A Different Kind of Book Trust

Peter Brantley -- August 27th, 2013

BPL book truck
Recently, Eric Hellman of Unglue.it has begun advocating for future-dated Creative commons licenses to provide greater access to digital books. The idea is that a publisher would specify a future date at which the title would be made available through a Creative Commons license; MIT Press, and a few others, have experimented with this approach This is a solid point for elaboration and experimentation. Eric has iterated the idea for his startup Unglue.it, adding the possibility for individual purchases to incrementally shorten the windowing period.

The concept is rooted in established practices in the academic journals community, where open access is often windowed after a specified period of time. For publicly funded research, particularly in the biomedical domain, 6-month to 1 -year periods are increasingly mandated by governments for release into open access and data mining. As Eric Hellman points out, the sales curve peaks fairly quickly for many books, and so a prospective Commons release of many academic titles, particularly, would do little harm in most cases to the revenue of a press.

There is a related concept, the Library License, that is evolving out of the Berkman Center at Harvard University that could potentially further tune this kind of agreement, at the loss of even more temporal precision. The Library License, which is supported in part by the Arcadia Foundation, suggests that a rightsholder release a title into library lending circulation after its sales drop below a pre-specified target value. In this way, a publisher can be reasonably sure to have captured the bulk of a title’s value, and still retain rights to others forms of exploitation, while injecting the book into library markets.

One difficulty with these ideas is how to encourage publishers to make contributions to the public good, while simultaneously raising the risk of lost revenue if a title experiences unexpected or late popularity. William Faulkner’s titles were not vibrant commercial successes, for example, until the Nobel Prize and his masterful acceptance speech thrust his writing into greater visibility. Additionally, a title with a CC-BY license, for example, could easily be picked up by for-profit aggregating ebook platforms and exploited as part of a larger package of licensed titles, without any measurable reward for the publisher of record.

It seems to me that publishers should stand the possibility of some direct gain through these arrangements, and perhaps it can be found through collectivization. If publishers committed to putting at least some of their less-well performing titles into a collective, cross-publisher platform for CC-BY licensed and DRM-free books, then several new opportunities would emerge. First, for readers, there would be a dominant point of discovery and access for CC-licensed ebooks. That would, in itself, greatly increase the visibility for these books. If a title should suddenly gain a new lease on sales, there is nothing to prevent its publisher from putting out a new authorized and improved version with the authors’ participation.

Second, and I think most compellingly, a collectivizing service, perhaps run by a neutral third party such as ARL, BISG, or as a grant-funded initiative of such an industry organization, could provide otherwise unharvestable data back to publishers. For that matter, unglue.it is itself close to being able to do this. Pooling reading and usage data across different kinds of titles, and enabling data and semantic mining across the text corpus, enables a useful range of analytics to be made available to participating publishers that they would never be able to obtain on their own. If this new CC “book trust” supported web-based reading, new user services could also be created.

Recently, Safari Books Online launched Safari Flow, a new service which permits readers to find the most relevant parts of texts for each reader, creating recommendations based on expressed interests and past usage. As Peter Collingridge, the VP of Product states, “What’s different about Safari Flow is how it analyzes reading behavior to find the TL;DR for each title.”

Creating an aggregating CC-licensed book trust could enable the formation of similar services, and they would provide value back to both readers and publishers. And, through the umbrella of CC-licensing and the leverage of a third-party organization, collectivization of publisher interests could be achieved. The idea is perhaps more impracticable than Eric Hellman’s, but as his detailed investigations into book markets suggest, we are on the verge of creating new ways to find value in books that we love.

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