Transcript: Free E-books Is Gluejar’s Mission

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Interview with Eric Hellman, president, Gluejar

For podcast release Monday, May 14, 2012

KENNEALLY: It sounds like a caper in a Wallace and Gromit movie. Liberate the e-books. But that unlikely mission is the work of Gluejar. Hello, and welcome to Beyond the Book, Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series on the business of publishing. My name is Christopher Kenneally, and joining me to talk about the digital book liberation is Eric Hellman, president of Gluejar. Eric, welcome to Beyond the Book.

HELLMAN: Hi, Chris, and thanks for having me on.

KENNEALLY: Well, I’m interested in talking with you about what it means to liberate e-books in this day and age. We’ll tell people briefly about your background. You’re a technologist, entrepreneur, and writer. You spent 10 years at Bell Labs in physics research, where you became interested in technologies surrounding e-journals and libraries. Your first business, Openly Informatics, developed open URL linking software and knowledge bases, and was acquired by OCLC in 1996.

At OCLC yourself, you led an effort to productize and expand XISBN, and began development of OCLC’s electronic research management offerings, all of which are very important to the business of libraries these days. After leaving OCLC, Eric began blogging at Go To Hellman. He covers the intersection of technology, libraries, and e-books, and has written extensively on the semantic Web and linked data, all of which is a great background to the question, what do we mean by liberating e-books? You’ve got a project that is under the URL, unglue.it. And so tell us what it means to unglue, when it comes to e-books.

HELLMAN: Well, our goal for unglue.it is to let books, e-books, have characteristics of digital books, rather than tie them to the old business models of print. What we want to do is to offer rights-holders the opportunity to get a one-time payment in exchange for making their books into Creative Commons-licensed e-books. And the way we’re going to do this is by crowdfunding campaigns.

So if you have a favorite book, a book that’s important to you, a book that means a lot to you, that you’ve read, and you want everybody else in the world to read it, we’re going to offer you the opportunity to join with thousands of people like you to come up with the money to turn it into a book that’s free to everybody, everywhere.

KENNEALLY: So the first step is that somebody nominates a book. And then you accept that nomination, and go out to try to raise money. How do you do that? You use a PayPal infrastructure, I believe.

HELLMAN: It’s not tied to PayPal. We’re still working out the details of the payment infrastructure. But it all comes – it starts with the rights-holder. The rights-holder has to offer a book, or a literary property, to be Creative Commons licensed. They run the campaign. And we find people willing to support that campaign.

KENNEALLY: Well, Gluejar, and unglue.it right now is just in very early development stages. I understand from your blog, you’ll be out in alpha later this year, is that correct?

HELLMAN: Oh, we’ve been in preview mode since January, and we’ll be launching our first campaigns for ungluing books on May 17th.

KENNEALLY: So things are moving along.

HELLMAN: Yeah, very rapidly.

KENNEALLY: Now, how did you get those first books into the queue, as it were? You went and approached certain authors and publishers yourself?

HELLMAN: We’ve been spending a lot of time going around, talking to literary agents, publishers, and authors about primary mid-list books, books that were popular five, 10 years ago, that have used up a lot of their commercial value in the print market, and are ready to have a new life in the public commons.

KENNEALLY: Now, are there certain types of books, certain genres, that are particularly more likely to find their way into Gluejar than others?

HELLMAN: We really don’t know what books this model will work for, and so we’re trying a bunch of books in different genres, and see what works best. Our biggest constituency at the beginning, at least, is libraries. And so we’re looking for books that will appeal, in many ways, to libraries. That means in our launch, we’ll have a YA title, we’ll have a science fiction title, we’ll have a literary fiction title, and we’ll have a nonfiction book.

KENNEALLY: Well, as you go about approaching people, you’re approaching both authors and their agents, as well as publishers. What’s been their reaction to the proposal?

HELLMAN: Well, there’s a good deal of skepticism, as you might imagine. A lot of people are really interested in the model, and they want to see how it works. To be frank, we certainly do too.

KENNEALLY: But I would imagine, as you say, there are certain books that are more likely to find their way into this than others. And you talked about books that have already kind of lived through their commercial cycle. Tell the listeners what you mean by that.

HELLMAN: Well, when a book comes out, it sells a lot in its first year, and then the sales drop off, the promotional budget drops off. And a typical author sees their royalty statements drop to, you know, ridiculously small levels after a few years. And rather than getting royalty statements with $10 or $50 a year on them, it makes a lot of sense for the authors to make the books free, and get a one-time payment, maybe $10,000, $20,000.

KENNEALLY: So you know, what you’re trying to do is to populate the world with e-books that are accessible to everybody, at a moment when the e-book business is really starting to take off, and we’re seeing a lot of arguments in court and elsewhere around pricing models, around digital rights management. Tell me how what you’re doing at Gluejar fits into the zeitgeist of e-books at the moment.

HELLMAN: Well, one thing we’re really concerned about is the lack of a business model for e-books in libraries. We see five of the big six publishers not willing to sell e-books to libraries. And libraries face the same sort of transition to a digital future that book publishers do.

