A Bookstore for Books that Want to be Free

Soon, we’ll be launching a new phase of Unglue.it.

How do we describe what we’re doing? When we did the first implementation of “Buy-To-Unglue” (as a test, not a launch) I told a lot of people about it, but it wasn’t so easy to explain. Unglue.it would be sort of a Crowdfunding site, sort of a bookstore, sort of a library distributor. My explanation was too much “how” and not enough “why”. Finally, I hit upon a simple description of our vision for the site: “A Bookstore for Books that Want to be Free”.

Free books just don’t work for the usual e-bookstore, because of perverse incentives. If you make the free books better, people stop buying the books you’re making money on. So the free books turn into loss-leaders: they’re the cheap crap that gets  buyers into the store, then you try to convince them that they REALLY want is the super-duper deluxe version of Moby Dick, and it’s only $10.99! So all the incentives for  “Bookstores that Want You to Buy Books” play against quality free ebooks.

Free books don’t work very well for libraries either. There’s so much free stuff out there that libraries would need to spend a too much of effort selecting and cataloging the really good ones. And once that’s done, why should people go to the library when they can get those books for free elsewhere? It turns out that the big bucks that libraries are shelling out for ebooks are paying for lots of infrastructure. True, much of that infrastructure is deployed to “protect” the content (from the users), but there’s also a fair amount of necessary infrastructure (metadata, for example) that gets paid for out of the purchase price.

Free ebooks have been problematic for publishers, but not in the way that you might think. The publishers who have worked with us to unglue their books have been surprised at how much doing so has helped their print sales. But working with the sell-books-bookstores has been tricky. Amazon does NOT make it easy to put free ebooks on the kindle, for example. Selling paid versions of a book alongside a free version can be tricky!

A “Bookstore for Books that Want to be Free”, on the other hand, can create incentives to make the Free Ebooks better. By encouraging people to reward the best ebooks. By supporting authors and publishers that want their works to be free. By creating a distribution infrastructure that supports libraries rather than treating them like the enemy. By saying NO to restrictive DRM and licensing terms that last forever.

That’s what we want Unglue.it to become.

Unglue.it has been missing one important piece of functionality to make this vision real. We haven’t had a way to reward rights holders that have already given their books Creative Commons licenses to make them free. So we’re in the process of adding that functionality. We’re calling it “Thanks for Ungluing”. There will be a suggested price, but ungluers will be able to set that price to zero. We’ve started reaching out to some Creative Commons authors, so far with some encouraging responses. If you are the author or publisher of a Creative Commons licensed book, please contact us so we can help readers support you.

Meanwhile, the development of our library ebook distribution system is proceeding. If you’d like to help us test it, read about it here and then add your library here. Expect to see code on Github soon. There’s a lot of work yet to do, but with your help, we’ll get there!

3 comments on “A Bookstore for Books that Want to be Free

  1. So this is basically the “tip jar” as implemented on things like NoiseTrade?

  2. Noisetrade is not a bad comparison. I’ve been resistant to applying the phrase “tip jar” to books, because they’re quite different; authors don’t live on tips the way musicians do. “mission support” as implemented by Amanda Palmer seems closer. “pay what you want” fits better in a setting where people get something they’re used to paying for.

  3. […] Here’s a description of the “Thanks for Ungluing” program we’ll be launching as part of the “Bookstore for Books that want to be free“: […]

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