Jim Fruchterman - Part 2
George Kerscher was a key advisor as we got this off the ground...he pointed out that the DAISY format was going to support text-only ebooks. So, we immediately adopted DAISY as our core format for Bookshare.
(This is the second part of a two-part story)
Empowerment and sharing—two of the principles upon which Bookshare is based. Since the Bookshare launch in early 2002, Jim Fruchterman has driven a concept inspired by his 14 year old son to an accessible online library like no other. Jim closes Part 2 of his story with the words "And, there's so much more to be done!" He is right, and there is no doubt that Jim Fruchterman will play a major role in bringing information access to the next level.
In early 2000, I sold the Arkenstone 'reading machine for the blind' business to Freedom Scientific, which at the same time also acquired Henter Joyce (maker of the JAWS screen reader) and Blazie Engineering (the leading U.S. Braille notetaker maker). We changed the name of our nonprofit organization to Benetech and set forth to use technology to serve humanity. We now have projects in both the human rights and environmental conservation fields, but our first online disability project was inspired when my 14-year old son introduced me to Napster. Having developed the Arkenstone reading systems, we understood that the last thing that people with a print disability wanted to do when they wanted to read a book was to spend three hours scanning it first.
Thinking about Napster, I realized that the next logical next step was to create an Internet-based service for sharing scanned books. When the next Harry Potter book came out, instead of thousands of Arkenstone users spending four hours each to scan it themselves, one person could scan it and one person could proofread it. Think of the thousands of hours of menial labor we'd be saving, and the end product would be more accurate than thousands of raw uncorrected scans.
But could this business model possibly be legal, since the analogous Napster was clearly illegal? Fortunately, both in terms of my dream and Benetech, yes, it could. U.S. copyright law includes an exception allowing a very narrow group of nonprofits and government agencies to create books in disability-specific, accessible formats for people whose bona fide disabilities kept them from reading print books—no permission required, no royalties to be paid! To 'cap it off', the listed formats included digital text similar to what the Arkenstone reading systems already produced.
George Kerscher was a key advisor as we got this off the ground. First, he explained that the name Bookster (adapted from "Napster") which I was planning on giving to this new service was inadvisable. We eventually came up with a new name, Bookshare, which reflected our founding values of having a community sharing books. Second, he pointed out that the DAISY format was going to support text-only ebooks. So, we immediately adopted DAISY as our core format for Bookshare.
Our business plan was to run a national ebook library on less than a million dollars per year. By relying on volunteer labor to create the collection, I figured we could operate with roughly five staff members. By doing everything virtually, we kept our costs down. We came up with what we felt was a highly-affordable price of $75 for all the books a person could read in the first year, and $50 a year after that.
After a little more than a year of intense development, Bookshare launched on February 21, 2002. "Amazon meets Napster meets Talking Books, but legal!" That was our shorthand description of Bookshare. "Amazon" because it was all online and anybody could search our collection to see what books we had. "Napster" because the community was actually responsible for all of the books in Bookshare. "Talking Books" because most of our users were using synthetic speech to gain access to the books they couldn't read or read effectively in print form. "Legal" because Benetech, as a qualified nonprofit organization, provided the legal framework to allow peer-to-peer sharing of scanned books (at least, under U.S. domestic copyright law).
The revolutionary aspects of Bookshare became clear as the project grew. This was the first library for the blind that was actually built by people who were blind. The majority of our volunteers were actually people with a visual impairment. When these people scanned a book, they were empowered to share that book with the rest of the community. This power shift to user-created content was starting to happen in the mainstream Internet with the advent of Web 2.0 and companies like MySpace and Facebook, but it wasn't happening in the disability field, at least not until Bookshare!
With the motto of "Scan Once, Share Many!" ringing in synthesized voices around the land, the Bookshare volunteer community boldly went where traditional libraries had never gone before. Volunteer groups self-organized around different areas of common interest. Bookshare soon had the best accessible vampire erotica and Christian romance collections. Some volunteers dedicated themselves to seeing that every book on the New York Times bestseller lists got into Bookshare within a month. Others offered to buy and scan books requested by other members of the community. A vibrant online community developed with a common passion for books and accessibility. Soon, Bookshare was adding the same number of books each month as the major libraries for the blind, on a tiny fraction of their budgets. Of course, our books were digital text and not human-narrated audio, and digital text is much less expensive and faster to produce.
