Prominent publishing expert Thad McIlroy intrigued by LibraryCity’s OverDrive proposal: “Time to put the ‘public’ back in ‘Public Libraries’”

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image“Yes, it’s time to put the ‘public’ back in ‘Public Libraries.”

So says Thad McIlroy, a prominent publishing consultant, about LibraryCity’s proposal for OverDrive to sell itself to America’s public libraries directly or to a nonprofit serving their interests. McIlroy has worked for clients ranging from Apple and Adobe to Thompson Learning (now Cengage) and knows business and technical details of e-books.

“As you make clear,” McIlroy writes today in a LibraryCity comment, “Overdrive is a great company that has performed admirably for years and is justifiably much beloved of the library community. But I think that it is caught in an untenable position between the conflicting desires/needs of authors, publishers, distributors, librarians, and, most importantly, the reading public. Your solution is an innovative idea—if nothing else it brings much greater clarity to the nature of the problem.“

I urge OverDrive as well as the publishing world to pay close attention to McIlroy’s candid observations on Adobe’s user-hostile DRM and how Amazon partnered up with OverDrive while realizing that the hassles of the Adobe system would result in library patrons turning to the Kindle alternatives OverDrive offers. Result? As McIlroy sees it, Amazon will actually mint more money than if it owned OverDrive directly. Of course, knowing Jeff Bezos’s ambition of gobbling up every corporation on Planet Earth having to do with his corporate interests in any way, I still wonder about the possibility of Jeff buying OverDrive. Please, librarians. Get cracking on the LibraryCity plan and think about prospective benefactors to finance it.

To answer the inevitable question, I have not heard from OverDrive or from Insight Venture Partners, a major OverDrive investor. I have deliberately avoided contacting them, save for an @OverDriveLibs mention in a Tweet, since I don’t expect an instant answer. But McIlroy’s comments help to confirm my belief that everyone—the fine people at OverDrive, librarians, and, yes, publishers—would be better off with the sale and modernization of the company.

Creation of a robust library ecosystem, including the phasing out of Adobe DRM (not possible overnight, alas) should be among the top priorities. I hope that OverDrive CEO Steve Potash and Venture’s people, including special limited partner and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin on it, will make the right choice. Get out now. Contractors can still make money off technical and other products and services for America’s digital public libraries, but they should not be running them. An OverDrive purchase could be the start of a true national digital public library system (but no P word, please—lest this harm brick-and-mortar public libraries’ branding and franchise).

While public libraries worry about e-books reducing turnstile counts, in their place I’d be far, far more concerned about Amazon and rivals displacing them as sources of loaned e-books. Don’t delay! Besides, with or without e-books, America’s public libraries have plenty of other services to provide in person in areas ranging from warm, fuzzy in-person reference to storytelling hours and book clubs and family literacy projects (ideally even at-home visits). Paper books won’t vanish overnight. But libraries will fade away if they tarry while Amazon invades their territory.

I hope the publishing side, too, will pay attention. Beyond his other credentials, McIlvoy serves on the editorial board of Learned Publishing and runs the Future of Publishing site.

“In 1985,” he recalls on his Web site, “I edited and typeset what I still believe to be the first trade book published totally with desktop publishing technology, composed on a Macintosh (without a hard drive) with Microsoft Word (version 1.05!), and output to the first Apple LaserWriter (then costing nearly $10,000).”

McIlvoy most assuredly would not be talking about a possible OverDrive sale if he felt it harmed the publishing industry. On the contrary, a move away from Adobe’s user-hostile DRM would boost publishers’ bottom lines, not just aid consumers and libraries and causes such as family literacy. Regardless of publishers’ paranoia about public libraries, the libraries are actually marketers in disguise and may increasingly be so if brick-and-mortar stores keep going out of business. I’d like the public to be able to buy books from libraries, not just borrow them, and nonintrusive links could also go to private store sites including Amazon’s (and local bookstores, which could get nice play on the buying pages). I just don’t want Jeff to capture all the business.

If somehow Adobe or Amazon does try to beat public libraries to an OverDrive purchase, I fervently hope that federal regulators will explore the possible legal issues. Stay away, Adobe and Amazon and other private companies! Let libraries be libraries, whatever the medium. OverDrive’s PR challenges in Rockford, Illinois, where the library system prematurely plans to spend a quarter of its collections budget on e-books despite the understandable hostility of the public, will hardly be the last complication if the current business model stays in place.

Detail: I also see many positives at Amazon and have been a loyal customer over the years—I love my Fire despite the DRM. I simply don’t want Amazon or OverDrive or 3M or any other company dictating to America’s libraries. Or to libraries outside the States. OverDrive has countless international customers, and I’d like to see their costs lowered as well.

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3 Comments

on “Prominent publishing expert Thad McIlroy intrigued by LibraryCity’s OverDrive proposal: “Time to put the ‘public’ back in ‘Public Libraries’”
3 Comments on “Prominent publishing expert Thad McIlroy intrigued by LibraryCity’s OverDrive proposal: “Time to put the ‘public’ back in ‘Public Libraries’”
  1. You’re welcome, Thad.

    Actually I’ve done crazier things than call for OverDrive to let libraries to be libraries. I remember when proprietary e-formats ruled the book world. A friend and I started the OpenReader Consortium to work toward a standard consumer-level format. OpenReader never took off, but then, with us agitating, the e-book establishment finally got serious about e-book standards, and lo and behold we have ePub.

    Now I’d like to finish the job and see if libraries can’t help rid the world of proprietary DRM or at least greatly reduce its use so ePub is just ePub–not DRM-gummed-up ePub vs. the untainted variety.

    The sale of OverDrive to libraries would go a long way toward a DRM scale-back, which would lead to more cost-effective e-book distribution, and reduction of Amazon’s power. Not the worst fate for libraries and publishers alike.

    At the same time, in discussing OverDrive, we’re talking about a company familiar to the library community, not a new group like OpenReader. So the changes could be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Loree Potash is a librarian by training. I hope other librarians will encourage her and Steve to do the right thing. The Potashes could even hang around to advise the reborn OverDrive.

    Thad, that one post, the one with the OverDrive proposal, has drawn hundreds and hundreds of accesses, and an ALA newsletter has linked to us. So while the idea is taking time for people to absorb, it is out there floating around in the ether. The top ALA leadership knows about it. I hope librarians can consider the issues from Rockford and appreciate the need for actual action, so e-books don’t widen rather than reduce the digital divide. The OverDrive purchase could speed up corrective action: the DPLA certainly doesn’t have this as a top priority.

    > I wouldn’t give up my day job while pursuing it

    LOL. I sold TeleRead in part so I could create a site like LibraryCity focused simply on the public interest. I’ll worry about LC if it makes money.

    Cheers,
    David

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