The Wealth of LibriVox

Classic texts, amateur audiobooks, and the grand future of online peer production

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In the dim, humid basement of his Maryland home, Michael Scherer, a tall 38-year-old with the long, square beard of a mandolin player or a monk, leans toward a rebuilt Russian tube microphone, desperate for silence so he can begin recording a 200-year-old essay by an American founding father. Even in the makeshift studio he has constructed, with thick blankets hanging from nails in the joists and the basement windows plugged with fiberglass, the sounds of lawnmowers, car alarms, birds, air conditioners, and children kicking balls in the street still intrude. "I have to hold on a minute here—there's a, there's a truck," he says. A few seconds later, the truck passes, and he reads in his deep, resonant voice, "The Federalist." He stops, clears his throat, and begins again. "The Federalist, No. 19."

Scherer posts some of his recordings to LibriVox, an online community of several thousand people all over the world who read and record public domain books, then post them as podcasts that can be downloaded for free. Some LibriVoxers read; others proof, tag, and catalog the sound files, greet newbies, or manage ongoing book projects. After about a year and a half, LibriVox's catalog contains more than 400 completed works, including novels, poems, histories, travel books, and plays, making it one of the largest audiobook publishers. The goal? To record every book in the public domain, which means everything published before 1923.

In a story about free audio books last August, The New York Times lumped LibriVox in with more centralized sites whose free downloads are funded by nonprofits. On Libri­Vox, the fact the recordings are free is but a fortunate by-product of a larger process with broader economic and philosophical implications. LibriVox is an example of what the Yale legal scholar Yochai Benkler—author of The Wealth of Networks, an influential analysis of "open source" economic networks—calls "commons-based peer production." It's a commons because it has no links to the marketplace in which goods and services are exchanged for money and because nothing is proprietary. It's peer production because its volunteers coordinate their activities themselves without a traditional workplace hierarchy.

LibriVox does not just aggregate the efforts of dispersed individuals but taps into the weird, selfish, idiosyncratic, or inscrutable passions that motivate them. Take Scherer, a former radio announcer. During the day, he works for a contractor for the Library of Congress' Books for the Blind program. But reading westerns doesn't feed his taste for canonical political texts—he was raised Catholic—so in his spare time, he also records the catechisms of American democracy: the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and, one by one, all 85 essays in The Federalist Papers.

Scherer's recording compulsion began when he lived in Chicago in the late 1990s and read to his girlfriend at night. Surprised to find he liked it, he married the woman and auditioned for reading jobs. One early gig was recording the entire Bible for the Sisters of St. Paul, a 66-CD project that has never been published in its entirety. Despite the Good Book's age, Scherer can't release it on his own because translations are copyrighted.

Another LibriVox contributor —she has read the fourth chapter of Alice in Wonderland and parts of Ulysses—is known solely by her pseudonym, Miette. She has a British accent and a voice so silky one might consider paying to hear it. Months before LibriVox came along, she and an insomniac friend were reading short stories to each other on the telephone around bedtime. He kicked his sleeping problems. She didn't. She kept reading to him anyway, recording the stories and sending them to her friend via email, then posting them to the Web. Word of the website spread, and she soon found herself with 1,000 or so fans she couldn't shake. One of the few details about herself that Miette will divulge is that she also writes fiction, and that she records to preserve the endangered arts of oral storytelling and short fiction. Among LibriVoxers she's famous for readings that are spiced, if not interrupted, with the sounds of real life. "When I flub a word I'll swear, and I do very little editing," she says. "That stays in the podcast, because if I were reading it to you I wouldn't take it out." (She recently re-recorded a story for the first time because even she acknowledged that her dog was eating too loudly.)

LibriVox has been enthusiastically embraced by people in the free culture movement, which aims to create and disseminate nonproprietary art, music, movies, software, and other cultural forms. It has also been touted as a model of how methods for making open source software—programs, such as the operating system Linux and the Internet browser Firefox, that are built by disparate volunteers and can be used by anyone for free—can be applied to nonsoftware projects. Of course, such collective work isn't frictionless, and egos, fatigue, and finances factor in. But it doesn't promote homogeneity, and it's not Socialism 2.0. What you get with LibriVox is time-tested literature mashed up with all sorts of voices—young, old, male, female, cracked, smooth, British, Southern, Brooklyn—and performances that range from confident to awkward. The recordings aren't without charm: They opt for the authenticity of the podcast over the polish of the radio, thereby reminding the listener of more intimate settings, such as a mother reading to a child. The policy at LibriVox is that if you don't like a recording, you're invited to do a version of your own.

