Unglue.it – Eric Hellman & Andromeda Yelton

This is Circulating Ideas, I’m Steve Thomas. My guests today are Eric Hellman and Andromeda Yelton from Unglue.it, the site that allows crowdsourcing to free e-books from DRM and the license through Creative Commons. You can find them online at Unglue.It.

Eric and Andromeda, thank you for joining me on the show today.

[Andromeda] Thanks for having us.

[Eric] My pleasure.

The first question I wanted to ask was probably the most important one and that’s for Andromeda and I need to know is, if Carl Kasell is still the voice on your home answering machine.

[laughs] Carl Kasell is the voice on my husband’s voicemail. It was my Christmas present to him a few years ago.

And if people want to know more about that, you wrote a nice little blog post up a couple of years ago about that, of being on late, late.

I did, in fact there’s complete instructions on my blog if anyone wants to know how to accomplish the same.

And they, they, I listened to it and they tried to, they gave you a little bit of trouble about your name, but.

[laughs] Yeah, that, that was the day we had final projects in a library school class which had all been deleted 24 hours in advance, so it’s possible I wasn’t thinking on my feet as much as I would have liked to have been.

Okay. Well let’s get started on talking about Unglue.it. Eric, it kind of came from, it was sort of your little brainchild. Can you tell me how that first came to your mind that this is something that you wanted to do?

Well it came from, I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted to do after I left OCLC three years ago and I decided to take my time and started blogging and everything was all about e-books and libraries and the Google books settlement and everything and so I, I just, I spent a while and started talking to people and found out all sorts of things about e-books that I didn’t know before and I realized that, that somebody needed to figure out a way to make e-books into public, to part of the public sector for e-books. To allow books that were still worth something to join the pantheon of the world’s greatest literature that’s currently in the public domain and it’s going to take a hundred years or so to get some of the in-copyright stuff into the public domains. So the second best thing is the public commons and create a commons license that, so that’s what we’re doing.

And did you, how did you come up with the name?

Well that’s an interesting story. The name of the company is Gluejar. All we’re doing is Unglue It but the name Gluejar dates back to 2006 when I sold Openly Informatics to OCLC and OCLC bought the business, the assets, the employees, the customers and the company name but not the company itself. And so I had to come up with a new name for the corporate entity and I asked, I used a very expensive naming consultant, namely my 12 year old son, and he helped me come up with the name Gluejar, cause he asked me well, what should it mean? And I said it’s just gonna contain stuff and I like sticking things together and he said, oh, how about Goojar, that sounds good. And so I checked to see if Goojar was available and I found out that it was the name of a people in India so probably wouldn’t be a good name and then we just modified the Goo to Glue and then we had Gluejar and I thought it was a fun nickname so Gluejar just sat around for, for three or four years, not doing anything except just being there and having a bank account and when we were trying to figure out a name for this new project, to crowdfund Creative Commons e-books, we tried a lot of names and they were kind of stupid and we thought, hey why don’t we use the glue from the company name to make up a new verb for this process that we’re doing so that instead of saying well we’re crowdfunding payments to raise folders to convert published books into creative commons e-books, instead we can just say we’re ungluing books, which is fine. And so that’s what we’re doing.

And so, how much did your naming consultant charge you?

He didn’t charge me anything, but he’s very expensive because I’m paying tuition at USC, he’s a freshman there.

So, so after you got an idea what you wanted to do, how did you put your team together? I imagine some sort of mission impossible scenario, but I’m don’t know if it’s that exciting.

No it’s not very exciting [laughs]. It, Andromeda can tell you her story.

[laughs] I mean I had met Eric because we go to the same parties at ALA and subsequently followed each others’ blogs so pretty much my first memory of my future boss was having a conversation with him under a 12 foot sparkling silver shoe in a gay bar in DC. But, we followed each others’ blogs, we talked and then he was founding this company and I thought it sounded like it was really fun and  I was really jealous that people would get to do fun start up things but I had just graduated from library school and didn’t really feel like I had the skills that he was looking for and left a sad comment to that effect on his blog.  And a couple of weeks later I got, I think a DM from you on Twitter to the effect of why didn’t you have my resume yet. So I sent you my resume instantaneously [laughs] and it kind of went from there.

