Pursuing the Holy Grail of Library eBook Models

I have been following the news of the recent Mars landing and the exciting exploration plans that have begun.  The flawless landing and early images sent by the rover represent the culmination of years of dreams and aspirations of hundreds of scientists and engineers.  I have one request for the NASA team to add to the experiments and discovery on the red planet.  Can they scan the Martian landscape to find a digital book lending model that satisfies and balances the interests of libraries, schools, authors, and publishers?

I ask this question because we have yet to uncover the answer to this vexing and urgent issue on Earth.  Like the Mars rover appropriately named “Perseverance,” OverDrive has persevered for 20 years on behalf of libraries with authors and publishers to advocate for fair, flexible, and reasonable terms for library lending of popular titles.  Last year we saw meaningful progress with dozens of publishers enabling more affordable options for acquiring rights to their collection.  But we are still searching for the Holy Grail access model.  We have been on this quest since the first public library permitted download of a New York Times bestseller (thank you HarperCollins – circa 2004).  While we are still seeking to deliver ever-improved value to our partners, I am proud of the incremental gains in this journey from the past year.

Concurrent Use: Metered Access (by circulation) is OverDrive’s newest access model and it has a lot going for it.  With over 70,000 titles available in OverDrive Marketplace, schools and libraries can purchase titles or groups of eBooks and audiobooks in bundles of 100 checkouts.  This “bulk purchase” of popular titles for your library or school can be used to support peak demand because all readers can check out the title at the same time, under this “concurrent use” model.  Inventory purchased under this model has no expiration date.

An example of application of this model as a cost-effective solution include a library purchase of 100 loans of the Recorded Books audiobook of the Bridgerton Series, The Duke and I at a cost of $1.75 per loan.  Schools can use this concurrent use model to provide Forgotten Bones, Uncovering a Slave Cemetery from Lerner Publishing to 100 students at the cost of $0.46 per copy.  With bulk rate pricing, inventory costs are fixed for lending and can supplement other models offered by OverDrive.

Simultaneous Use Catalogs continue to expand.  While OverDrive Marketplace offers hundreds of thousands of titles for simultaneous use, the most notable advance has been availability of all digital magazines supplied by Zinio with seamless integration into Libby.  The new OverDrive Magazine catalog adds titles each month and now has more than 3,300 periodicals at a flat annual price.  Top circulating magazines include The Economist, US Weekly, The New Yorker, HGTV Magazine, National Geographic, Bon Appetit, Newsweek, Vogue, and hundreds more.  Library partners and patrons are enjoying simultaneous access to thousands of magazines alongside comics and graphic novels as libraries leverage these “always available” collections to attract new readers.

OverDrive pioneered simultaneous use library lending over a decade ago starting with travel, education, reference, and non-fiction genres.  Today we offer hundreds-of-thousands of popular fiction, juvenile ebook, and audiobook options for a school or library for simultaneous lending for a year at a fixed cost.  Thousands of titles from leading publishers are available for digital book clubs or other high-demand needs.  Titles start as low as $60 for an entire month of simultaneous use access for a romance novel, to a few hundred dollars for access throughout the year.  Examples include The Last Flight, by Julie Clark, or The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson.  Prices are all available for review in OverDrive Marketplace, in the Shop Simultaneous Use section.

OverDrive also recently updated thousands of no-cost evergreen literature selections from Duke Classics, many with fresh covers.  A 2020 addition to this collection is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic The Great Gatsby, as it recently entered the public domain.  If your library isn’t taking advantage of these free titles and curating them for readers to find, you are overlooking a tremendous resource.  They join our high-quality Project Gutenberg catalog all at no cost for simultaneous lending programs.

Cost per Circ (CPC) was used for titles surging in popularity as a strategic collection development tool this past year.  Now nearly all major trade houses offer this option to meet demand for best-sellers.  When used in conjunction with metered access catalogs, CPC provides targeted relief for long wait times, instant access for reading campaigns or can meet seasonal demand.  Examples include Gluten-Free for the Holidays from Simon & Schuster for $0.69 per circ, or the #1 New York Times bestseller The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett from Penguin for $2.47 per circ.  CPC titles are perfect for book club and community read events.  With this model, the library does not prepurchase any units.  Thousands of bestselling ebooks and audiobooks in every genre are available with this on-demand, multi-purpose model.