Passionate human effort shines through. Jon Udell, who blogs at Infoworld, listened to LibriVox's version of Jack London's The Call of the Wild early on and enthused about the project. "I realized," he wrote in 2006, "that part of what I cherish is that these recordings aren't commercial products. They're pure expressions of a love of literature, and a desire to share that love."

LibriVox began in a vibrant section of Montreal called the Plateau, where 32-year-old Hugh McGuire lives with his wife. In the summer of 2005, he went looking for free audio books in MP3 format to bring on a six-hour road trip to his best friend's wedding. Only one looked appealing: Lady Chatterley's Lover, which a New York artist and freelance sound engineer, Jan McLaughlin, was podcasting. McGuire listened to the eight chapters she had finished but was left hanging; it would take her agonizing months to complete the remaining 11 chapters.

McGuire hangs out at Laika, a café and bar around the corner from his house that is popular with Montreal techies. At Laika, open source gurus, community WiFi evangelists, and A-list Web designers drink coffee, eat brunch, work on their laptops, and swap ideas. McGuire, a former mechanical engineer who speaks both English and French, had been a climate change activist but quit his job at a finance company selling carbon emissions futures to write a novel. At Laika he picked up the open source bug, and when he came back from the road trip he wondered if he could organize people to read the remaining chapters of Lady Chatterley's Lover. In fact, he thought, if they could do one Lawrence novel, they could do them all. And why stop there? They could do every book. Well, every public domain book, anyway.

The project couldn't sell anything, he decided, not even itself. It was not a start-up looking to get bought but a project to, as he puts it, "grow the public sphere"—the range of spaces where people share their views, take political action, and shape other opinions. It wouldn't attack the commercial system but grow parallel to it. Sitting in Laika, McGuire points out the window to Saint-Laurent Street, a bustling commercial area with shops, restaurants, and clubs. "If you build the public space the right way," he says, "you can get a lot of commercial activity around it."

McGuire admits that he's had a lifelong interest in lost causes, but something told him this wasn't another one. He set up a blog and earnestly began recruiting readers. One of the first volunteers was a 37-year-old mother in California, Kara Shallenberg, who read about LibriVox on the popular blog Boing Boing. She had long made audio books for her 9-year-old homeschooled son and wanted to share the recordings but couldn't because of copyright. "Now," she says, "I can share what I record with the whole world." Shallenberg has contributed "dozens and dozens of chapters" to LibriVox, from The Road to Oz, Heidi, Dracula, Treasure Island, and Machiavelli's The Prince, all on a $25 microphone.

Shallenberg has become a technical den mother to newbie LibriVoxers, proofing recordings and tagging them so they can be found when users search the site. She receives fan mail from knitters, homeschoolers, and little kids. Wrote one woman, "hi…i am a sahm [stay at home mother], and am homeschooling my daughter (10), i could not get her to read any of the books on her book report list. i wanted to say thank you. she listened to the first chapter of heidi yesterday and has now read the next 2 chapters on her own. thank you so much.…i just wanted to encourage you and your effort." Someone else wrote, "I just can not believe that this kind of project in such a big level can even be conceptualised, it proves that money and market does not rule every sphere of our pleasure!!!"

To people in the $800 million commercial audio book industry, LibriVox looks like a hobby group that will only drive listeners to professional audio books. David Joseph, vice president for marketing at Audible.com—the biggest distributor of audio books, with 30,000 titles—praises the concept of LibriVox. But when it comes time to listen, he says, "I get distracted by the quality of the narration, whether they have a Southern accent or are putting emphasis on certain areas; that distracts me a little, as does the tinny sound." He also argues that readers prefer the professional interface of Audible and similar sites, which allow bookmarking and other features.

Listening to LibriVox, you do confront questions of quality. But it's not an issue of whether the recordings possess it; it's what sort of quality you want. Early on, McGuire decided not to reject any readers except for very basic technical reasons. This can be somewhat awkward in practice: It takes an effort to get used to some voices; the listener has to overlook flubs that haven't been edited; and some readers attempt to dramatize their voices in ways that fall embarrassingly flat. But this wobbly amateurishness has a charm that commercial offerings don't, and can't, offer. McGuire is convinced that people are hungry to connect with cultural products that reveal the hands, or the voices, that made them.

