Steve Potash, the CEO of OverDrive, is a hardworking guy.
At the recent Midwinter Meeting of the American Library Association in Seattle, I passed by OverDrive’s booth on numerous occasions, and every time, without fail, I saw Potash there. He was always talking with someone, including yours truly, and his accessibility and diligence were impressive.
I have had dealings with major library directors who are far less accessible and candid. Potash has all the fervor of the entrepreneur who has built a career and a company that have become all-consuming, and he is obviously one of the most influential people at work in the public library sphere at the moment.
There are legitimate points of disagreement with Ohio-based OverDrive, which still remains a relatively small company of about 200 employees (the firm also has an office in Melbourne, Australia, and staff based in New York City and London), but Potash deserves credit for building the infrastructure that has been, until quite recently, nearly the only mechanism that enabled ebook lending in public libraries nationwide.
Yet though OverDrive remains the dominant player, Potash continues to push hard in a peripatetic way, one moment brandishing an outsized game console he picked up during recent meetings in Tokyo, another standing at the back of a room in the Seattle Public Library shouting out his email address.
This last instance occurred during a January 28 meeting of the ReadersFirst coalition, to which OverDrive and many of the other top distributors had been invited to address librarian concerns about the fractured state of e-lending.
“You want to have single sign on? email@example.com. Or most of your ILSes know how to reach us and work with us. So let’s just get it done.”
That was Potash’s comment. He had started by saying, “We got here because we started the proposition by asking librarians, ‘How do you want it to work?’ and I’ll say it again to librarians, ‘How do you want it to work?’ ”
Potash can be brusque, but it’s fair to say OverDrive has tried to make things work while preserving its own competitive stance and profit. Among the steps taken, OverDrive has released application programming interfaces (APIs) to aid discovery, it has introduced a new reader, and it remains the only provider to offer Kindle compatibility.
The last was quite a coup, and it remains a major prong of the company’s value proposition since no competitor has been able to match it. And it’s what many librarians said they wanted as they were besieged by disgruntled Kindle owners.
In short, OverDrive is not the big bad wolf.
But the crunch for OverDrive comes around questions of privacy and data ownership.
It’s unlikely the company is just going to calmly set aside its competitive advantages, including driving business to its own interface. Upon such traffic relies the tremendous load of data that OverDrive is planning to start leveraging in a significant way, which Potash said will help public libraries better understand not only how their patrons act but also better depict how libraries affect the publishing business.
Still, the big fundamental question will be a now familiar one: Who owns the data? Libraries think they do but will that matter in an increasingly competitive landscape where data is very valuable? OverDrive has said numerous times that it does not gather personally identifiable data from users, but, ultimately, what contract terms will govern use of this data, particularly by third parties to which libraries may want to grant access?
Similarly, only a minority of librarians seem to care deeply that the Kindle loans are in the end an Amazon transaction, but they should, as Tom Galante, director and CEO of New York’s Queens Library, pointed out during the Seattle meeting. Data from library transactions is informing Amazon’s sales strategy, and that’s questionable at best.
But Potash had the moxie to get a deal done with Amazon and to accumulate all this data; give the man his due. If librarians don’t like it, it’s up to them to act.