unglue.it: a new concept in publishing

unglue.it: a new concept in publishing

For an industry based on the products of human creativity, publishing has been astonishingly unimaginative.

There has been, for decades, one dominant model*** for books getting from the author to the reader.

The author writes the book.

The author licenses the rights for the book to a publisher.

The publisher sells the book to the public, giving the author part of each sale.

Now, I’ve greatly simplified that, of course. The author certainly may work with an editor who works for the publisher in writing the book. The rights are usually negotiated by an agent, not the author. The publisher traditionally sells the book to retailers, who actually sell it to the public.

E-books have certainly brought some changes. The “book factories” of the publishers aren’t needed, so that’s loosened their grip on controlling distribution. That, in turn, has enabled more direct selling from author to reader, or the use of “publishing platforms” where retailers handle the sales for the authors with no publisher in between.

The basic economics, though, have been the same. Sell more books, more money to the author.

Even Amazon’s Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL), which is innovative, works on that same principle: the more “borrows” you have in a month, the more money you get. It is different, because it doesn’t matter what the price of your book is. Somebody who has an eligible borrow an e-book that sells for $9.99 gets the same amount of money as somebody who has an e-book priced at $0.99. There is a finite amount of money for independent publishers (which may just be an individual author): in January 2012, it’s $700,000.

Yes, that’s different. Amazon knows ahead of time how much they are going to pay KDP select publishers in a month…it’s not based on sales.

The amount the publisher gets, though, is based on popularity. If your books are more popular, you make more.

That may seem logical, but it’s not the only possible way to do it…and I’m impressed that


has come up with something really different.

What if, instead of paying an author royalties, the book was simply bought for a flat amount?

Instead of waiting years for royalty checks to trickle in, the author gets, say, $100,000 right up front.

Obviously, there are advantages to that. Brand name authors right now get a substantive advance (a lump sum) against future royalties. I’m sure it’s nice to know how big a mortgage you can afford…and even to know you can afford one. 🙂

A disadvantage is that you might underestimate the value of your book when you sell it. You take that $100,000…and the book is a smash hit and you could have made a million dollars under a royalty system.

Well, first, let’s back up a little bit.

For most authors, we aren’t talking six or seven figures.

Let’s say you write your first novel. A publisher likes it, and offers you a flat $10,000 for it. You still have a full-time job, and you know enough to know the odds aren’t good that your book is going to sell 50,000 copies.

Would you take the sure thing?

That’s part one of the Unglue it concept: flat fees instead of royalties.

Here is the next part.

What if it wasn’t a publisher paying you, but the public?

You are Stephen King, in this example, and you’ve been getting royalty checks from Pet Sematary for years. Sales aren’t what they were when the book was first released, of course, but there are checks every year.

What if a bunch of your fans got together and pooled their money and said, “Mr. King, here’s $50,000. We want to buy the rights to Pet Sematary…and then it will be distributed for free by anybody and to anybody.”

That might be tempting.

At that point, you don’t have to worry about it. The book is released without DRM (Digital Rights Management) and you agree that legally, people are allowed to copy it, give it to friends, convert it to different e-book formats, and so on.

Of course, you’d have some concerns. You wouldn’t want people editing the book…no mashups with Pet Sematary and Little Women. You’d want your name to be on it…you don’t want somebody pretending to have written it. You want to retain the rights to adaptations: at somebody, you know somebody is going to want to remake the movie (that sounds like a hypothetical, but at this point, there may actually be a new movie in 2013, and there has already been a sequel).

Those are actually all conditions built into Unglue. The rightsholder keeps the rights for derivative rights, and the license doesn’t allow editing or lack of attribution.

So, yes, I can certainly see the advantage for an author with an established track record who can estimate the value of a book. It’s bit like those “J.G. Wentworth” ads on structured settlements: “I have a structured settlement, and I need cash now!” 😉  They pay you a lump sum, and they get your settlement checks…they get more than you do, but you get it now.

Similarly, Unglue gets paid by the author/rightsholder if the “campaign” achieves its goal.