And what is your role now in the company, Andromeda?

Well, I do whatever needs doing that nobody else is doing. So, I mean librarians are generalists right? And we have, we have the very clear software engineer person who’s Raymond and we have Amanda who is the very clear, knows the publishing industry and Eric runs around doing president-y stuff which is also a little bit of a lot of different things and then I just do whatever isn’t under those rubrics. So, I do web development which is something I had never done before I worked here. I do social media and public speaking and writing and rallying the internets and talking to librarians and listening to librarians and hand-holding our rights holders and pretty much whatever seems to need to be done.

And how did Amanda and Raymond come into the mix Eric, did you know them already? Or Andromeda did you know them?

I knew Raymond from quite a number of years ago and I’d always admired his work and I, when I put out the word that I was looking for someone, he stuck his hand up and I said, hey, that’s amazing. Signing a book industry person was a lot harder and so I advertised in some book industry places and the reason it’s so hard is that the book industry is so mature that everybody is really specialized and they know one thing really, really well and that doesn’t work very well in a start up cause we need people who can be very broad and Amanda had immediately understood what we were doing and had the experience doing rights and had the experience that university presses and had the experience as a literary agent and so she’s been a good fit.

And about how long do you think it took from the real, once the idea had solidified into what you really wanted to do from that point to actually getting up and running?

Oh we had our first meeting I think in, on the hottest day of the century in, what was it, a year ago in July.

Something like that.


We’d already been working before then though.

We’d been working but we sort of, the crystallization of the concepts of what we were doing came out of that in person meeting and we’re a virtual company. We all work from home from four different states and it’s really important to have those in-person meetings to hash out the, the uncertainties and make, everyone clear as to what we’re doing.

And from that point we engaged some people to help us with the software and the design and so we had our preview version ready in, we let people see that in January of this year and then, then we had a, our first go-around with payment providers. We waited forever for Paypal to approve us and they ended up never, they kept on coming back to us with updates and never quite approved us.. In April I decided it was long enough and switched to Amazon Payments and so we had that up and running and we launched it in May and we had our first campaign success in June and in August, Amazon shut us off and we had to go through the whole payment thing once again and we relaunched with Stripe as our payment provider in October and then it’s been about a month now that we’ve been back in business.

And are things going pretty smoothly with Stripe so far?

Yeah, the only thing to monitor what’s going on with Stripe is far better than with Amazon Payments and so, we’re a lot more comfortable with the way things are going with Stripe.

And the, the one campaign you had that was successful under Amazon, did all that go smoothly? The, with that one campaign? I mean all the payments went through and everything as it was supposed to?

Yeah, of course we learned a lot never having done that before, but we raised $7,500 and sent a check off to the rights holder, that was a nice feeling.

Can you guys, one or the other of you kind of go over the broad over, we’ve kind of given a broad overview of what Unglue is doing. Can you get a little more specific about, I know you have to use the words like rights holders instead of authors because you’re dealing with people, you’re dealing with copyright things and like that, but how exactly a book goes from, how you choose a book to be unglued and how it gets through that process?

Well, we don’t choose books to be unglued, we’re not a gatekeeper, we’re not a, we don’t consider ourselves to be publishers although we do take on some of the chores that are usually done by publishers. We see our role as being advocates for the supporters and making sure that people who run campaigns really do have the rights to release something as creative commons and that they have the wherewithal to deliver a good technical quality digital book file. So if we’re confident of those two things, we don’t select based on what the book is. We don’t consider that to be our job because how do we know what the people will support? The people who support the campaigns, they’re the ultimate gatekeepers.

And the first book that you had that was successful was the Oral History of Africa and that was, can you talk a little about that book, how that came to your notice and how that became one of the first books you used?

