May 11, 2018

OverDrive Working on PDF Conversion, Faster Cloud-based Platform

OverDrive logoOverDrive is working on a project that could ultimately enable the company to convert PDFs and other file formats into the industry-standard EPUB format for ebooks, without significant loss of formatting and functionality, CEO Steve Potash said during his “Crystal Ball” presentation, which concluded the company’s biennial Digipalooza user group conference in Cleveland, OH earlier this month.

“We want to unlock all of the old PDF [files]…. PDF books, PDF textbooks, PDF handbooks, travel guides—books that we’ve collected, millions of them—that were never optimized for mobile use,” he said. Potash later added that “if we could translate these at little or no cost, and all of the sudden make them fully distributable, optimized just like the beautiful [fixed layout EPUB 3] titles you get from our key suppliers, I think this is going to be huge.”

The PDF format has appealed to many publishers of textbook and children’s books, for example, because the proprietary Adobe format enables an exact digital reproduction of the layout and formatting of a printed page. Pictures, captions, tables, and text all stay where they were originally intended to be, and the format works fine on large screens. However, it doesn’t scale for mobile devices, and many of the qualities that make PDFs appealing to these publishers—such as the use of multi-column layouts with embedded graphics and tables—can make the files a headache to convert. The online manual for the open source Calibre ebook management application, for example, warns users to “be prepared for an output ranging anywhere from decent to unusable” when converting PDF files to EPUB.

OverDrive has long expressed a preference for the open EPUB standard over other file types. Potash was a founding member of the Open Ebook Forum, which became the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), which maintains the standard, and the company only distributes ebooks as PDF files when publishers don’t offer a title in an alternative format. But if the company successfully develops a tool that can cleanly convert complex PDF files, it could have broad applications within the library field, unlocking a “treasure trove” of legacy format ebooks, and enabling libraries and university presses to convert their own PDF content as well, Potash said.

“That’s going to be a big win for all of us,” he said.

New model

Potash did not outline a timeframe for the PDF conversion project, but other key trends and initiatives discussed during his crystal ball address were near-to-medium term goals for the company. Addressing the rapid growth of the “Internet of Things,” he noted that OverDrive is working to ensure that library ebooks, audiobooks, and streaming media can be easily accessed on next-generation smart cars, smart TVs, and other devices. He also continued to be bullish about major publishers becoming more flexible on ebook licensing terms and pricing, noting that while a proliferation of licensing models will pose challenges for collection management, new options such as less-expensive, shorter term licenses for book clubs would also help libraries save money while providing content that patrons want.

“Over the last two years alone, we’ve seen a multiplication of different models of metered access,” Potash said. “I know many of you are still trying to justify…the criteria for renewing that Penguin one-year [license] or Simon & Schuster [one-year license] or several of the models. If we get new models coming in, it is going to put more challenges on us to help manage these business models and the [OverDrive] marketplace for shopping. It’s going to put more stress on you to evaluate…. [But] we all know what the end of the day has to look like—value delivered, at a reasonable cost per circ, for content that you and your users want.”

Ultimately, the company has “a very simple goal” in its negotiations with publishers, Potash said. “We want to give every library and school access to every title, under every available model.” Although many large publishers initially approached library ebook lending with caution, working with OverDrive, other library vendors, and organizations such as the American Library Association (ALA) has helped publishers understand that library lending does not have a detrimental effect on consumer sales of ebooks. Instead, in many cases, ebook lending lifts consumer sales, Potash said.

Bring the thunder

Prior to Potash’s Crystal Ball report, OverDrive CTO Jeff Sterling joined Ryan Fish, director of product management, and engineer Michael Haren to present OverDrive’s 2015 Innovation Roadmap, highlighting several updates to the OverDrive platform and app that libraries can expect to see in the coming months.

Most notably, OverDrive will soon be moving to a cloud-based collection hosting model that will speed up browsing and downloading for most library patrons. Sensitive information, such as user data, will remain stored on OverDrive’s secure data center in Ohio.

Code named “thunder,” the project originated during a “hackathon” at OverDrive’s office in February. “My three goals [during the hackathon] were all around speed, speed, and speed,” Sterling said. “Steve [Potash] is always preaching speed and reducing clicks.”

OverDrive serves libraries all over the world, Sterling explained, and a customer’s physical distance from OverDrive’s data center can have a noticeable impact on the platform’s speed in locations outside the U.S. The new system will use a global network of cloud servers to bring a library’s ebook collection “physically closer” to patrons, Sterling said. However, for privacy and security reasons, user information will continue to reside on OverDrive-controlled servers.

In addition, OverDrive has continued to streamline its app and customizable websites for libraries.

“The [user interface] has to be clean, simple, and easy to use, with your brand and your logo,” Fish said. “It’s going to redefine OverDrive…. We’re going to make it the quickest, cleanest way to get started reading, with minimal steps for library users.”

New and upcoming enhancements include back-end features designed to maximize the visibility of titles that are currently available, compared with titles that are on hold. OverDrive is also working on a user reviews system and opt-in recommendation engine that will combine aggregated OverDrive data with a user’s reading history, reviews, and ratings to help those users discover new authors and titles. “The next level of self-curation is to save user preferences,” Potash said.

“We want to make sure that no user ever leaves the site empty-handed,” Fish said. “Whether it’s a first time user, or somebody who is browsing the catalog after they see the book that they really wanted isn’t there, we want to make sure there’s always something.”

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (, @matthewenis on Twitter, is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

Maker Workshop
In this two-week online course, you’ll create a maker program that aligns with your budget and community needs, with personal coaching from maker experts—from libraries and beyond—May 23 & June 6, 2018.
Fund Your Library: Tools and Tactics for Getting to Yes!
Whether you’re going to voters, city councils, school boards, college board of directors, or any other funder, the fundamental issues are the same: how do you convince the stewards of a limited budget that the library is their best investment?


  1. Quote: “millions of them [PDF] —that were never optimized for mobile use,”

    … Converting PDF print replicas to fixed layout ePUB3 (FXL) will always remain unoptimised for mobile in my opinion. What makes Overdrive think that converting from PDF to FXL EPUB3 will bring greater optimisation?

    The user experience of reading a non responsive/adaptive layout on a small mobile screen is truly poor. The reading experience is comparable to selling the printed book with a separate piece of cardboard that has a small rectangle cut out of it, and saying: ‘Hey reader, read this book, but only through the small rectangle cut out of the cardboard’. Now who’s going to want to do that?

    Publishers, that wish to remain profitable now and in the future please consider better, more responsive/adaptive approaches, to creating digital publications. Your workflow approach to book design has to change – The canvas that you layout your beautiful designs on is no longer a fixed dimension.

    Quote: “That’s going to be a big win for all of us,” he said.”

    Nah – I completely disagree… The only winners will be the publisher as they would have spent next-to-nothing on digitising their long tail. The reader/customer will be the losers as they would have paid for a poor user experience akin to: zoom in, read a bit, zoom out, zoom in, read a bit, move the page so you can complete reading a single line of text, zoom in, zoom out, read a bit more, repeat.

  2. Looks like they’re late to this game- the following product is in late beta and tackles this problem the right way

    Check their product called reflow