Custom Curation with library branding for “Lucky Day” and “Skip the Line”

Based on how libraries circulate high-demand print titles with special merchandising and lending policies, we created OverDrive Marketplace Lucky Day curation tools.  Lucky Day and the corresponding Skip the Line feature in Libby provide a proven merchandising tool to deliver more readers with access to high demand titles.  Using a shorter loan period tightly integrated with a patron’s Hold Lists, libraries are reducing both the cost per circ and wait times for popular titles.  Our local Cuyahoga County Public Library (OH) curates their list calling it “Prime Picks,” Loudon County Public Library (VA) offers a collection entitled “7-Day Hot Picks,” and San Diego County Library (CA) curates and brands their service as “Hot.Right.Now.”  Toronto Public Library calls their custom curated way to skip the hold que as “Best Bets.”

Access models needed for school curriculum

Schools are urgently seeking to utilize digital books for remote and distance learning for both classroom and school library needs.  Working with school librarians, curriculum leaders, and other literacy and reading advocates, we ask educators these questions to guide how we negotiate and seek terms and permissions from authors and publishers:

  • Are you building a lending library or are you supporting your curriculum, or both?  If curriculum, are you using a specific curriculum plan?
  • Do you have a list of required & recommended titles by grade or by unit?
  • How many students need to be served?
  • Do all students need access at the same time?
  • How long do students need access to the titles?

What has quickly evolved are On-Demand class sets that provide access to class or grade specific collections that trigger a purchase after a title is used in the classroom or self-selected by a student.  To help streamline educators’ and students’ experience with their digital books, this past year, the student reading app Sora has been deeply integrated with Google Classroom, district library catalogs, and utilized in learning management systems.

Public Library Connect (PLC) with Schools in a library’s Service Area

Curated juvenile and YA collections at public libraries and consortia are delivering great value to students in and out of the classroom.  As of this writing, students in over 19,000 US schools can simultaneously browse and search their school’s Sora digital collection, along with the grade appropriate catalog at their local public library.

Last month Harris County Public Library (TX) loaned over 30,000 titles to students in area schools from their public library catalog via the Sora app.  I am encouraged by how juvenile non-fiction digital collections from public library catalogs are serving students at a sustainable cost.  As Lisa Kulka from Harlandale ISD in Texas reported, “There are a variety of reasons why students and families don’t have library cards.  With Sora’s PLC feature, all our students need is their school district login information. We have removed that barrier.”

Libraries Adding Local Content to their circulating collection

An area for libraries to lower the cost of materials that serve readers is by circulating digital content that they own.  We are seeing a growing interest in libraries and schools investing in local content production for a variety of purposes.  With the Local Content service in OverDrive Marketplace, libraries can upload their own ebooks and audio files and circulate them to readers with Libby.  Libraries use the Local Content service by uploading ebooks written by local authors or from other digitization projects.  Once the titles are uploaded, titles can be curated and circulated alongside all other OverDrive materials.

A recent example of a library using this function is from the always-innovating National Library Board of Singapore (NLB).  They have curated a digitized collection of their BiblioAsia quarterly publication featuring the culture and heritage of Singapore.  These titles were converted into graphic-rich editions in EPUB 3 by NLB and are offered to their patrons.  You can see the BiblioAsia collection here:  https://nlb.overdrive.com/search?query=BiblioAsia.  NLB has generously made all 26 beautiful and interesting editions of BibilioAsia available to all libraries and schools as simultaneous use titles, at no cost.  To add them to your library’s collection, search for BiblioAsia in OverDrive Marketplace under SHOP Simultaneous Use.

