Amazon – IPG battle shows need for libraries to buy OverDrive and control their own destinies

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Jeff BezosMore than 4,400 e-books—from the Independent Publishers Group—have vanished from the Amazon site. Why? Pressured by Wall Street, Amazon wants to jack up its profits at IPG’s expense while still keeping e-book prices low enough to entice people to buy Kindles. If Amazon succeeds with IPG, then Jeff Bezos and friends will move on to cut other throats.

This hardballing has OverDrive ramifications for the future and is yet another reason why libraries should work with the foundation world toward a friendly takeover of OverDrive. Amazon is now a major supplier for America’s largest e-library distributor, which points Kindle owners to Amazon to download the actual files. In fact, on Kindle matters, OverDrive in effect is just an Amazon affiliate. Ultimately, how much mercy can libraries and OverDrive expect from Amazon? Or might Jeff Bezos and friends even try to buy OverDrive, regulatory concerns be damned? Or take over the public library world in other ways?

Those are not mere abstractions. In Rockford, Illinois, the local library will be buying 60 Kindle Touches and around 10 Sony PRS-T1s to use with the OverDrive system. This year OverDrive will consume $303,332 of the library’s $1.19-million collection budget even though these hardware purchases will hardly suffice in a city of some 153,000 residents, more than a fifth living in poverty.

In yet another example of the darker side of Amazon, Jeff Bezos and friends snapped up Lexcycle, developer of Stanza, wonderful software for reading e-books, but seem on the way to killing off this once-promising rival to Kindle software, by not committing to more than one more update. Profits for Wall Street, course, matter far more than reader’s needs. Amazon is a business, not a philanthropy; forget all the lines about Jeff Bezos’s noble crusade to drive down prices for consumers. A factor? Yes. But Bezos is still in it mostly in it for the buck.

The leaders of the American Library Association and other librarians would do well to get cracking and search for foundation angels or others to make an OverDrive purchase possible for themselves or a related nonprofit. For now, both librarians and policymakers should warn Amazon and others giants not to let OverDrive disappear down a corporate maw. Save OverDrive for libraries and the rest of us. Here is a chance to start a national digital library system that not only would enlighten us, but also make the book world a little more resistant to the whims of The Street. I just hope that librarians will understand the risk of trusting Amazon, 3M, or any other private company with library e-books—they need their own servers, their own archiving, their own seamless ecosystem. Use contractors for various services, but set up your own system before it’s too late, and work with local libraries and schools to digitize in ways that help rather than hurt the poor and actually improve on the miserable conditions for them at many libraries (please follow the just-given link). Unlike Amazon, such a system could work on related hardware and connectivity issues with the poor in mind, not just Wall Street.

Mind you, I love my Kindle 3, Kindle DX, and Fire despite room for improvement, such as all-text bolding (why are you so bloody stubborn about lack of this capability, Jeff, given the needs of the vision impaired?), and I remain an admirer of the better side of Amazon, which could be among the contractors for a national digital library system; and even now I won’t give up all hope about Wall Street. I notice that Robert Rubin, the former U.S. secretary of the treasury under Bill Clinton, as well as ex-co-chair of Goldman Sachs, is a special limited partner of Insight Venture Partners, at least a partial owner of OverDrive. He is also chair of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, whose tagline reads: “Helping neighbors built communities.” A national digital library system, well integrated with local libraries and schools and preserving local memories as well as those at national and state levels, would be in keeping with LISC’s goals. It would be rather classy of Rubin and other Wall Street business people to give us the start of this system by buying OverDrive for libraries or a nonprofit run on their behalf.

Let Wall Street be a hero rather than a villain and help reduce instead of widen the digital divide. Rubin is an alum of Harvard, whose law school hosts the Digital Public Library of America, which could join America’s public and academic libraries in use, refinement, and expansion of the OverDrive infrastructure. Librarians could help publishers overcome their fear of e-books and team up with content providers to work toward larger library appropriations at all levels of government so that the publishers and writers could receive fair compensation. E-books economies could help, with the right strategies in effect. Such a transaction would even help American soft power by making American books easier to catch up with abroad and aiding people overseas in digitizing their own literature—benefit that should be of interest to Rubin as co-chair of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The PR benefits of such an outcome would if nothing else go a long way for Rubin and others on the Street. Our national digital library question is hardly a mainstream issue right now despite its being a K-12 one in disguise, but this could change. And Rubin should remember one of the more memorable actions of the Occupy Wall Street movement—setting up its own library. Andrew Carnegie, no socialist, recognized the importance of libraries as places of opportunity. For that matter, even William F. Buckley, Jr., did, in supporting my campaign for a wall-stocked national digital library system, the topic of two “On the Right” columns. Can Rubin be as progressive, in this respect, as were Carnegie and the late Buckley?

Of course, I’ve given Rubin as just one example. From Ross Perot to Warren Buffett, I can think of other billionaires who could facilitate or even pay for a public takeover of OverDrive. Along the way, in decently treating CEO Steve Potash and colleagues at OverDrive, libraries and their benefactors would also be sending a message to content providers—of their intent to play more fairly with the publishing world than Jeff Bezos has.

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