The success in growing a collection did not mean that Bookshare met its business objective of breaking even and becoming self-sustaining. The fees paid by our subscribers covered only 20-25% of what it cost to operate Bookshare.
Our membership numbers remained in the low thousands, and our subscription renewal rates were not good. A survey of our users pointed to the low quality of our scanned books as a major issue. Our core enthusiastic user group was comprised of people who were blind and who had their own scanners. They were delighted to get a decent OCR scan of a book in sixty seconds from Bookshare, rather than having to find the time to buy or borrow the book and spending two or three hours scanning it. For them, OCR accuracy of about 99% was to be expected.
But new users who weren't into scanning books were unimpressed with 99% accuracy; it meant that every page contained visible mistakes. Users with severe dyslexia were generally quite disappointed. The impact of quality on our potential users with learning disabilities was important to our market opportunity as a social enterprise. Although our core volunteers were mainly people who were blind or visually impaired, our estimate was that 80% of the potential users were people with learning disabilities, in particular, those with dyslexia.
How were we going to change this? How could we keep our core user satisfaction level up plus make Bookshare right for this new, emerging user group?
Addressing quality issues was a top priority. One of the best ways to improve our accuracy was to eliminate the scanning altogether and get files directly from publishers. As you can imagine, that was easier said than done, but as of today, we now have agreements with 36 publishers who donate their books electronically directly to Bookshare. This means that most of the New York Times Bestseller list as well as many educational publications are available to Bookshare members with files that came directly from the publisher. While accuracy would help drive up memberships, we knew it would not be enough to make Bookshare financially sustainable.
In August 2007, several people brought to my attention a new U.S. federal government competition being announced. Since we really didn't get significant funding from the federal government, we didn't keep track of federal competitions. But this one was very different. It fit Bookshare like a glove, and it was for $7 million per year for five years. But the proposal was due in a month.
This was an unimaginable amount of money for a project scraping by on a budget of roughly $1 million a year. We thought we'd be lucky if we got a small amount of the money that would be awarded. And, just about any crumb of this award would save Bookshare. Because the timeframe for preparing our submission was so short, we were only able to get our proposed funding requirement to $6.5 million per year for five years. But, we had no illusions that we'd get that much, if we got anything at all.
On the last business day of the federal fiscal year, Friday September 28, 2007, Benetech was awarded a $32.5 million contract to deliver Bookshare for free to every student with a print disability in the United States.
Bookshare now has over 80,000 members and over 63,000 books available to print-disabled Americans. Our member numbers are increasing rapidly, and the number of books in the Bookshare collection is growing even more rapidly.
But the need for accessible books is far from limited to the United States. It exists everywhere. Organizations and individuals from all over the world contact us, asking how they can join Bookshare and use our collection. In response to this we have begun to work internationally as well. To serve people with disabilities outside the United States, we can no longer depend on a domestic copyright exemption. Advocates are working on changing international intellectual property norms, and proposing copyright policies that encourage cross-border sharing of accessible materials. Along with George Kerscher, I was part of the team that helped draft the World Blind Union's proposal for a global treaty that is being considered in international negotiations. However, things like this take time and we are ready to begin moving Bookshare services beyond the borders of the United States. Many publishers are comfortable with the idea of supporting access for people with disabilities, and we have already been successful in gathering global rights from a number of leading American publishers, such as Scholastic, HarperCollins, Random House and Encyclopaedia Britannica. In addition, we've built partnerships with over ten publishers in India who are already granting us global permissions.
With the growth of Bookshare, Benetech is working harder than ever to open up the world of reading to people everywhere who were previously excluded from it. We are helping to ensure that those who have a print disability have the educational and employment opportunities they need to lead fulfilling, productive lives. The vision I had in the mid 1980's of starting a movement to see that good technology doesn't get put on the shelf by the forces of "business as usual" remains with me, even after all these years. And, there's so much more to be done!