensing glue and restrictions glue on the digital copies. We bring large numbers of book lovers together to financially support the ungluing of the books that they love.
Here's how it works:
  1. Decide how much you want to spend on ungluing your books. The amount is totally up to you; but how about 10% of what you normally spend on books?
  2. Visit our partner sites to decide which books you want to support; you can pledge support for any number of books! Or browse our catalog of books on offer.
  3. You can visit your Gluejar Boookshelf at any time to see the current support level for each of your books.
  4. We won't charge your credit card until supporters have pledged enough money so that rights holders agree to unglue the ebooks you want.
  5. When an ebook is unglued it will appear automatically in your favorite ebook reader account. Once that happens, you can give the ebook to all of your friends and your library can make it available to all of its patrons. 100% legal, anywhere.
  6. Many ebooks come with bonuses for supporters; you might win a dinner with the author, a signed print copy, or maybe just a simple thank you note. We'll email you with details.
As you can see, I've tied the name of the service into the pre-existing Gluejar name for now; at least it's not horrible.

If you want to suggest an alternative pitch, put it in the comments. The best suggestion will win $100 to spend on the Gluejar ebook bounty market!
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  1. The more I think about this, the more I love it but the more I wonder if the catch isn't international rights fragmentation.

    If you want to buy a book into the public domain, you probably have to talk to all of the rightsholders. And in the era of modern mass-market publishing, at least until Amazon crushes everyone to dust, those rights and fragmented and resold a dozen ways. I don't have a book contract to look at here, but I strongly suspect that when an author's publisher or agent negotiates, say, German sales rights, the contract to the German publisher requires that the underlying copyright remain intact and unencumbered.

    So you might end up having to buy rights off of both the author's primary home-country publisher and all of the international sub-licensees.

    I'd definitely want to talk to an agent -- they're the people who know these issues best. You might also ask Charles Stross -- he's an author who has blogged about international rights fragmentation quite a bit (see, eg, his essay series on publishing, Common Misconceptions About Publishing).

  2. I like it! To participate, I'd want my local library network (Minuteman in Mass) on board too. If you need a local lobbyist (amateur) in Boston/Cambridge...

  3. The global rights issue highlights the need for a global perspective; it's just one of many issues, e.g. How do you handle currency fluctuations? Expect a post on this sooner or later.

  4. Gluejar could be very interesting as a way to complement our approach (explained below) and so to increase the number of unglued books out there. My institution publishes a lot, globally, and is trying out a different business model for e-books and related materials: using "free, perfect, now" to provide open access to content. Since last year, 27 million people have downloaded free copies. Some of them have set up reading circles to encourage the reading habit and to help people to find study buddies. We are mindful of the value for readers of augmenting today's books, to add task-focused web-based features. At present, we augment the books for free. We are exploring adding a "freemium" business model, with added-value services that are free in some cases (eg if people volunteer as mentors and life coaches) and premium (for-fee) in other cases. Some big-name publishers are paying very close attention to our approach. The for-fee possibilities include taught courses and certification. Latest press release (29 Oct 2010):

    "OU one of the first universities to make free, interactive eBooks available on iTunes U - eBooks available on iTunes U"

    The Open University is one of the first universities worldwide to make eBooks available on iTunes U, adding 100 free, interactive titles today with a further 200 to come by the end of 2010. OU eBook content comes from the OU’s OpenLearn website which contains over 6,600 hours of free, current course materials and has had 14 million visits to date.

    Martin Bean, Vice-Chancellor of The Open University, said: “The Open University’s approach to eBooks is unique. We do not simply rework existing material and old style textbooks into an electronic format, but design carefully thought-through, interactive features that give the best all-round learning experience. For example, if you are looking at a course on genetics, as you read the narrative the embedded audio and video illustrate key points as you go along, and if you are learning about Schubert’s Lieder, with an OU eBook it’s easy, you can hear the music as you follow the score. This really helps to bring subjects to life and simplifies things for students, as you don’t have to be online or carry lots of different materials. [more...]

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  6. Hi Eric,

    Interesting idea - instead of suggesting an actual business model for motivating backlist sales, just pay publishers to free their backlists. Because that's what would happen. If you think of publishers as marketing organizations (which is pretty much the only function they haven't outsourced), then you realize that the only properties that they care about is frontlist titles.

    To publishers, the proposition is essentially the same thing as Publisher X offering to buy Publisher Y's backlist, which happens all the time, except that Publisher X is this business and/or the commons. So in that light it's not a particularly unusual proposition.

    What I would suggest is that you research how much Publisher Y would be willing to take from Publisher X in that scenario and under what conditions. Because that's approximately the price you'd be dealing with, which would give you an idea of how feasible this is, e.g. how many people would have to contribute, say, $10 each to make it work.

    On the other hand, you can also see this model somewhat in action in the music industry today, where in effect all music is "in the commons" and is subsidized by contributions from the 5% of consumers who actually pay for it... and the record companies are still losing money hand over fist. This makes me pessimistic that the numbers will add up here.

    I also agree with other commenters about the rights issues: this model really needs something like the Google BRR to work.


    Bill Rosenblatt