Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Review of Overdrive - Underdriven?

Where Overdrive as an ebook distributor might have some gears loose.

(Photo: Drew Brayshaw)

I've had not the best experience with Overdrive and wanted to let you know what I found.

Overdrive, per their website:
"Generate revenue from our worldwide network of library, school and retail partners by reaching millions of avid readers. We distribute premium digital content for more than 5,000 publishers through OverDrive Marketplace (formerly Content Reserve), our secure digital warehouse and admin portal for publishers. More than 30,000 libraries, schools and retailers worldwide rely on OverDrive to supply the best selection of digital titles in the industry."
This boils down to getting your ebooks, audiobooks, and videos into libraries and colleges. Their retail apparently consists of being the backend function for major publishers.

Now, the caveat: Don't Try This At Home.

It's really only for very patient publishers (who have personnel to throw at getting and keeping this running.)

For your average indie author - skip this and go onto my following post. For the indie publisher, you may want to try this - but stock up on your patience, first.

Main rub: They're stuck in the Windows legacy loop.

This means you have to have a Windows machine to access their backend. Because their website runs on some Windows-only scripts (ActiveX) and no other browser besides Windows Explorer can effectively access it. (Everything besides Safari on a MAC will just get a notice:
(Yes, I know - even XP isn't supported anymore.) And even a MAC will get a notice that you have "limited capablity", which means you can look but not change anything.

Here's a long critique I sent them, after they told me I had 30 days to submit something:

While we work on our first submission, may I offer a critique and some suggestions at this point?

We publish to 6 major distributors directly, using their self-publishing author interface. While submitting several books at once to these is time-consuming, there is one which allows mass-upload - Google. Simply re-titling these books according to the book's ISBN is the minimum needed. A form on Google's site allows you to drag-and-drop the books, which are auto-uploaded.

This last week, we submitted over 70 books to them and it took under an hour for the whole process. They read the embedded metadata and filled their forms from this. We will need to perhaps invest another hour for these 70+ books to tweak the metadata online - as we had earlier set up a template which filled out many of the meta-data categories, such as pricing and distribution.
While it took months to produce these books - shepherding them through editing, getting attractive covers, and effective descriptions, as well as all the minute meta-data details to get them ready, it took very little time to submit them as a batch, with no additional cost.
When comparing this to Overdrive's requirements, we found several hurdles in our way which needed to be crossed:
1. It took us months just to get approved on your lines. There was the initial submissions, then having to be resubmitted, then having our login details misplaced and having to be re-sent. 
2. On accessing your interface,  it was found that this requires a publisher operate a Windows machine, as your web interface can only effectively be accessed with a browser which runs on Windoes (IE.) This is is due to your site programming using Microsoft-specific ActiveX scripts. Due to Microsoft's proved security flaws,  we use MACs and Linux machines - and had to acquire a single machine just to access your site.
3. That done, more time was needed to go through the mass of materials on your site which told us to now apply for an FTP account.
4. The next was to download your Excel spreadsheet in order to submit the metadata for each book. While there are some questions on what some of these columns mean, some study is clearing this up.
5. After that, we will have to specifically email you to tell you that our files and spreadsheet has been sent.
Even as a small publisher, we have several hundred books - and the task of uploading these with individually extracted meta-data is daunting enough. With new titles being discovered every week, as well as marketing existing titles, having to now convert this line to include Overdrive requirements is a bit discouraging.

It is not like there are idle personnel which can be simply devoted to submitting books to you.
But we do intend to have a few books up this week as a trial.
Comparing Overdrive to Google, you can see that there could be some improvement to encourage small publishers to provide their unique content to you. Google doesn't require special hardware, and they have scripts which will automatically process ebooks to utilize embedded meta-data - instead of requiring this be extracted and submitted in Microsoft-specific spreadsheet format.
While it may take days of devoted work to get a first submission up to Overdrive, you can see how this is frustrating to be now told that we are about to be kicked off your lines if we don't.
I have checked out Overdrive aggregators that were earlier recommended, finding out that these each require upfront costs per book to do all the steps above. As we both know, most books don't sell well, if at all. Any small publisher can hardly afford any additional cost per book which will never be repaid. This further motivated us to continue working with your application process.

Another point is on a CRM viewpoint:

Why don't you have people's names at the bottom of your emails?

This impersonal approach unfortunately gives the impression that Overdrive really doesn't care.
I am less concerned with being handed off from person to person than I am that any of our emails are not valuable to you as they are to us - that boilerplate responses are used instead of actual customer/client support. I'm sure this is not the case, since I've had some very personal and supportive emails from Overdrive, whoever they actually came from.

