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Start-Up Hopes to Create Free Digital Versions of Published Books

Photo courtesy of Open Book Publishers

Over the years, Ruth Finnegan, anthropologist and professor at England’s Open University, has received dozens of e-mails from African scholars asking for access to her 1970 work Oral Literature in Africa. Though hailed as a classic and a definitive study, the book is now out of print; as a result, Ms. Finnegan has always declined such requests.

But now Ms. Finnegan is working to get the book digitally back in circulation, by collaborating with Unglue.it, a Kickstarter-inspired publishing start-up that opened last month. Oral Literature is featured as one of the site’s five inaugural campaigns, which ask users to pledge money toward “ungluing” each previously published work. If the campaign is successful, Oral Literature will be available as a free, legal e-book, downloadable from anywhere in the world.

Ungluing “is not really buying the rights, and it’s not really buying the license,” said Eric Hellman, Unglue.it’s founder. “It’s compensating the rights-holder in exchange for them releasing something with Creative Commons.”

Like Kickstarter, the site operates on the premise of crowdfunding, where users pledge monetary support. If a campaign reaches the target amount, which is set by the publisher, the pledgers will be billed and the work will be available under the new license.

In the case of Oral Literature, the rights reverted to Ms. Finnegan about four years ago. Before then, she did not have a digital copy of her book and was unable to distribute it; recently, she has sent some of her work to inquiring scholars in Microsoft Word format.

But Ms. Finnegan is eager to see the book back in print, so more people can find it. She is working with Open Book Publishers, which will manager the actual production if the fund-raising campaign is successful. Open Book is a British open-access publisher that publishes academic books in e-book and free online editions, in addition to hardback and paperback versions.

According to Rupert Gatti, co-director of Open Book Publishers, e-books have great potential for widespread distribution. While Ms. Finnegan is already free to republish Oral Literature in any way she wishes, “ungluing” the book under the Creative Commons license would mean that anyone would be able to reproduce, translate, or republish the work, as long as they credit her, he said.

Open Book has set the “ungluing” price at $7,500 to offset the cost of creating a new edition with audio, images, and reformatted text, said Mr. Gatti.

Ms. Finnegan said she believed that the new digital format would also help facilitate the book’s distribution in Africa. Though Oral Literature was once made available as a paperback in countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa, she doubts that it was ever widely distributed there.

“This is the work of my life, and I feel like I was born for this—to have this book on open access and downloadable, free, for the first time for scholars in Africa,” she said.

So far, Oral Literature is the most successful of Unglue.it’s five inaugural campaigns. The campaign to unglue Joseph Nassise’s horror novel Riverwatch has raised only 5 percent of the $15,000 necessary; the campaign ends June 29. A campaign to unglue the children’s book Cat and Rat by Melinda Thompson has raised 1 percent of the $25,000, with the campaign ending August 31.

As of June 19, the campaign to unglue Oral Literature has raised $6,627, or 88 percent, of the $7,500 goal. The campaign ends this Thursday, June 21.

Mr. Gatti said that Open Book would like to release the book even if the campaign is unsuccessful. The next step would be to seek money from alternative sources, he said, though these opportunities are limited and such a release would be under a more restrictive license and wouldn’t include new audio-visual material. Ms. Finnegan added that she would also be interested in posting the work on her Web site for free.

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