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Who needs OverDrive? A Look at Library Ebook Alternatives

If you’ve been paying attention to ebook news this past week then you’ve probably read about Penguin curtailing their library ebook distribution. Their actions and the debate among librarians inspired me to push ahead with a series of posts I’ve planning.

Penguin decided (late last week, actually) that they were going to reconsider library ebooks and as a first step they blocked sales of their new releases and they also made OverDrive block patrons from borrowing via the Kindle (this is enabled again).

I’ve touched on this once or twice as ebook news, but I’ve also been watching the debate among the librarian bloggers. There are 3 or 4 that I read regularly, and it was Andy Woodworth in particular who inspired me. Here’s an excerpt of his editorial:

As disappointed as I am with publishing companies, I have my own disappointment with my peers. We can’t be churning up a shitstorm every time a company makes a change when it comes to eBooks. We ceded that control when we signed on the line for the Overdrive contracts. Nor can we act surprised when a company makes a change after all of the articles and blog posts that tell us that the publishing industry is changing and shrinking in the last few years. They are trying to save themselves, so don’t act surprised when they do something dramatic.

Libraries are at the mercy of publishers because they ceded control of their ebooks to OverDrive. Well, what if they didn’t cede control to OverDrive? What are the alternatives?

That’s what I’m going to answer in this series of posts. I don’t know that anyone has done a comprehensive look before, and I don’t know about you but I’d like to know more just for my own curiosity.

Update: And here are the first installments:

  1. Ebrary Now Offers Ebook Subscriptions for Indivduals
  2. Bilbary
  3. 24Symbols

I’ve had this idea since shortly before the Nook Tablet launch event. Between one thing and another I hadn’t gotten to it yet, but the Penguin news this past week made me realize that time is a-wastin'.

I’m still in the middle of the research, but I do already have a few topics that I plan to cover, including: a library that launched their own ebook server, the Open Library, B&N’s library ereader program, Freading, and whatever else I come across while looking into this.

I had planned to also include posts on the 3M Cloud Library and Axis 360, OverDrive’s 2 mainstream  competitors. But I think I’m going to pass because if they were in operation today then they would be in the same situation as OverDrive is in right now. I’m trying to find ways out of this mess.  (And I couldn’t get Baker & Taylor to tell me anything new about Axis360, so I have nothing to write.) Also, I’ve written about them before.

BTW, if you know of a library ebook program that I didn’t mention above please leave a comment. I want to look at all the alternatives.

Also, if you have personal experience with one of the alternative library ebook programs, please get in contact. I’d like to get an inside view of the costs, ease of use, and so on.

I’m going to try to get the first posts up this coming week, but that will depend on news not breaking and my sources having enough time to talk to me. Since I cannot control either circumstance, this series might take a while.

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image by ellen forsyth

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Marie November 25, 2011 um 6:50 pm

Hi Nate — I’m a fairly new reader of your blog and like it very much so far. 🙂

This post is particularly timely for fans of library ebooks and e-audiobooks in Kansas. I’ve only used the audio services so far, first NetLibrary and then through Overdrive, but our State Library wouldn’t agree to Overdrive’s price increases, and both e-books and audio are switching in the next few weeks. They’ll be using 3M for e-books and something called OneClickDigital for e-audio.

More info about our state’s situation can be found here:

Thanks for looking at this issue and I look forward to your future updates!

Nate Hoffelder November 25, 2011 um 7:40 pm


Yes, we’re all cheering on Kansas walking away from OverDrive and taking the ebooks, too.

3M is a good alternative to OD, but they’re going to be in exactly the same position as OD. A publisher can pull their titles on a whim. I want to find ways to use ebooks that publishers cannot thwart.

Nigel Atkinson November 26, 2011 um 8:29 am

This seems such a narrow analysis of ebook alternatives for libraries and I’m glad you ask for alternatives. 3M and Axis are so new they have little history. The vendor we have settled on is EBL (ebook library) after using ebrary (although their collections are value and we retain a few). The PDA model for EBL works well and the platform is robust if the MARC records are a bit poor. It seems that whatever platform we choose publishers are the major barrier to successful ebook usage.

R. Scot Johns November 27, 2011 um 2:33 pm

So you’re saying that publishers should not be allowed to control their own product? Trying to "use ebooks in ways that publishers cannot thwart" is the very reason that ebook lending has been limited.

You forget that libraries are not a right, but a privilege. Authors and publishers go to great lengths and cost in terms of time and money to produce books. That they can often be read for free by large segments of the populace is not something anyone should ever take for granted.

Nate Hoffelder November 27, 2011 um 6:26 pm

Publishers don’t have that control over paper books, so why should they have this much control over ebooks?

And you’re wrong. Libraries are a right. Paper books are lent from libraries under the first sale doctrine, a century old court decision that says publishers cannot control what happens after their books have been sold to a distributor. i would love to see a similar court decision for ebooks.

But thank you for bringing this up; I probably need to address it in a post.

R. Scot Johns November 27, 2011 um 6:57 pm

Because ebooks can easily be copied.

