September 26, 2013

Penguin + Overdrive: Together Again


Penguin takes the plunge.

Aaaaaaaand they’re back! Nearly two years after Penguin pulled its books from OverDrive, and a year and some months after they signed on with e-book distribution competitor 3M, OverDrive has announced that some 17,000 Penguin titles will now be available through them again.

This is a significant shift in the wake of the Penguin-Random House merger, though the early indications are that the Penguin deal with OverDrive does not follow the RH model, where titles are priced above (and sometimes far, far above) retail price. The OverDrive announcement says that “popular new releases such as Clive Cussler’s Mirage and Patricia Cornell’s latest Kay Scarpetta novel Dust will be priced at $18.99.  Backlist favorites will range from $5.99 -$9.99.” It also sounds like titles will be available immediately (which is also true of the RH-OverDrive agreement).

OverDrive’s announcement trumpets the availability of a number of big-name Penguin authors, including Tom Clancy, Lee Child, Nora Roberts, Charlaine Harris, Ken Follett, Junot Diaz, Khaled Hosseini, Harlen Coben, and W.E.B. Griffin, all of which should be good news for libraries.

The relationship appears to be back on because the two parties have resolved the issues concerning lending through Amazon’s Kindle Lending Library program that originally scuppered things back in February 2012: the initial break was prompted in part by the fact that OverDrive was allowing patrons to check Penguin titles out through Amazon, an arrangement that libraries saw as undercutting their role, deeply problematic for questions of intellectual freedom and library mission, and that Penguin and its authors had also never agreed to. But no longer: now, patrons will download ebooks and transfer them manually to their Kindles via USB drive.

There are some aspect of the deal that won’t make librarians happy, though, (besides that USB thing– that doesn’t seem like a good long-term solution): libraries will have to buy a new copy of each book every year, regardless of how many times it has or hasn’t been borrowed. This is, as with other restrictions, yet another feint in the ongoing skirmish between libraries and publishers over e-books.

It’s understandable that there’s a certain degree of consternation on the publishers’ side about this new format that could both potentially last forever and be replicated thousands of time without any profit going to either the publisher or the author. But the combination of the two threats seems to have blown publishing’s collective mind, and as a result, many of the new steps in the evolving publisher-library ebook relationship have been tone-deaf and nonsensical. The problem has been that publishers don’t see libraries as partners, but as a once formerly stable source of revenue that’s now threatening to shrink and possibly grow fangs.

This point has been made by many justifiably pissed-off librarians over the past few years and Cory Doctorow made it again in a recent blogpost for Locus, though, to be fair, the library world’s occasional retreat into the rhetorical position of unworldly innocence, goodwill, and the simple desire to give people books does not help matters.

For moment though, the Penguin deal is sure to be welcomed by many patrons and librarians, bringing as it will a wealth of in-demand frontlist and backlist titles to the many libraries across the country that currently use OverDrive. But in the interim, 3M has made some considerable headway: OverDrive, long the dominant supplier of e-books to libraries, is no longer the only game in town.



Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.