Et tu, brute?

Other people have said more insightful and salient things about Penguin’s recent defection from Overdrive, but I didn’t want to let this one go without saying something. Penguin’s decision to pull all ebooks from Overdrive’s lending program is a huge disappointment (especially when you consider it in light of the fact that they make a crap ton of money from re-packaging public domain content). Their excuse for ending their Overdrive contract is beyond flimsy: They claim that Amazon’s addition to the Overdrive platform raises security concerns. They’ve stated that they might re-consider if lending didn’t go through Amazon’s site, or if patrons had to be physically present in a library to borrow ebooks. I fail to see how downloading a file and loading it via USB could possibly be more secure than loaning through the Amazon site.

It’s clear to most who are paying attention to this story that Penguin’s reasons are more petty than that. Amazon’s foray into publishing has pissed them off. They feel they’re losing control. They can’t handle the changing technological landscape, the changing publishing landscape. But these reactions are nothing more than scrambling, futile grasps for some kind of hold. They aren’t going to change things, and in the end, Penguin will still be forced to adapt, and the only people who will lose are those who always have: those who rely on libraries to access information. Not to mention the future of our cultural record, when libraries are no longer able to fulfill a crucial preservation function.

The fact is that the world of writing and publishing, selling and reading is different, and we can’t turn it around. Books are going to be published digitally, no matter how many people write impassioned diatribes against ebooks. Ebooks are the future of reading. But right now, we’re creating a world where access is being limited more and more to those who can afford it. Libraries have always played a key role in leveling that playing field, and we’re being prevented from doing that in a digital future.

That Penguin made this move just a week after a much anticipated meeting between the Big Six publishers and ALA head honchos just makes me feel powerless. As a librarian, I put my trust in ALA leadership to advocate for our needs, and the needs of our patrons. But it sounds like they went in there with anything but a heavy stick. ALA has a massive communications network, and a marketing budget. For decades ALA has spent that marketing budget creating Read posters and other pieces of propaganda that, frankly, serve more of a sentimental purpose than anything else. Why not use that budget to create a unified voice around issues that really matter, like this one? ALA could orchestrate an excellent patron education initiative around digital library issues. I feel like all they did was go into a meeting with the publishers and assure them that everything would be ok. Instead, we need people who are willing to fight.

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