Steve Potash on the eBook revolution and why libraries still matter

On June 23, thousands of people from around the world will fire up their e-readers, phones and PCs and dive into a favorite eBook. Once they’re done, they’ll congregate in cyberspace to share their thoughts.

Big Library Read, as this annual event is known, is essentially the world’s first and largest global book club – one that leverages the accessibility of eBooks – and it is organized by OverDrive, a leading digital book distributor that was acquired by Rakuten in March 2015.

With preparations for the big event underway, OverDrive President, CEO and eBook pioneer Steve Potash took time out to share his thoughts on the eBook revolution, its contribution to education and the strikingly robust importance of libraries.

Steve Potash
Steve Potash, President and CEO, OverDrive

Rakuten Today: Why did you create OverDrive? What was the inspiration behind the company?

Steve Potash: As a lawyer and an early entrepreneur seeking to grow my business in the early 1980s, my initial motivation was to find a way to digitize legal reference books and forms so I could make agreements and work with documents more efficiently. Soon I was putting those books on floppy disks and then CD-ROMs, and, once I had begun the process of digitizing books, I realized this would be great for publishers. That was the start of OverDrive.

RT: Since you founded OverDrive in 1986, so much has changed in the world of reading and digital content. What’s been the biggest shift?

SP: The biggest shift is that we now live in an always connected mobile world.  This provides a tremendous opportunity for users to discover and access the content they want, instantly. Consumers now expect that digital content will be available anytime and anywhere. Digital book stores like the Rakuten Kobo store and the digital collections of public libraries help readers access the books they want quickly and get people reading their next great read sooner.

RT: What’s surprised you the most in the last 30 years?

SP: Actually, what has surprised me the most is how long it has taken to reach this point. As an early tech entrepreneur, I expected that by the 1990s digital reading would have taken off and digital books would be mainstream.

RT: What in your opinion are the biggest benefit(s) digital technologies have brought to people, particularly children, when it comes to reading?

SP: One of the biggest benefits is that digital technology has made reading more accessible, which has special meaning in education. OverDrive provides enhanced digital content – audiobooks and Read-Along eBooks, in which words are highlighted as a narrator reads. These enable advances in literacy, learning and comprehension.

Visually-challenged readers can now customize their eBook reading experience by adjusting font size, colors and alignment. This means that every eBook can be made  into a large-print book – instantly – and makes the experience very valuable. They can also utilize audiobooks and Read-Alongs.

OverDrive’s platform and app also have a dyslexic font option, which is designed with a heavy-weighted bottom to increase readability for users with dyslexia.

RT: Does digital technology allow people to share their love of reading more readily?

SP: Through social media, instant messaging and chat rooms (like Viber), people can instantly share books and authors they are excited about. The love of reading can be shared immediately. Whether you are accessing an eBook through a Rakuten Kobo device or the OverDrive app, digital technology  allows people to share their love of reading more readily. Book clubs have always been popular because people like to finish a good book and then talk about it. Now, as eBooks have become so common,  readers can join digital book clubs and discuss their latest great reads with an even wider circle of people.

By working closely with public libraries, OverDrive is constantly promoting the discovery of digital books  by supporting citywide, regional and global book clubs. For example, OverDrive works with publishers and thousands of libraries and schools three times a year for Big Library Read, a global digital book club that invites millions of library-users from around the world to read and then discuss a particular eBook. These programs benefit authors, publishers and readers.

Another OverDrive innovation is International Read an eBook Day. This is an annual celebration established by OverDrive to raise awareness of digital reading. Readers are encouraged to share what they’re reading and how they’re celebrating their love for reading. The most recent event in September 2015, saw site traffic from around the world and thousands of tweets.

OverDrive Blue Sky Campus and global headquarters, Cleveland, USA
OverDrive Blue Sky Campus and global headquarters, Cleveland, USA

RT: Do you think digital technology has changed the way people read?

SP: Yes. Digital technology is changing the way we discover and read. Every month people are reading while on-the-go and adapting to a world where more information lives in digital form. Reading is more accessible and convenient as digital Books are portable. You can carry a whole library of hundreds of books with you wherever you go. To help with context, readers can look up words with the built-in dictionary of the OverDrive app. Whether you have an eBook on hold at the library or are reading on your Rakuten Kobo device, digital technology has made a popular pastime more enjoyable thanks to the resources and devices used to reach content.

RT: How has digital technology impacted the way reading is integrated into the classroom?

SP: Technology in the classroom allows students to take greater control of their education because tools like tablets and laptops encourage interactive, hands-on learning. Children can also learn at their own pace.

Many schools across the country also have “English as Second Language” (ESL) students, and audiobooks are a wonderful tool for teaching those students grammar and overall language and sentence structure. Digital books are available to students 24/7, in class, at home and everywhere to make reading more accessible.

RT: Why do you think reading is so important in education? Do you think it’s as important now as it used to be?

SP: Reading is fundamental. It is very important as we must continue to improve literacy rates. As a skill, it is essential for a child’s success, helping develop word identification, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension skills. Reading opens the door to learning about math, history, science, literature and so much more.

If anything, reading is more important than ever. In a world offering instant access to games and social media, we need to inspire the next generation of readers by promoting the love of books.

RT: Part of the OverDrive’s goal is to encourage people to use their libraries to connect with books. Why is that important?

SP: Public libraries contribute to a community’s success in many ways. Libraries provide opportunities to advance the interest of students, empower workers and employees and contribute to the quality of life. Our goal is to help libraries continue their mission to create as many happy readers as possible by promoting the many outstanding services libraries offer. What’s most important is that people use their local library to connect with books as often as possible – making use of any and all reading formats available.

RT: Why is the concept of the ‘library’ so significant? Do you think enough people value the idea of the library in the 21st century?

SP: Libraries are positioned at the heart of local and school communities and transform people by supporting exploration and learning. With the American Library Association’s “Libraries Transform” campaign, libraries are committed to advancing their legacy of reading and developing a digitally inclusive society.

Local communities do value the library as a place of information, offering people free access to a wealth of information that they often can’t find elsewhere, whether online, in print or in person.


Big Library Read

To find out more about the Big Library Read, visit the website here.

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