The other side of it, though, the crowdfunding side of it, is the part that is less clear to me.

You’ve got a book you love, and it’s not in e-book form. It would be worth twenty dollars to you to get it. You pledge $20. If the campaign succeeds (the goal is met), you pay your $20. Then you, and everybody else, can get and copy the book as much as you want (but you aren’t allowed to sell it, by the way…it’s not going into the public domain, it’s still protected under copyright…there is just a broad use license).

I’m just not sure how many people would do that.

I was talking to my Significant Other about it, and the conversation got me thinking about it.

The people who would do it would either pledge very small amounts…or, they might pledge large amounts if they thought the public should have the book. The latter group wouldn’t be doing it for themselves, but to affect society.

That actually concerns me a bit.

It’s like political campaign contributions.

Let’s say that people of one political persuasion decide this is a good thing to do, and pour millions of dollars into it…the equivalent of a Super PAC (Political Action Committee). Let’s hypothesize farther that an opposing group doesn’t have that kind of money.

Does it suddenly become that one viewpoint’s widely read and another one isn’t?

Of course, one could argue (easily) that those sorts of prejudices already exist in traditional publishing.

I’m also very aware that it is a mistake to expect a new system to fix all of the problems of the old system. I run into those sorts of objections all the time when I am presenting a new technology: “But what if somebody doesn’t enter the data on time ?” Well, that person probably wouldn’t have written it down on time , either. You can’t reject a technology that makes a process better on the basis that people don’t always follow the process.

I know that partially Unglue.it is attractive precisely because it’s a new idea.

I went through the website, and it did raise a couple of concerns for me.

For example, there was this line:

” (TBA: I think ePub does NOT work on Kindle so we need to address that, & how people can deal)”**

Now, it would not have taken five minutes to put “EPUB Kindle” into Google, and had that answer.

I write quickly, daily, and I make mistakes, absolutely. Even in books I’ve published, there have been errors I’ve corrected.

If I was trying to convince business people to do something, though, I wouldn’t put something out there without reviewing thoroughly and doing the research.

This one also worried me:

“Can I Unglue only one of my books? Can I unglue all of them?

Yes! It’s entirely up to you. Each Campaign is for a individual title and a separate fundraising goal.”

How can you have a Frequently Asked Question with contradictory results, and answer it with “Yes!”  As you continue through the answer, you can see that they do mean that you can have more than one campaign at a time. However, did you notice that they said, “a individual title” not “an individual title”?

Again, if that was a blog post, it wouldn’t particularly concern me…but if it was a business proposal? That’s different.

This website is a business proposal.

Now, I’m not going to reject the idea because of these website issues…that would be too easy.

I think this is a fascinating concept, but I’m not sold on it.

I’ll be very interested to hear what you have to say about it.

* Thanks to a reader who gave me the heads-up on this in a private e-mail!

** By the way, in case they see this, if EPUB books are released without DRM, they can be converted for the Kindle using the free program Calibre…not a big problem, and if Unglue were to succeed, people would convert the books and make them available, most likely

*** Update: a couple of clearly intelligent and informed readers have raised the issue that there is another payment method: work for hire. I’ve talked about that before in conjunction with copyright, but it’s worth adding the idea of it to this discussion.

In a work for hire, an author is paid for work product, and typically a flat amount. That’s quite a bit different from Unglue’s idea, in my opinion, for several reasons.

In a work for hire, the author is hired to write something, not paid for something the author has already written (as is the case with Unglue). Suppose you were going to publish an encyclopedia. You went to different experts, and hired them each to write an article on a topic in their respective fields.

You sign a contract with an expert on quantum physics for a two thousand word article on the topic for a flat fee of $1,000.

You also pay an expert on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins $100 for a 250 word summary on the singer.

It doesn’t matter how many copies of the encyclopedia sell, those authors have gotten their flat fees. In that way, it is similar to Unglue.

However, the works are created at the request of the publisher: the authors were hired to write it. That’s different. In Unglue, they are talking about rights to existing books.

