Why Penguin Group is Not Really Evil

librarianship

In recent days, the backlash against Penguin’s perceived move against public libraries has snowballed to monstrous proportions. If you’re not familiar with the issue, have a look at this and this. Lots of librarians and library users are up in arms over the recent action, ready to tar and feather the already feathered (do penguins have feathers?) publisher. But should they be?

Probably not. Contrary to popular belief, this action is not anti-library. The rumors we are hearing today are the same ones we heard back in November, that unspecified “security concerns” are the reason for the yanking of Penguin titles. When we hear security nowadays, we think of piracy.

But, regardless of what the publisher is saying about it, that just doesn’t make any sense. Penguin’s move is specifically against e-books made available for Kindle, Amazon’s proprietary e-reader. For the time being, they are not allowing libraries to purchase new books and are requiring that remaining collections be delivered to devices via USB. My friend Dan over at Not All Bits explains why this makes no sense from a security standpoint. Instead of making the books more secure, it is actually taking a step out of the DRM removal process, leaving the books even more vulnerable to piracy. The mistake so many are making, in my opinion, is thinking that Penguin isn’t aware of that.

Truth: Penguin did not terminate its contract with Overdrive because of media piracy.

So why did it happen? Well, it can be broken down into an ugly love triangle consisting of three morbidly obese entities: Penguin, Overdrive, and Amazon. See Overdrive and Penguin had an arrangement that allowed the former company to distribute the latter’s books to libraries. All was well and fine until Amazon took over the e-book market like a yeti or a radioactive killer cactus or something. Amazon approached Overdrive and made them a deal they couldn’t refuse- one that coupled beautifully with Amazon’s freshly launched Prime Lending service. By teaming up, Overdrive could meet the demands of Kindle users in a way that was super convenient and Amazon could entice their customers with free library content (See, the Kindle isn’t just proprietary! Honest!).

So Amazon and Overdrive slipped into bed with one another and started messing around. What Overdrive forgot about, though, was its girlfriend! Remember Penguin? Yeah, Penguin never agreed to the distribution terms of the Amazon Prime model. It agreed to let Overdrive use its e-books, not Amazon. But Amazon, being the corporate monster that it is, used its cunning and strength to leverage a deal with Overdrive without also striking a deal with the publishers Overdrive had previous arrangements with. Kind of sketchy, no?

The specs of this whole business are still kind of vague. The official word from everyone involved is mostly inconclusive talk is still of security, which is misleading (have a look at this article and this article for a more well-rounded take on the situation than you’re going to get from folks reacting to bad news). But make no mistake- this is yet another issue with Amazon at its center. Penguin is concerned about something they see on the horizon, and they probably should be. Amazon is no longer just a book seller- it is Penguin’s competition. Would you want your competition to be the primary means of distributing your product?

Penguin is currently talking with other library e-book distributors. You don’t hear much about this because Overdrive is the dominant presence in this arena. The competition is small and, by comparison, recent. The biggest competitor, 3M (another corporate monster), is the closest thing libraries have to an alternative, but, really, it can only offer a lesser version of what Overdrive is providing already. In the near future, I am confident we will see electronic Penguin materials back in libraries. We just have to wait for 3M to put on its big boy pants.

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