Community Read, Digital Book Club and Together We Read Campaigns

This past year we donated a growing collection of unlimited simultaneous use ebooks and audiobooks at no cost to many library partners.  We are currently in the middle of a successful Together We Read program offered by thousands of participating libraries.  https://togetherweread.com/us/    Simultaneous use access to Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn from Kensington Books as an eBook and Tantor Media as audiobook is just one of the hundreds of book club events authors and publishers enable to promote library engagement with readers.

These programs are just right for digital book clubs, community reading events, and general inventory support. Last year we provided a package of #ownvoices and diversity reads for students; our Black Lives Matter: Community Read program provided titles to help patrons read, listen, learn and grow as they expanded their knowledge of race relations; and we also donated Spanish titles for young readers.

The quest continues

What began as a single model for eBooks 20 years ago is constantly evolving.  OverDrive is engaged in ongoing publisher advocacy seeking to deliver the best options to serve the mission of our library and school partners.  Not that long ago (2019) we joined ALA and library partners to seek the reversal of restrictive policies that impaired how libraries serve their readers.  See https://company.overdrive.com/2019/06/18/a-message-from-steve-potash-on-recent-publisher-lending-model-changes/.  Our advocacy efforts are even more critical now due to how pandemic events have impacted school and library operations.  Our ongoing investment into the work of The Panorama Project (https://www.panoramaproject.org/) also informs us as we seek to balance the interests of all publishing industry stakeholders.  On March 10th at 1:00pm EST, Panorama Project is hosting a webinar that discusses the major findings from its recent survey in partnership with Portland State University examining consumers’ engagement with immersive media relative to books as well as their buying behaviors across multiple formats and platforms.  Register here to participate.

The perfect access model is still out there waiting to be discovered.  This quest will continue until we provide libraries and schools access to expansive catalogs with sustainable and scalable use models.  The challenge for this balancing act requires that the prevailing business model are also well championed and embraced by authors and publishers.  I am hopeful that as the Mars rover continues its mission, closer to home, as your partner for digital materials, we will achieve new milestones in this pursuit.

Macmillan publishes a work of fiction

Macmillan, a global publisher of science fiction and fantasy, offers a catalog of many great works of fiction.  John Sargent’s recent letter to Macmillan authors, illustrators, and agents, regarding Macmillan’s changes to their library lending terms for ebooks, and the justification for the same, is another work of fiction.   This work of fiction was used to justify a new policy to embargo newly released titles for library lending for 8 weeks from date of publication.   Rather than creating demand for a new title with ebook marketing and then delighting readers with access to each new Macmillan title on the day of publication, libraries large and small, as well as library consortia, will be permitted to purchase only one (1) copy of each title.   The story of how they arrived at this discriminatory practice that denies access to an author’s new work is a doozy.

Let’s start with the faulty key premise.  In the letter, Macmillan claims that when they test-windowed a selection of Tor ebooks for library lending, it resulted in an increase in retail ebook sales.  This conclusion fails to provide any reference or data of scope and scale.  With the exception of a few Tor best-selling authors, the vast majority of Tor ebooks and their authors have few to zero units of their ebooks available in US public library catalogs.  Without Macmillan sharing information on the starting point for the Tor pilot, any change (increase or decrease) is meaningless.  For example, going from two to four ebook units in retail sales is a 100% increase.  For the Tor ebook catalog, fewer than 100 units of recent titles were sold to libraries nationwide.  Added to the reality of the few available units, the library lending model is self-limiting.  How a few dozen copies of an ebook that only one user can borrow at a time or wait weeks to borrow impacts retail sales is a mystery.  When Mr. Sargent was asked for data to support this conclusion by the Wall Street Journal in its July 25, 2019 article, Mr. Sargent “declined to be more specific.”   The reason is clear, the Tor experiment was unremarkable.