So we think that a very important model for libraries is to start helping users deal with abundance, rather than manage scarcity. There’s an abundance of stuff that is in the public domain, that’s free. But libraries want premium content that their users are going to want now. And this provides a new way for content to enter libraries, and to allow libraries to do all the good things that libraries do, in terms of promoting literacy, preservation, access, and community-building.

KENNEALLY: Well, you mentioned the skepticism on the part of publishers, as well as authors, I suppose, and also just, you know, the kind of hesitance that is sort of part of where people are in the publishing world at the moment with e-books. No one’s really sure where this is taking us all, and so they’re trying to take baby steps, rather than big steps. Are you happy to see a movement towards liberating, to use that term in a different way, from DRM, from digital rights management? Do you think that’s going to help support your efforts?

HELLMAN: Well, what I see is that as publishers face the future, not with fear of piracy, and awful things that could happen, but with a sense of what the opportunities are with digital books and digital content, I think it’s very encouraging to see them take little steps to explore new business models, and new ways of interacting with customers.

KENNEALLY: And to your point about abundance, the idea that there will be more e-books available would ultimately be a good thing for publishers and for authors. Because it’s going to draw the reader into the market.

HELLMAN: Well, it’s a new supply chain. And publishers need competition in their supply chain. And if we can fill gaps in both needs in the marketplace, and gaps in, you know, books that can’t find their way into the supply chain that we have now, we feel that it can offer some value.

KENNEALLY: Now there are libraries, and there are libraries. You mentioned the library community as an important piece of this. Public libraries, academic institutions. How are they responding to what you’re doing, and sort of, you know, divide them up. Tell us what public libraries care about, and also what the academic institutions do.

HELLMAN: Well, we’ve gotten a great deal of support, and willingness to help out, publicize our campaigns, even support them with money, from all corners of the library market. And that means not only public and academic libraries, but also internationally.

What do libraries need? For public libraries, they need to be able to supply books to the voracious readers that they serve. Academic libraries, there are a lot of new problems that they have to deal with. They’re sort of in this position now where they try to tell the students that libraries can fill all their information needs, except for the books they’re required to read, which is kind of a strange mixed message.

Libraries have to change as much, or even more, than publishers have to change. And exploring all the opportunities that are offered by different business models is something that everyone’s excited about.

KENNEALLY: As a technologist, but as somebody who is intimately connected to publishing, do you have any insight into the tension right now between the technology side of the business and the traditional publishing side of the business? Technology is about innovation. Publishing is an innovative model, every six months, you put out a whole bunch of new books. But publishers have been slow to recognize the power of technology. Tell us how you, as somebody who’s sort of been in both parts of that, see things moving forward.

HELLMAN: Well, so much of publishing today is really technology, and technology development, and providing of technological services. That most of the executives that have gone into publishing didn’t get where they were by being good at technology. Their expertise is in totally different areas. So I think that a lot of the top managers in publishers are uncomfortable with having to, all of a sudden, be managing technology businesses.

KENNEALLY: What’s your advice, though, to help them feel more comfortable? What puts them into a comfort zone that, for example, makes them more open to your proposal, and to others like it?

HELLMAN: Gee, I wish I knew.

KENNEALLY: You’re working on it, though.

HELLMAN: Working on it, yeah.

KENNEALLY: And maybe it is, in fact, having somebody come in. I mean, I understand that there really is the human side of this business that’s important to you, and so you and your small team have been going out and making a point of individual meetings, face to face, really trying to put, you know, faces into names together, so that people have, perhaps, less fear of this whole thing.

HELLMAN: Well, a lot of the technology involved in publishing is not really hard technology. And you know, I’ve been encouraging people in the library world to you know, learn a little bit of coding, and not be afraid of it. Because it’s not really that hard. You just have to push yourself a little bit to learn things that you didn’t learn before. So much of our technology is new, that we have to deal with it all the time. And just because you weren’t a computer science major in college doesn’t mean you couldn’t go and become a good programmer.

KENNEALLY: Well, you know, your career began at the Bell Labs, a place legendary for innovation. And where probably what you did every day wasn’t thinking about the future, so much as what you were going to do today. Does that seem right to you?

HELLMAN: Well, I worked in semiconductor physics at Bell Labs. I grew crystals. I crew monolayer thin film semiconductors and superconductors. And so our daily routine was like, let’s figure out what kind of things we want to grow today. But at the same time, we had to understand what the important things were, in terms of making new science happen. And interacting with our colleagues with various measurement techniques and device ideas. So a lot, a big part of the innovation that happened at Bell Labs, took place because people with different expertise, and different disciplines, were able to get together and work in the same place, and share their expertise.

KENNEALLY: And probably share a sense of excitement about possibility.

HELLMAN: And argue about it.

KENNEALLY: Well, it’s been a pleasure to chat with you, and hear all the sides that you’re working on, both the technology side and the publishing side. We’ve been talking with Eric Hellman, who is president of Gluejar. Eric, thank you so much for joining us on Beyond the Book.

HELLMAN: Thank you, Chris.

KENNEALLY: We want to tell everybody that Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as images, movies, and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like Beyond the Book on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes, or at our website, copyright.com/beyondthebook. Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally, here in New York City with Eric Hellman of Gluejar. And for all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.