Penguin ditches OverDrive’s public library side: Another reason for libraries to take over the distributor and gain more clout

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Of interest from TeleRead: Penguin continues its anti-ebook-library crusade—restricts downloads to usb-only.

LibraryEbookSignOne of the giants of the book trade has unwittingly reinforced LibraryCity‘s argument that public libraries or a nonprofit should buy the OverDrive distribution service.

Penguin said it would stop selling new books to OverDrive‘s library side.

In another OverDrive-related development, former librarian Andrew Strong, a library activist in Rockford, IL, told local officials they should consider advocating both an OverDrive purchase and a true national digital system. And he cited a current Rockford library manager’s enthusiasm for the OverDrive-related idea.

Penguin’s dissing of OverDrive and public libraries is hardly alone among publisher, as you can see from this sign from Sarah “Librarian in Black” Houghton, the acting director of the San Rafael Public Library in California. Other won’t-sells include Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Brilliance Audio and Hachette Audio Group. The Penguin Group’s own authors over the years have ranged from Tom Clancy to former Vice President Al Glore—who at one time was pushing to digitize the Library of Congress.

I have no idea where Gore stands now, but his heart was in the right place in the 1990s.

That said, digitizing LOC isn’t enough. America’s public libraries really need to create a genuine digital system, with the accompanying clout to deal with the Penguins. Local libraries and the new system could develop their own e-books and other offerings as a bargaining chip and for other reasons, such as more diversity of content. All the more reason for libraries to take over OverDrive and modernize it as the first step toward the creation of a national digital library ecosystem—so libraries can hold their own against publishers! A truly sustainable business model would treat publishers more fairly than they are treating public libraries. Rather than constantly refighting the copyright and content wars, librarians and publishers should work together to lobby for higher library appropriations, just as the Pentagon and its contractors have so often triumphed in unison.

Calling for consideration of a national digital system in place of the OverDrive model, Andrew Strong wrote Rockford’s mayor, library director and trustees, and others in a note covering different topics:

“As board members consider their next steps, I certainly hope that they consider the work of David Rothman, author of the blog, who has adopted Rockford as a poster child buffeted about by the winds of change.

“While I do not agree with everything Mr. Rothman writes (or his rhetoric at times), his proposal for a national digital public library needs to be thoroughly considered. Digital Rights Management issues, privacy issues, portability issues, permanance issues, and, perhaps most importantly to libraries, ownership issues, are all part of a nebulous and sometimes contentious public debate. Rockford librarians and board members need to be a part of shaping this debate.

“I talked with one current Rockford library manager about Mr. Rothman’s desire to see Overdrive bought-out by a non-profit or consortium of public libraries, and this manager was nodding her head before I had hardly finished my sentence.

“Rather than rising to national prominence in infamy, I would encourage board members and librarians to engage the debate in earnest, considering the issues of Constitutional rights, freedom of information, and first principles.”

I have avoided asking OverDrive how it would feel about a sale and about being part of a national digital library system—so the company has more time to ponder the proposal. OverDrive’s troubles with Penguin, however, are yet another indication that its current business model is not sustainable. In OverDrive’s place, I’d sell in a flash at a fair price to libraries or a nonprofit. New competitors such as 3M—not to mention OverDrive’s heavy reliance on Amazon, hardly guaranteed to be an ally forever—are yet another reason to consider a sale. If libraries are smart, they’ll start contacting potential foundation benefactors now rather than simply let OverDrive sell out to another company. CEO Steve Potash, his wife, Loree, and other OverDrive executives could continue with the new system as advisors to assure continuity. As I’ve said before, the company has its good side, and the proposed national system could build on OverDrive’s marketing efforts and its relationships with hundreds of publishers.

Detail: I’ve broken up paragraphs in the Strong note, for greater readability on the Web.

Larger version of an image of Sarah’s sign: Here—so you can write the publishers yourself.

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2 comments to “Penguin ditches OverDrive’s public library side: Another reason for libraries to take over the distributor and gain more clout”
2 comments to “Penguin ditches OverDrive’s public library side: Another reason for libraries to take over the distributor and gain more clout”
  1. David,

    I just caught up reading all your posts about libraries working together to create a “national digital library ecosystem” and it reminds me a bit of the project started by <a href="“>Doc Searls called ProjectVRM. VRM is an acronym for Vendor Resource Management. As the website states, VRM is meant to be a tool to help customers interact with vendors. From what I’ve read so far, whatever might happen, (be it making something from scratch, or purchasing an existing company), the libraries would become a VRM entity for not only patrons, but also other libraries.

    Have you heard of the VRM concept? I’m still learning about it as well as how libraries can play an active role in providing ebooks for their patrons, but it certainly seems to me the VRM idea could work very nicely for what you are proposing.


  2. Hi, Zachary. I myself emphatically agree with you about the need for end-user control (by, not of!) and have long wanted to see such wrinkles as libraries used as book lockers. That’s the only kind of “customer lock-in” I want! Via libraries, customers could “own” books from a number of vendors. Just one example of the potential here.

    Thanks for your note and for your tweet.


    Addendum, 23:48: I can also see the library-to-library potential, especially in the wake of the OverDrive-Amazon complaint from Penguin.

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