A New Approach for Backlist Titles

By Michael Campbell

I recently had a conversation with my old friend Amanda Mecke, who was previously VP of subsidiary rights at Bantam Dell. I wanted to talk about her involvement with a new venture, Gluejar, whose mission is to make more backlist books available as e-books to read and share, freely and legally.

Amanda, how long have you been in this business?
I’ve worked for 30 years in book publishing, mostly in subsidiary rights. I am therefore delighted to be working now with a startup company, Gluejar, to solve rights issues and free up books to be available as e-books.

When did you start buying digital books?
I wasn’t an early adopter, as I’m not a fan of e-ink, and I wanted to wait until a multiuse device became available. I first tested the Nook and Kindle apps on my desktop around January 2010, and now I’m reading and buying books on a color tablet.

What are some of the frustrations about e-books?
As a former rights director, I’m dismayed at how many backlist titles aren’t available as e-books. Even though the retail market is exploding, many of my favorite authors are still not available, so I can’t recommend them to friends. Word of mouth is still the most popular way of sharing recommendations for books, even more so in this age of social media.

I thought Google’s project to make public domain works available took care of that? Or Project Gutenberg?
There are still plenty of books that are not public domain, where the rights holders have difficulty converting them to e-books.

I know Amazon recently hired Nancy Pearl to do just that. But her discoveries will be Amazon exclusive e-books.

Gluejar aims to create a place where readers, authors, publishers, and librarians can share and discover backlist e-books.

What are the issues in converting backlist?
First are the cost issues. The biggest single problem with older books that don’t have digital files is that they must be scanned. To create an ePub file so the book is truly an e-book, with flowing text, requires proofreading by a copyeditor who has some familiarity with the original. So there is some upfront expense.

But a bigger problem, one that I’m familiar with as a sub rights director, is that the rights might be in limbo. If the original contract is unclear, both author and publisher may be unable to go forward with an e-book, even if they both want one. Negotiating a new contract is often too time-consuming and expensive. Or they may not wish to jeopardize future possibilities.

The Gluejar model allows publisher and author to “agree to disagree” and simply put the ePub file out there as a one-off digital edition—and with both receiving some upfront income. A letter of agreement will suffice, and neither gives up any commercial rights, such as a revised or enhanced edition in the future.

What’s Gluejar’s role?
Gluejar offers a space for publishers and authors to crowdsource funds to convert titles into e-books. The crowd-funding model is becoming familiar from sites that raise money for startups and philanthropies, such as Kickstarter and Crowdrise.

This is a way to help independent publishers and their authors leverage and protect their assets in the face of competition from inexpensive self-published new authors, as well as brand-name authors from media giants, and new e-books being published by huge retailers themselves.

Each title will be released using a prepaid Creative Commons license. The rights holder (publisher, author, or both) sets the cost to release the book. When a campaign to raise the amount of their goal succeeds, the rights holders reward the supporters by releasing an “open access” e-book.

I’m not familiar with Creative Commons licensing. Who else is using it?
Artists, photographers, and writers who want credit for their work without getting ongoing royalties or licensing fees. All of Wikipedia releases its content using the Creative Commons license. Images are available using Creative Commons on Flickr, Google Image, and other sites.

Is anyone else using it in a book-publishing context?
Cory Doctorow and Lawrence Lessig are two authors who release free-to-reader versions of their books using a Creative Commons license, even though the books are also sold in commercial editions.

In “ungluing” a book with Gluejar, the rights holders will use a fee-based, non-commercial (no one can resell it), non-royalty (no distribution fees), non-exclusive, media-neutral (no DRM) Creative Commons license, which Gluejar has chosen for financial and ethical reasons. In addition to contributing to prepaid fees for e-books, supporters also want to give to a public good. Creative Commons vouches for this ethic as a well-established advocate for gadget-neutral open access, which will level the electronic playing field while protecting copyright. 

So the e-book is free?
The e-book that Gluejar creates will be free to readers forever. You can’t withdraw the book from a Creative Commons license. However, no one can profit from it by selling it. Commercial rights to future enhanced e-books, adaptations, paperbacks and hardcover editions remain with the rights holders. The up-front cash payment to release the e-book will both pay the rent now and subsidize the future. Publishers and authors can garner an immediate profit from already published books.

How does it work?
Our crowd-funding website, Unglue.it, is now in alpha. It allows readers to pledge support to favorite authors and titles, as well as to search for special interests and give e-books to friends and libraries. Like Kickstarter.com and IndieGoGO.com, it will take a commission on successful campaigns, one that is much smaller than retail or wholesale distribution fees. Gluejar is NOT a publisher or a retailer.

So as a publisher, I could use Gluejar to “unglue” the book by raising the cost of scanning and editing, even a new cover and marketing. Since the book will become available as a free e-book, I should factor into my Gluejar target a profit for me, and a profit for the author – an upfront flat fee, instead of an ongoing royalty.

Other than a flat fee upfront, how else could giving away a free book generate profit for me?
A widely available Creative Commons e-book could be a no-cost perpetual marketing machine, using one free title to promote all of an author’s backlist, selling other print editions and e-books without any retail or subscription barriers.

Amanda, I know you care about libraries as much or more than any other publishing person I know. How do libraries factor in here?
On average, 50% of a book’s readers will access it through a library. Free, open access e-books mean more books will be more affordable for more libraries, and more authors who are not already celebrities will be introduced to new readers. As libraries’ budgets continue to be stretched, free e-books will become incredibly important to them.

How does a free e-book find its way into libraries?
The publisher will simply deposit one ePub file (complete with meta-data) into Internet Archive and Open Library, and it will be available in every library system in the world, as well as in Google Editions, and thus through good independent bookstores. Publishers can also make the book available as a free download from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

So sum it up for me.
Gluejar takes me back to my very first job in publishing, working in rights for Harcourt Brace. Back then, much of our great hardcover backlist just wasn’t in print anymore. I was busy making it available by selling trade paperback reissue rights. Here at Gluejar, I get to help do the same thing: make great books available to libraries, students, teachers, book club members, and readers in general.

Editor’s note: You can reach Amanda Mecke at amecke@gluejar.com