There are only a handful of "big" publishers out there. I'm sure they already have accounts with you.

Overdrive's expansion will be by attracting and servicing new and smaller publishing companies.
Being treated impersonally, and without taking the view of the hurdles they have to jump through - Overdrive is throttling it's own expansion.
I do consider that we have a great deal to offer each other. And that we can expand together.
That is the point of this overlong email.

And, again, our first submission to you should arrive this week (via FTP with XLS file and an email notice.) This is taking effort to drop everything else (literally) and work only on this project to get content ready for you. (Submitting these books to Google was actually part of the process, since these books are now renamed and ready for you.)
While it has taken months on this journey so far, it has been an interesting learning curve. And thank you for all the time your various personnel there have spent on our behalf.
Expect our first batch within a few days.

Yes, this is months to get started..., 

not overnight like all the other distributors. And as I said, I can and have uploaded 70 ebooks at a time to Google (I'm close to breaking the 200 mark there) and so know what it takes to get something somewhere.

I was doing their FTP scene today, and found that while it runs OK, even on Firefox on Linux (yea, I'm a geek) - the problem they have with requiring Java to run their advanced version for multiple drag-and-drop (only on Windows, it turns out) gives even more problems. Just because you have Java, it still doesn't mean it will run.

A close study of their ReadMe file on the FTP site says you can simply make a ZIP file of everything and upload that one file.

The sequence of uploading to OverDrive

  1. Get a Windows machine and make sure the firewall and anti-virus is up to date (no, you don't have to do this on a MAC or Linux.)
  2. Get all the files you are going to upload and re-name them with their ISBN (like you do with Google to get them uploaded.
  3. Fill out an Excel file with the metadata for all these books. (Template available from Overdrive.) But, yes - that's Excel, not CSV like everywhere else. Windows-happy.
  4. ZIP all these into a single file (all epubs, covers, and that .xls file) and FTP this up.
  5. Send them an email telling them they are there.
  6. Upload all these via FTP
I kid you not. It's that nutty.

Is Overdrive worth it? 

My tests are incomplete. Once I get the uploading figured out (couldn't get back into the FTP site on any machine I had tonight - so back at this tomorrow am.)

I thought it was a stretch when Lulu went wonky on distributing ebooks, which forced me to invest in a MAC to submit to iTunes. But at least that gave me more A/V capability.

But having to get a Windows machine is a bit extreme. (And a security hazard, even just sitting there and connected to the Internet.)

I'm going to need to port a few dozen books (I'll select from my bestsellers) to see if anything moves on this platform. At least it's only cost me time.

And now you know what I do - and what I've gone through as a SOHO indie publisher.

Again, if you are writing and self-publishing your own books - get them up through Smashwords to Overdrive. Otherwise, either pay someone to do it (per book) or fugetaboutit.

Us crazy indie publishers can follow these odd back channels to see what can be done.

But you'd think they could get an HTML5 site on a Linux server...

Meanwhile - I'll keep you updated on this dinosaur walking tour.

Update: Couldn't access their FTP site last night from any machine, on a couple different Internet providers, but did early this am.

So I sent them an email notifying them I had some files up there.

Here's part of their response (most of it):
If your email concerns a delivery of content or metadata, please ensure you have provided all necessary assets and data for the processing of your delivery. Failure to include all needed assets and data with your initial posting can result in significant processing delays.

Your delivery will be processed only upon receipt of all needed data/assets under the following general timelines:

 - Frontlist ebook, audio and video formats will be processed within 7-14 business days.
 - Backlist ebook, audio and video formats will be processed within 21 days.

There are occasions where this timeframe is expanded; if there will be a significant delay you will be notified via a notice in this email or in the email confirming receipt of your delivery.

Please note that OverDrive business hours are 8:30AM to 5:30PM Eastern, Monday through Friday, and we are closed for major U.S. holidays.

As a comparison, Google has their books up and online within hours. iTunes and Nook can take about 24 hours, but usually not. Lulu and Kobo can take a couple days. Amazon can take a few days to a week sometimes.

Overdrive figures that they can take the longest in the industry. "Backlist" would mean updating books you've already ported there, I imagine.

Not are they the only distributor which has told me that if I don't upload something pretty soon, I'm off their lines - but they are also the hardest to work with and are hands-down the most inefficient.

As I've said above, pack plenty of patience before you start this journey with them. You'll need it.

BTW: they haven't responded to the longish email I quoted first above. Go figure.

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