In 2015, a similar test was conducted with unremarkable results.  This test used best-selling titles from several UK publishing houses in a study, jointly commissioned by the Society of Chief Librarians and The Publishers Association, funded via the British Library Trust and Arts Council England.  The results were predictable.  The study concluded that withholding new ebook titles for library users to borrow had no material impact on retail sales.   From the study results: “Commercial impact:   From publishers, there is no evidence that the pilot damaged their e-book sales.”   See:  https://www.publishers.org.uk/EasySiteWeb/GatewayLink.aspx?alId=18916

Macmillan doubled down with this sci-fi and fantasy realm with more fictional data.  Mr. Sargent’s letter claimed that “45% of the ebook reads in the US are now being borrowed for free from libraries.”  No definition of an “ebook read” was offered, nor any details or data sharing on how this conclusion was reached. This claim, offered without any support, is ridiculous.

The data that I am aware of and is available to Macmillan on their ebook use in libraries includes:
1) Their sales of their titles to libraries; 2) The number of units purchased by each library; and 3) limited checkout info for their titles.   For Macmillan to invent a new data metric called “ebook reads” – a metric that Macmillan has based an entire business strategy on, and that paints libraries as villains – requires at the very least a thorough explanation of their new invention.

Macmillan also overlooks a key concept in building its case.  Library users borrow titles and place them on bookshelves, but often these titles are not read.  It should be the hope of every author that their title is selected, borrowed and hopefully read and enjoyed.  Public libraries provide a safe and welcoming place and online service to browse, borrow and read or not read a borrowed book.  That’s one of the most beautiful things about public libraries.  Unless Mr. Sargent and Macmillan have access to information on how public library users, in the privacy of their homes, access, or do not access, an ebook borrowed, the “45% ebook reads” claim is pure fallacy.  I request Macmillan issue a retraction or provide detailed information on how they reached that conclusion – for without it they have no basis for this ridiculous “ebook read” claim.

The WSJ interview with Mr. Sargent reports that retail sales of Macmillan ebooks produce revenue to Macmillan between $9 and $10.50 per ebook title, yet revenue from libraries “generate “as little as $1.15 per read for a title checked out 52 times.”  This is more nonsense.

First, the ebook model Macmillan uses to support this math is one they created: Two years or 52 checkouts, whichever comes first.  Macmillan also developed the library pricing for this model. For Macmillan to paint themselves as victims, in a reality they created, is dystopian.  Not only dystopian, it is victim blaming – as librarians are the victims of this flawed logic.  It blames public libraries and librarians for the work they do to promote reading, books, authors and help sell the publishers’ products.  It blames libraries for the millions of dollars they spend on Macmillan’s product, encouraging the reading of Macmillan books and authors.   And yes, it blames librarians for the success they developed for ebook lending.  Librarians are charged with accountability for every penny spent of taxpayer dollars and public funds.  All of the levers are under Macmillan’s control – yet the one that would be most impactful in the calculus – the amount Macmillan pays authors for their premium library ebook pricing – is one that is not even whispered in the stories.

Second, and worse yet, is the misleading method Macmillan used to argue that libraries produce revenue of $1.15 per title borrowed.  This assumes that most of Macmillan’s 19,000+ ebooks titles in their catalog were checked out at their maximum 52 checkouts, on or before the 2-year time limit expired.  Public library data compiled by OverDrive reveals that their $1.15 figure is misleading and untrue.

For all the Macmillan ebooks that libraries acquired for lending, 79% expired and were removed from library catalogs because the two-year term limit occurred first – not because they were checked out 52 times.  The data of actual lending of Macmillan ebook titles by public libraries supports an underutilization of the inventory.  The average number of times a library loaned a Macmillan ebook during the 2-year term for each title was 11.5 times (far from 52 checkouts).  Using this data, the average cost to the library to lend the title was $6.07 for every time a title is borrowed, 5 times the figure shared in the WSJ story.  Furthermore, this includes users who never opened the title or read it – so the cost for every “ebook read” is still higher.   This 11.5 average checkout includes Macmillan best-sellers such as Fire and Fury and others, which by all accounts is an outlier and overperformer.  For the vast majority (75% of Macmillan catalog of titles during the 2-year term) an ebook was checked out an average of 8.3 times each.