With Unglue, the rights go to the public…the book, under Creative Commons, can be freely copied and distributed (as long as it isn’t sold, modified, or adapted). That’s different.

Another situation that is work for hire is when your writing is part of your normal employment.

Let’s say you are a technical writer for a company. You show up from nine to five every day, and they tell you what to write that day. You get paid a regular salary…the use of your work product doesn’t affect what you get paid.

Another example: you aren’t a  writer, usually. You are…maybe a trainer. During your job, at work, you are asked to create a job aid for accomplishing a work process. You write it during your work time. You aren’t paid extra for it, and the company owns that job aid.

That can also be a bit tricky if, for example, you write a funny song for a party at work. If you did it during your work day, and your bosses knew you were doing it, the company might own that song as well. If you wrote it on your own, during your own time, and not at their request, you probably own it.

“Wok for hire” is another method of payment to authors outside the royalty model I discussed at the beginning of the article, but it has significant differences from what Unglue is proposing, the biggest one being that the work is being created at the direction of someone else.

For more information on works for hire, see this Copyright Office document:


Thanks to my readers Wyndes and Jennifer Brinn for suggesting this clarification! I’m sure some people will find it informative.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.


8 Responses to “unglue.it: a new concept in publishing”

  1. Wyndes Says:

    Work-for-hire isn’t new in publishing. I believe that’s how many old series were written: authors were basically ghost writers under a brand name. It still happens quite a bit in non-fiction (which is the market I know more about). Publishers like work-for-hire quite a lot, but most authors prefer not to go that route. Work-for-hire contracts usually offer slightly better money upfront, but it’s not great money and there’s no chance of an upside later.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Wyndes!

      I’m not quite sure: are you drawing a parallel between a work for hire and Unglue.it?

      I don’t really see that. A work for hire happens when a publisher commissions a specific work, such as a chapter in an encyclopedia. The publisher owns the copyright, typically, in a case like that. Is it because you see a flat sum payment being the same?

      In the Unglue.it concept, the book already exists. It isn’t being written to order: what is being negotiated is the rights to the book after it exists.

      Also, the author sets the price for which they are willing to release the book under the Creative Commons license…that’s also quite different from the typical ghost writer or house name* writer. Oh, my understanding, by the way, is that a ghost writer doesn’t write under a house name, but under the name of another actual person, usually…not positive on that.

      * What you were refer to as a “brand name” might more commonly be called a “house name”. As you mention, that’s how both Doc Savage (one of my favorite series) and The Avenger are published under the house name of Kenneth Robeson…even though Lester Dent, who wrote most of the Doc adventures, did not write any of The Avenger series.

  2. Jennifer Brinn Says:

    work for hire was my first thought too–though only because of your setup at the beginning. I don’t know that it is new per se, perhaps just a new package of older ideas. In fact, it is the kind of thing that pops up on Kickstarter every now and again. (Though in those cases it is to write the new things instead of releasing old ones).

    The one thing that I don’t quite understand is why you’d need a service like this–you could put the book into ebook format yourself, and do a similar thing without trusting to someone else to handle it for you.

    Though I also think that the ebook rights for backlist titles (which is what we’re talking about, since I highly doubt new authors would be able to generate enough up front sales to get anything really out of it) might be better served going the “indie author” route of self-publishing them via stuff like KIndle/Nook/ibooks, or finding their own Creative Commons plan and releasing them that way. I guess you could say I’m skeptical that Unglue.it offers anything above and beyond what’s already available–and it may be harder to get a bunch of folks to buy it up front rather than at a steady rate.

    For example, even though there are plenty of non-ebook format books I’d like to eventually have instead on my Kindle, I doubt I’d want to invest in something that may or may not happen. If I want to buy a book, I want it now–not whenever. Then again, people have gotten Kickstarter to fund works-in-progress, so I may not be the typical audience.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Jennifer!

