Obviously there has often been a bit of strain in the relationship between publishers and libraries, much of the time with arguments along the same lines as those currently used against media piracy, but eBooks have been an especially touchy issue. To illustrate how serious they are about disliking eBooks in general and the Kindle in particular, with regard to lending at least, Penguin has chosen to abandon eBook availability in libraries entirely for the time being. This is hardly the first time a major publisher or even Penguin in particular has reacted publicly against eBook lending, but it could be the first time there was anything resembling a sane rationale behind it.
At the moment, the vast majority of libraries in the US offer any eBooks they have available to borrow using the OverDrive service. As essentially the only major platform that libraries have the option of using, pulling out of OverDrive means pulling out of libraries. Unfortunately, publishers see the partnership that this service has developed with Amazon to provide Kindle compatibility as being damaging. Currently when a Kindle owner wants to borrow a library book, they pass through Amazon’s web page. This allows the retailer an opportunity to offer suggestions or advertisements and thereby potentially monetize library lending. There is ample evidence that publishers really dislike Amazon and the Kindle platform in general already, and this extra bit of opportunity is even more of a problem than the already distasteful fact that libraries let people read without spending money.
Sadly, this could spur some of the competition for OverDrive into a more prominent position. 3M, for example, is working on ways to take a part of that market for themselves with a new service by giving publishers more of what they want in terms of control. What do publishers want? Mostly they want things complicated. An oft-expressed complaint about eBook lending is that it is too fluid. Borrowers should be required, they maintain, to be at the library when they borrow at the very least and even that is a minimum standard. As much friction as possible is desired so that eBooks do not become more convenient than paper books. The 3M example is particularly relevant since they are discussing offering kiosks that users would be required to use any time they want to borrow an eBook. While it defeats the point for many people, these publishers would generally prefer them not to borrow in the first place anyway.
Now, pulling out of OverDrive over Amazon’s sales opportunities makes sense in a few ways given the concern about the company’s increasing influence and the fact that other OverDrive partners don’t have similar options. By offering no alternatives and openly embracing a philosophy of obstruction regarding eReading as a whole, however, Penguin is sending a message to their customers that they just don’t care who gets hurt by their sluggish reaction to new media. They want to drive people away from the Kindle by making life harder for Kindle users, but really this just damages their own position. Making a move like this without offering libraries other options was at best premature.