One thing I will predict, Macmillan’s one (1) unit per library limit for new titles released will make one of the reported statements come true.  As reported in the WSJ “Macmillan is betting that many consumers will be frustrated at the long waiting periods that are likely to develop if libraries have only one digital copy.”   Here they will succeed.  Their policy will frustrate their customers, librarians, fans of the authors, and ultimately, frustrate Macmillan authors and agents.

The anti-reader, anti-customer-centric, clearly anti-library sentiment is deafening.  There is zero acknowledgement by Macmillan of the reality that library ebook readers are Macmillan readers and customers.  The high degree of overlap between library users and book buyers is well documented.  Libraries build audiences for authors and books, promote reading and discovery, and are a most trusted source for recommendation on what to read next.  You can learn more about this from The Panorama Project Readers Advisory research and report.  See https://www.panoramaproject.org/

Publishers who have invested in and dedicated resources to understanding how readers and authors win in the library market know how restricting libraries’ access to authors’ work narrows their reach, discovery, audience, and retail sales.  For these publishers who recognize pre-release marketing and day of publication access to their new titles we are grateful. To Macmillan: End this planned new title embargo.  Abandon your plan to “frustrate” your customers and reconsider the disrespect this policy exhibits to the thousands of librarians and volunteer public servants that promote your products, advance literacy, and create the opportunities for your authors to be discovered and enjoyed.

The origin of the name OverDrive

I often get asked where the name OverDrive came from. There are several parts to the story, starting with my love of cars.

Our earliest logos for the company were a Hurst Shifter from the muscle cars of the 1970s: Corvette, Camaro SS, Mustang, or the Pontiac GTO. I also spent three years organizing and operating the Around the World Auto Race, which was an international auto rally to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial, but let’s save that story for later.

The origin of the company name comes from an urgent need to rebrand our young software company in the 1980s. At the time, we were called TurboSoft; turbo being another auto reference.

One day, I received a letter from one of the nation’s premier law firms alerting me that our use of the word TurboSoft was infringing on the trademarks and other intellectual property of a company called Borland. Still in our early days, I was determined not to fight because, as The Art of War taught me, I had a very powerful and wealthy opponent. I was distraught, sitting in a leased car I took over payments for when we lost a sale executive. I determined that I needed to quickly settle the lawsuit from Borland, which was founded and headed up by the brilliant mathematician, inventor, and entrepreneur Phillipe Kahn.

Kahn was one of the most successful early software entrepreneurs, following Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and the Apple team. His company Borland offered utilities like the Sidekick personal information manager, but also had a large line of software programming languages using the Turbo brand (Turbo Basic, Turbo C, etc.).

At the time, our new software product was a word processing “add-on.” During the early 1980s, long before Windows, there were few apps that permit any form of multi-tasking software. We developed for the DOS programs that would load into a PC’s memory and “pop up” or load into memory as a TSR (terminate and stay resident) program.

At the time, WordPerfect was the dominating PC word processor. Our software would use word processing templates and forms and an early form of artificial intelligence to automatically assemble multiple forms and documents simultaneously. I had applied and received an early software patent for a Multiple Integrated Document Assembly program, which I called MIDAS.

We were offering a user a way to get to results faster and more efficiently.

Sitting in the driver’s seat of my leased Nissan Maxima I looked down and saw on the side of the vertical gear shifter a small button marked “Overdrive.”

Shifting into overdrive is a common routine to put your car’s engine into the highest gear. Overdrive lets you get there faster and more efficiently.

I hoped this name was available for our software product and company. It was, and we quickly adopted the name for both the product and renamed the company. We became initially OverDrive Systems, Inc., which was eventually shortened to OverDrive, Inc.

We released a series of OverDrive software products, including OverDrive for Word 1.0, which led me to work directly with Bill Gates, who assigned me to work with a Microsoft product manager at the company, Melinda French (now Melinda French Gates).

This idea of going faster and more efficiently has been a cornerstone of our culture and product roadmap. The name OverDrive.com and all that followed goes back to my passion for cars.