Well it’s a funny story, [laughs] like many of these things. Half of the campaigns we’ve run have been ones that we’ve sought out. The other half are increasingly the new ones are authors and publishers that have sought us out, but the Oral History of Africa was a case where it happened both ways. I learned about Open Book Publisher in January and sent them, and while my email was going across the Atlantic, an email from Open Book Publishers was going to me saying hey, we just learned about Unglue.it, we have this perfect project for you. And it was like it was meant to be.

And so, Andromeda, have you done a lot of work working with libraries? Have you worked with libraries to try to get the books that are unglued into the libraries? Or are you guys just making them available and libraries should seek you out if they want to have them in their collections?

No, we’ve definitely been working with them so with Oral Literature in Africa, we got help from Aaron Leech who’s actually a cataloger to generate a MARC record so that as soon as it was unglued, people could put it into their collections and that MARC record links straight to the unglued e-book edition at Internet Archive and then OCLC and Sky River both picked that up and yeah, I talked to a bunch of librarians about the fact that record existed and a bunch of libraries put it immediately into their collection and it was really gratifying cause that’s what you really want, is to see the book out in the world where people can use it.

And that’s bringing up something too. You said all the files then will be hosted on Internet Archive, is that right?

That’s right, although since they’re creative commons license, people are welcome to copy them, to shift them to other formats, to host them on whatever servers they like, so if you have a preservation strategy preferred you can do that. We’ve been talking to Locks about preserving stuff with them too, so we hope that they’re going to be safe in perpetuity.

That’s great. So, but then when people go to your site and download it, that copy that they’re downloading is coming from Internet Archives is that correct?

Yeah, that’s our reference copy is there.

Okay. And I believe also you guys don’t, do you do any work with helping people put together their e-book? Or do they need to come to you with a ready to go package?

Yeah, we do quality control, but we ask them to do that themselves and there’s a lot of third-party vendors that will help you make an e-pub if you don’t already have one. So we ask them just to think about that when they’re thinking about their campaign price if there’s going to be conversion costs, they’re going to need to cover. Of course Open Book Publishers already does e-books, so they have no problem coming up with a really beautiful e-book edition.

And another new feature you guys just rolled out is that you have the send-to-Readmill function. Can one of you talk about that a little bit? About how that works and how you came to have that relationship?

Readmill it’s, how would you describe it, it’s a social network of readers and they have a really nice reading application for the iPad and I had met the founder last year and the he saw we had released the book and he said hey, why don’t you add this button that we’ve developed that will make it really easy to, for people to download to their reading environment if they’re using Readmill. And I tried it out and it was really great, so, so we put that button in. So, one click of a button uploads the book into Readmill reading environment.

And I think one of the things that’s worth noting about Readmill is because it’s not linked to any particular publisher’s reading ecosystem, it really needs e-books without DRM and this is an example of the kind of thing that you can do if you have e-books that aren’t locked down to a particular reading ecosystem. So it’s nice to be able to facilitate those kinds of conversations about books that aren’t necessarily facilitated by the walled gardens we usually have.

And right now and before the Amazon shutdown, you guys had five books up, I know you’ve got five books up now. Is that going to be the general thing? You’re going to have five books campaigns going at the same time, at one time?

I’d like to have five thousand.

There’s no set number that’s to be going at one time?


Can you all talk about what books are being campaigned right now?

What are we excited about? Andromeda, you go.

What are we excited about? I mean there’s. This is a library audience. I’m excited about Lauren Pressley’s book that is in progress right now, So You Want To Be A Librarian which is geared at library students, prospective library school students and it really gives an overview of the types of jobs in the field and the issues in librarianship which I’m sure your listeners are familiar with because you’ve interviewed Lauren Pressley before. And I just have this fantasy vision of this book being available for download on every library school admissions site, or advising program because it lets them further their mission and it lets the field recruit people who might be interested in librarianship and that’s something that you can do with a creative commons licensed book that you can’t do if you had to pay for every single copy individually. So I’m really hoping that we can get librarians excited about ungluing something that is really for the benefit of librarianship.

And conversely, if people think they want to be a librarian, but really when they find out what the job is then they realize that it wasn’t for them, if a book like this can help people make decisions correctly, think of how valuable that is, that could be to someone.