On the other hand, for as much good will as LibriVoxers show each other (the forums sparkle with cheery throw-your-shoulder-to-the-wheel sentiments), they don't pay that much attention to listeners. You can click on titles in the catalog and read the entire online discussion that took place produce it, but the conversation is there mostly so volunteers can track the status of projects they've worked on. It's not that they don't care about listeners, McGuire and other Libri­Voxers will tell you; it's that LibriVox, as its most fundamental level, isn't about consumption. It's about making stuff.

Infoworld's Udell acknowledges that listening to LibriVox entails some tradeoffs. But "once you open this up to a universe of a billion or more producers, at a certain point there's going to be someone who cares enough about this book to do a really good job. The quality argument is germane, but if I were Audible, I wouldn't hang my hat on it."

Jimmy Wales, the founder of the user-generated online encyclopedia Wikipedia, was another early fan of LibriVox. "It's natural Audible would say that," Wales says. "It's a standard response from people doing proprietary stuff." Part of their model, he says, is an assumption that talent in the world is rare and must be gathered, protected, and developed by studios. But if talent is actually much more widely dispersed, that means that the studio system has effectively embargoed the dissemination of cultural products, keeping the price artificially high. Such embargoes can be circumvented through collaborative projects like LibriVox or a related project, Musopen, that records and archives performances of public domain music, much of which languishes unrecorded because it has too little commercial value.

LibriVox could still founder if core volunteers such as McGuire or Shallenberg were to burn out or if participants felt they were being exploited. But even if LibriVox were to disappear, something else would take its place, because it's not a fad. As Benkler explains in The Wealth of Networks, commons-based peer production projects like LibriVox and Wikipedia are sure to become more common. All the work, he notes, is done on personal computers, whose costs don't need to be recouped by households as they would be in corporations. Furthermore, the raw materials—public domain books—can be used for free. And the work can be segmented or chunked, which makes volunteering more appealing because people can choose their level of involvement. For Benkler, producing culture and sharing information are intrinsic human activities that would exist at some level regardless of the technology. But with the technologies we have now, they're much more widespread. "Part of the popularity of LibriVox is that it's not about computers, even though it's enabled by computers," McGuire says.

So how will the commercial world interact with the public street that LibriVoxers have built? "The whole question of how commercial firms interface with commons-based peer production is a hugely important subject," Benkler says. It's unlikely that LibriVox would ever put a dent in Audible's annual $63 million business, but it represents a strong, deep undercurrent for books and reading that commercial publishers should find promising. Benkler suggests a scenario in which the LibriVox model is enlisted to resurrect the commercial potential of books that are no longer in their prime. Of all the books published in the last 84 years, only those published in 1923 have entered the public domain, even though less than 2 percent of all those books have remained in print for more than a year. This means there's a huge literary stockpile of out-of-print books trapped by copyright that the mass market can't justify re-releasing but which might be attractive to niche groups. A niche group, that is, like LibriVox.

One big publisher, sitting on a treasure trove of travel books or romances, could make them available to LibriVox (or a peer production group like it) under an increasingly popular form of intellectual property protection called a Creative Commons license, aimed at making copyright more flexible. The group could be authorized to record and release books, making them available for free. That might help a publisher see what items on the backlist should be resuscitated. Once drawn out of the woodwork and energized, the peer production groups could also be mobilized by publishing houses as grassroots support for new authors, much as indie rock bands depend on a devoted fan base. Benkler acknowledges that it's still unlikely that a major trade publisher will allow such a project, but academic publishers might be more willing to experiment with using books as platforms for other activities from which they do not profit directly. If they're successful, the majors will recognize that building such communities creates value and follow suit. Benkler's own book, published by Yale University Press, is available in PDF form on a website, and he encourages people to translate or digest chapters.

One chapter of Benkler's book already has been recorded by Michael Scherer, who eventually moved his studio into a monastery for the silence he needed to finish The Federalist Papers. He takes such care with the recordings because he wants to do them as well as he can, building an archive at his own site, americanaphonic.com. "I want to make money," he says. "But that doesn't go through my head when I think about what to put up. I try to think of, what do I want people to hear?"

Michael Erard is a writer in Austin, Texas.