At a conference in Cambridge, England, this past June, the World Oral Literature Project, a collective dedicated to mapping and preserving endangered linguistic traditions, announced the success of a recovery effort aimed at one of its own seminal texts. Ruth Finnegan’s study, Oral Literature in Africa (Oxford University Press, 1970), considered a classic in the discipline but long out of print, is being rereleased this fall in an expanded edition by the nonprofit Open Book Publishers. Aside from the usual print versions, the book—along with the photos and field recordings that helped earn Finnegan an Order of the British Empire—will be made available in electronic format for free, thanks to the literary crowdfunding site Unglue.it, through which several hundred users donated more than $7,500 to support the digital release of the work under a Creative Commons license. “It was so frustrating to me that my book has been largely unavailable to readers in Africa,” Finnegan said. “It is wonderful to think that it will now be freely read in the very continent it discusses.”
Launched in May, the Unglue.it platform uses crowdfunding—pooled contributions of varying amounts solicited from the general public—to purchase the release of existing works as free, device-agnostic e-books, a process the platform has dubbed “ungluing.” Rights holders can kick off a funding drive by specifying the amount they wish to be compensated and the time in which they hope to reach their goal. The deal is sweetened by rewarding individual donors with several tiers of “perks”—typically versions of the finished product along with the promise of recognition—based on the amount contributed. For their part, users can vote to add books to a collective “wish list” meant to nudge rights holders into offering their works up for ungluing (the current list includes titles by Douglas Adams and J. R. R. Tolkien). The model is an all-or-nothing proposition: A campaign that fails to raise the cash requested in the time allotted is called off. A successful campaign, on the other hand, results in the publication of a free electronic edition, the disbursement of swag and glory to individual supporters, and the collection of a 6 percent commission by Gluejar, the for-profit company behind Unglue.it.
The crowdsourcing strategy that Unglue.it uses should be familiar to anyone who’s followed digital culture over the last few years, but its specific application to funding and intellectual property addresses one of the principal economic questions of the shift to digital publishing: How can writers embrace the wider audiences promised by electronic distribution while making sure they can still make a living from—or are at least satisfactorily compensated for—their work? While Unglue.it trades only in existing creations, and is expressly not a publisher, more established crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, RocketHub, and Indiegogo all regularly foster book projects from their genesis. In fact, according to data collected over the past year by Publishers Weekly, Kickstarter could by some measures be considered the fourth-most-successful publisher of graphic novels in the industry—possibly even reaching as high as the number two slot, behind Marvel.
At least one major crowdfunding platform is running with that idea—and building a brand-name author list. Unbound, launched in the United Kingdom in 2011, raises cash for works-in-progress and sells the books that result. In addition to being acknowledged in the books they’ve helped fund, donors are given access to what the company calls “writers’ sheds,” areas of the platform that offer special content such as previews and interviews, or the chance to participate in discussions with the author. Unbound has so far funded titles by the likes of Stephen Fry, Terry Jones, and Graham Smith. With such an author list comes an agent-only submissions policy, but Unbound’s publisher-as-portal approach is proving to be an effective way of leveraging the participatory ethos at the core of crowdfunding.
Unglue.it, meanwhile, has cast new light on rights-management issues in digital media. Seattle writer Nancy Rawles won the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award for her coming-of-age novel Love Like Gumbo, but the work has been out of print since its original 1997 publication by the now-defunct Fjord Press. It’s currently the object of one of four active campaigns at Unglue.it. “If a young lesbian of color struggling to come out to her family wants to read a book about a young lesbian of color struggling to come out to her family,” says Rawles, “she should have it available free as an e-book rather than having to hide a hard copy between the covers.” For Rawles, as for Finnegan, a rerelease promises a second—and potentially eternal—life for a work that would otherwise languish in obscurity. But other cases are less straightforward. For instance, Stephen Black’s Obama Search Words (Blacksteps, 2009), a “collection of facts and fact-based fiction,” includes artwork by various individuals and agencies. The ongoing scramble to track down who owns what, as a disclaimer on the campaign page explains, makes both fair compensation and the ultimate composition of the reissued book (assuming the funding target is met) difficult to determine.
Still, complexities and all, crowdfunding is fast becoming part of the economic landscape—and not just in the creative industries. The model already has a champion in the Crowdfunding Professional Association (CfPA), which sponsored the first Crowdfunding Conference this past spring. With the passage of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act—expected to take effect by the new year—businesses of all stripes will be able to sell slivers of equity online, a system that supporters argue is more scalable and thus more suited to the digital age. That money is increasingly likely to come from people with more than a simply mercenary investment in the ventures they choose to support. The questions being raised—of ownership, of compensation, and of an audience’s willingness to be involved in the creative process—are ones that writers will need to become very familiar with very quickly.
[Editor's Note: Shortly after the September/October 2012 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine went to press, Amazon Payments, which previously provided payment services for Unglue.it, announced that it would no longer process pledge payments for the crowdfunding site. Unglue.it has effectively been forced to suspend all active ungluing campaigns and void pending pledge authorizations until a new payment method can be found. This does not, however, affect the Oral Literature in Africa campaign. To read the official announcement, visit the Unglue.it blog.]
Adrian Versteegh is a journalist and a MacCracken Fellow at New York University. His nonacademic writing has appeared recently in Dissent and the Brooklyn Rail.