      Well, I definitely should go back and look at the start of the article. 🙂

      You could put the book in e-book format yourself: but you wouldn’t already know you’d be paid for it, and you wouldn’t know how much you could make from it.

      It’s very different, I think, from publishing it yourself.

      Unglue: you say that for $25,000, people can reproduce it freely, as long as they don’t sell it, modify it, or adapt it. Once that much money is raised (and I think that’s the hard part), you get it…boom. Deal done.

      If you publish it yourself, you only make money back when people buy it. It’s a much higher risk, although potentially, bigger rewards over a longer period.

      With Unglue, it doesn’t matter if a single copy ever moves…you aren’t compensated on that. If a rich fan wants to toss you $5,000 to make a short story of yours available to the world for free, it doesn’t matter if nobody else wants it. That single payment could happen without Unglue. It’s if a thousand fans who want to give you $5 each, that’s what would be a real headache to manage for an author/estate. It’s the logistics and marketing of it that would be Unglue’s attraction.

      Those people who are pledging the money aren’t buying the book…they are making the book available for everybody, which will include them, but it’s not a one for one situation.

      I’ve read books I’d like everybody I know to be able to have for free…and I’d pledge more money for that than I would pay for an individual copy.

      Since (so far) two obviously intelligent, knowledgeable people aren’t seeing it clearly, it’s either my writing, or the concept may be too murky, complex, or new to market easily.

      Thanks for sharing that perspective!

  3. Eric Hellman Says:

    Thanks for writing about Unglue.it!

    Yes, we know the preview version has some unfinished bits. Yes, we know about Calibre and a whole bunch of other tools for making MOBI out of EPUB. Our philosophy has been to err on the side of transparency. The first ungluing campaign should start in late March, if we still have missing bits then, please let us know.

    Even after a year of talking about it, it still surprises me how strongly wedded people are to the idea that an ebook must always be sold by the copy. It’s not so easy to explain.

    Jennifer Brinn is right about book projects popping up frequently on Kickstarter. I’m disappointed how seldom these use creative commons, but funding a new project is very different from take a work that already exiest and has established a value and making it a public good.

    I’ve thought about the issue of people funding a book out of political advocacy. If you think about it, though, the current system rewards authors based on how easy it is to market and sell a book, which isn’t much better.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Eric!

      I appreciate you taking the time to comment here! It’s certainly an interesting idea…please keep me informed as it goes forward.

      i wouldn’t be too surprised that people have a difficult time with something that is so different. Jeff Bezos has said that, if you think long term, you have to be prepared to be misunderstood for a long time. 🙂

      I think there is a significant difference between funding a book based on its marketability and individuals funding one. In the former case, it has to appeal to a large number of people (even though it may be a specific market); in the latter, a single person could make a book available freely to everyone. There is some parallel with a political action committee’s unlimited funding…we might see the equivalent of a “Literary Action Committee”.

      That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, of course. One model doesn’t preclude the other. It’s also possible that, in the same way that Project Gutenberg exists primarily for the public good, large funding sources could work to have balanced selections.

      I’ll also point out to people who question the Unglue.it idea on the basis of ideological dominance that there are publishing houses where that is already the case. Look, for example, at Prometheus (skeptical) and Hay House (New Age). A particular type of book would not be published by one, but might be published by the other.

      One other thing: as an author, it would feel odd to say that a book is worth so much, and no more. That can be estimated somewhat with a backlist title, and I know that’s the likely focus. Still, there would be a finality to saying that it will never have a sudden huge resurgence. 🙂

  4. brenda Jenkins Says:

    Can I get a list of publishers that will just buy my books. Also I`m interested in the work for hire. Do you have a list of places that do this?

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Brenda!

      Tell me a little more about what you want to do. Are you an author who has books which have previously been traditionally published? Are you a new author?

      One group that traditionally does works-for-hire is publishers who are doing an encyclopedia. The publisher would approach an expert to write an article on a particular topic.

      A hardware manufacturer might also have technical writers who are employees.

      I think I need to know a bit more about what kind of writing you want to do.

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