Bartleby.com Reworks Free E-Book Model

By O'Leary, Mick | Information Today, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Bartleby.com Reworks Free E-Book Model


O'Leary, Mick, Information Today


This site provides access to the latest reference books and classic literature

We've heard a lot about e-books lately: Stephen King's Riding the Bullet, the purchase of NuvoMedia and SoftBook Press by TV Guide publisher Gemstar, the many deals signed by netLibrary, and so on. Don't think that this is a shallow fad that will blow over and be replaced by the next wannabe killer app. The question is not "If?" but "When?" The result will occur not later, but sooner, and won't be big, but bigger.

A lot of things are falling into place to ensure the future of e-books. Publishers are involved--on their own and with technology partners--in all sorts of distribution projects. (Compare this to the reactive, tide-resisting state of the music industry.) Standards are emerging. Hand-held reader technology is progressing rapidly. Varied e-book business models are being tested.

Despite a mixture of concern and dismay on the part of print lovers, the public is interested. Once electronic readers improve and distribution channels expand, e-books will sprout as quickly as cell phones. (Please, don't read and drive.) E-books will become just too convenient and efficient to resist, especially when it comes to textbooks, reference books, and professional reading material. These types may be the vanguard, with others surely to follow.

Just make sure to watch the prices with great suspicion. We'd hate to see another industrywide swindle like with music CDs--a new, cheaper-to-produce medium often results in a doubling of the product's cost. Pricing was my chief complaint in last year's review of netLibrary (Information Today, September 1999, page 15). How can you have no costs for production, shipping, storage, and returns, yet charge nearly the full price?

Bartleby.com

E-books are not a recent phenomenon. Project Gutenberg, perhaps the very first e-book publisher, dates to the beginning of the mass-computing age. It started in 1971 as an experiment in digitizing and distributing text documents. Its first publication, the Declaration of Independence, may lay claim to being the first e-book (among its other distinctions). Project Gutenberg has grown to a collection of 3,000 public-domain fiction and nonfiction classics that are widely and freely distributed over the Internet.

Bartleby.com is another free e-book project that dates to the beginning of the Web age. Like Project Gutenberg, Bartleby.com digitizes public-domain classics and puts them on its Web site for free (http://www.bartleby.com). Unlike Project Gutenberg, which has closely followed its original model (and is now moving very slowly), Bartleby has gotten creative with the notion of free e-books. This year it broke out of the limiting concept of public-domain titles by adding brand-new, copyrighted content and providing some nice editorial added-value, all free of charge.

Like Project Gutenberg, Bartleby.com is the outgrowth of one person's vision, based on a love of books. Steven H. van Leeuwen, a medical editor, published Leaves of Grass on the Web in 1994 as a personal experiment in distributing classic literature for free. The Site itself is named for the protagonist of Herman Melville's story Bartleby the Scrivener (in the quill-pen days, a scrivener copied texts for lawyers). Bartleby.com was incorporated in 1999 and this year remade its business model, yet it remains committed to the notion of free, quality information.

Mining the Public Domain

Bartleby.com contains approximately 12 dozen books. It concentrates on 19th-and early-20th century English and American writers, and includes verse, fiction, drama, and nonfiction. In these respects it's much smaller and more limited than Project Gutenberg, which starts with the Classical period and includes non-English-language authors.

The strongest part of the Bartleby collection is poetry, with 38 books by 22 authors. It has the complete poems of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Dickinson, as well as major collections of Whitman, Frost, Lawrence, Yeats, and Eliot. …

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