Right. And was Lauren one of the cases that she came to you, or did you seek her out?

Yeah, we were a couple of tables down from the publisher at ALA and just kept crossing paths.


Literally. Yeah we hung out, it was fun.

So you might say it was another book that fate brought to us.

Exactly. And I did want to ask, one thing, I know one of the models that Eric you wrote about is that you’re sort of using the public radio model, that they are big, fixed costs up front but then once you’ve paid those costs, there’s nothing beyond that really, but there’s some low costs, but that’s one of the ways you came up with your idea and another thing that you’re doing in that same mindset is that you’ve being very transparent about your finances. Can you talk about why you want to be open like that? What the philosophy is behind that?

Well I think that it’s, you’re asking people to support books and you have to gain their trust and to gain people’s trust, you need to be very open and transparent about what you’re doing. So, it seems very simple to me.

You talked about your staff as over on four different states and I know you wrote on the blog that makes an insurance nightmare for you, but how often do you guys then get together in person? I know you got together that one time last summer, but how many times have you gotten together since then? Or do you have plans to get together again in person, all of you?

Well at the beginning, we were getting together every month. We got washed out by one hurricane [laughs] and we got together a couple of times and once you’ve develop a relationship with people, you don’t really need as much in-person. Our last time all together was after ALA Annual. We went out to my aunt’s house in the desert and hung for a while and we’re doing to do something similar in Seattle.

Andromeda, how has it been working in this virtual way worked out for you​?

You know it’s, it’s fascinating. People ask me questions like where’s the company and I sort of stare at them blankly, which you couldn’t have done five years ago. Working remotely has pros and cons. I think in general it’s pretty neat though because you can work where you want, when you want to a very large extent. It’s a lot of flexibility which is nice and humane. It is a little weird that your coworkers are voices on the internet, or in a chatroom, but you don’t run into them at a water cooler and I find you have to, you have to go out of your way to have trivial conversations for the sort of things that would come up automatically if you were working face-to-face and that turn out to be super-important for building culture. But it always feels like in a work chatroom, you’re only supposed to be talking about important things and that’s actually not true. It’s very interesting. Like how do you build culture when it doesn’t happen automatically and how do you find tools that support that and have to think really consciously about problems that you might not have to think consciously about face-to-face. But, it’s really very cool to be able to just, I feel like working from the coffee house today, okay, done.

And you guys are active yourselves and through the company on social media. Is there somebody in particular that’s in charge of that for the Unglue.it account? Does somebody in particular take care of those accounts? For Facebook, Twitter, all that kind of stuff?

There are three of us who post to the Unglue.it Twitter account. But, we all have our own Twitter handles and our own audiences, so. I think a lot of the water cooler stuff for us happens on Twitter and there are a lot of other tools that we’ve been using that didn’t exist three or four years ago, that really make what we’re doing possible now.

Do you guys have some more campaigns getting ready to roll out once the current ones reach their ends? Is there anything that you can talk about? Or do you not want to talk about upcoming campaigns?

We usually don’t talk about the campaigns before they launch and we have, there’s one I’m not sure when it’s going to launch, but it sounds like soon. We’ll launch them whenever they’re ready, or whenever the rights holder, author or publisher, wants to start it. So.

And we are, of course, always happy to talk to other authors and publishers who are interested in ungluing and they should drop us a line at rights@gluejar.com if they have a book that they’d like to see a campaign for too.

Yeah, I was just about ask how can people get in touch with you if they have more questions? [laughs]

I guess rights@gluejar.com if they have questions about actual, if they’re a rights holder and they want to unglue a book, support@gluejar.com for technical inquiries, or they could just email us, we’re Eric and Andromeda respectively.

The support guarantees you’ll get someone who will actually respond to it.

Yeah, several of us monitor support, so it’s, it’s easier to get things turned around there quickly.

Andromeda and Eric, thank you so much for being on the show with me today and telling me all about Unglue.it and I hope everybody will go to the site and support a campaign, especially with this audience, Lauren’s book.

Well, thanks for having us on the air.


Thanks, bye bye.