First sale only applies to initial transfer of ownership and does not override copyright restrictions. Because ebooks are "borrowed" via data replication, they are lent under licensing agreements (just as rental movies are) which controls the manner in which they can be reproduced. Otherwise one copy can spawn infinite clones.

Technically, since loaning requires the creation of a digital copy, all lending of ebooks is illegal.

This is a very gray area since ebooks straddle the line between physical objects and software (or the physical product versus intellectual property), and there have been numerous cases on the matter, which is as yet unsettled. I, like you, await an outcome. But I can understand a publisher’s reticence in the absence of clear guidelines.

Nate Hoffelder November 27, 2011 um 7:54 pm

Except that restricting library ebooks to reduce piracy while still selling them commercially is fundamentally stupid. It’s a case of locking the window while leaving the front door standing open. Library ebooks (Epub, Kindle) are no more or less secure than the equivalent ebook sold to customers. They’re based on the exact same DRM tech, so the only way library ebooks could be less secure is of OverDrive forgot to apply the DRM correctly. I seriously doubt that happened. And if it did then it’s something that should be fixed quietly, not by making a public spectacle.

And because it’s a stupid way to reduce piracy I will almost guarantee that piracy is not the real issue. I would bet dollars to donuts that the real issue is that some publishers beleive that each time a book is read in a library it is a lost sale. That’s probably why Macmillan blocks ebooks completely, and it’s also why Hachette blocks new released from becoming library ebooks.

"Technically, since loaning requires the creation of a digital copy, all lending of ebooks is illegal."
Nope. This would only be true if the ebook is question was sold to libraries, which would mean that each extra digital copy was a pirated copy. Ask OverDrive and I bet they’ll say that they did not sell the ebook to the libraries; they licensed the ebook from the publisher and extended that license to libraries. The license includes the ability to share (expiring) copies with patrons.

R. Scot Johns November 27, 2011 um 8:23 pm

Yeah, I agree fully about your guess regarding the major pubs reasoning. I don’t concur with their belief that a loan inherently equals a lost sale, however, since the spread of literacy stimulates reading, and not all who borrow would buy if they had no other choice. Additionally, those who read borrowed books talk about them, which is priceless advertising for both authors and publishers.

Still, I also realize that people who borrow books (or music or movies) for free are far more likely to pirate them than those who tend to purchase them outright. And That’s a simple observation of basic human nature which I’ve seen firsthand often enough.

Even if OverDrive is only extending their own license, they must be doing so at a profit, which is the same as selling. But you misunderstood my comment that lending requires copying. It’s not the lending, but the copying which is technically illegal under copyright. When a digital file is leant, the original file does not disappear, but is retained, and a copy is sent. Otherwise, you could simply disconnect your device and the library could never get it back.

This is picking nits as the saying goes, but it does point out how complicated and uncertain these waters are. This is definitely uncharted territory, and certain to be a fascinating ride.

Nate Hoffelder November 30, 2011 um 9:56 am

No, I didn’t misunderstand. The way that libraries lend ebooks cannot be illegal; if it were then the publishers would be suing.

Instead they signed contracts to allow it. Libraries have permission to lend ebooks under the contract so whatever copying is involved cannot be illegal.

marketing Odilotid November 28, 2011 um 4:51 am

OdiloTK ) is a service that allows to lend both ebooks and audiobooks. Our service is currently comercialized in Spain and Latin America with a great success , we are starting our roll out in USA where we offer a clear differentiation from the current services in the market because of the following reasons:

– OdiliTK does not directly negociate with publishers, the libraries negocite the ownerhip of ebooks and the conditions for lending ebooks to their users.This model is already working in Spain

– OdiloTK allows libraries and publishers to cataloge theirselves their ebooks in our system.

– OdiloTK does not charge any commission for selling ebooks.

– OdiloTK includes a html5 viewer that allows the user to read both online and offline without DRM.

– OdiloTK for audiobooks icorporates streaming over CDN (Content deluvery network)

– OdiloTK commercialize a service " OdiloTT" that allows the libraries an integrated management of traditional books and ebooks in the same platform. Guaranteing the integration of users, penaltyes and stadistics.

For any additional information you can contact us at [email protected]

Ebrary Now Offers Ebook Subscriptions for Indivduals – The Digital Reader November 29, 2011 um 10:43 pm

[…] the next part of my series on alternative library ebooks, I’d like to discuss a program that ebrary just launched […]

Bilbary to Launch Ebook Rental Service in January (video) – The Digital Reader December 2, 2011 um 5:11 pm

[…] been writing a series on library ebook alternatives, and this is one that I’ll definitely need to keep an eye on.  I’ll try to get back to […]

Dianne McKenzie December 3, 2011 um 5:54 am

Hi – Interested in what you find. I too have been investigating ebook provider for downloadable ebooks and have found a few across the world.

Wheelers – based in NZ (you can read my blog post about them here
And Dawson Books in the UK who have a slightly different model, and is flexible.. (rent or buy the books)

I am in a school library ….
Good luck with your hunt…

Nate Hoffelder December 3, 2011 um 7:10 am

Those are new to me. Thanks!

Mike Rees November 2, 2014 um 1:35 am

+1 Wheeler’s ePlatform .. more titles, far less expensive, simple iOS and Android apps.

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