Underwhelmed by OverDrive

Digital publishing presents a huge challenge for public libraries. OverDrive is a service that proposes to address that need by offering a catalog of eBooks and audiobooks that libraries can offer online for checkout.

I heard about it from a few friends that work at a local library currently offering OverDrive books. According to my friends, it’s far from an ideal solution; one of the more onerous limitations is that eBooks can only be checked out a certain number of times before the license expires.

However, even knowing that the licensing terms were pretty heinous, I still wanted to give the system a test run. I’ve spent a lot of money on audiobooks this year, so it’s in my interest to find a cheap or free way to legitimately listen to more audiobooks.

In retrospect, I wish I’d just spent the money. I’ll never get back the intensely frustrating hours of my life I spent just trying to download one audiobook from the service.

I’ve included a blow-by-blow of my whole tortuous experience after the break. Incoming rant alert!

  1. After browsing through the (fairly limited) catalog of available audiobooks, I found one that piqued my interest and put it on hold. The OverDrive site asks you to enter your email address whenever you reserve something. When it’s ready, you get an email and have to download the title within three days or your hold expires. So far, so good.
  2. However, when I received the notification and logged in to check “My Reserves”, nothing was listed. It turns out I had somehow managed to place a reserve without actually logging in to my account, so I couldn’t check out the book. I had to reserve the title a second time while logged in and then wait for my first reserve to expire before the title became available.
  3. When my reserve was finally ready, I opened up the OverDrive iPhone app and tried to figure out how to download the book directly to my iPhone. The “Get Books” link in the app directed me back to my library’s website, which just said that the book couldn’t be downloaded from the mobile version of their site.
  4. I switched over to my Mac and opened up OverDrive’s Media Console, but that just told me that the book couldn’t be downloaded on a Mac because it was in the WMA format. Never mind that all I wanted to do was send it to my iPhone. I suppose it was too much to hope that the app would be able to play WMA files.
  5. Luckily, I own a copy of Parallels, so I booted up my Windows 7 virtual machine and tried downloading the book from the Windows application. All this achieved was a mysterious error telling me that the book couldn’t be downloaded until I updated the security in Windows Media Player.
  6. Thoroughly chastened, I returned to Google and tracked down the updater link, opened it in Internet Explorer (shudder) and brought Windows Media Player up to date. I returned to OverDrive and finally managed to download the audiobook.
  7. Once the files finished downloading, I clicked on the “transfer to device” button in OverDrive, foolishly believing I was now ready to go. I was quickly disabused of this notion, and told to install iTunes before I tried the transfer.
  8. When I went to install iTunes, I first downloaded the 32-bit installer (rookie mistake!) before finally getting it right and installing the 64-bit version. After the several-minute installation finished, I tried the transfer yet again. Now I was informed that I needed to check the “manually manage music and videos” option on my iPhone before OverDrive could transfer any files. Grrrr.
  9. I begrudgingly turned on the manual management option and finally got the transfer underway. It turned out this was more involved that simply copying the files over; instead, each protected WMA file was sent to iTunes and converted into an AAC before transfer. To make this process more entertaining, if I tried to do anything in iTunes while the conversion was underway, OverDrive yelled at me until I closed any offending notification windows.
  10. After a good 15+ minutes of conversion, I finally had the audiobook on my iPhone.

I thought it was particularly telling that OverDrive had to convert the DRM files to DRM-free versions to make them work with my iPhone. Once converted, the only “protection” implemented was that the files were only stored on my iPhone, and would be removed if I did an auto-sync. However, it was a trivial matter to download Senuti and transfer the files back to my iTunes library so that I could turn off manual management.

In the end, it took 2+ hours of my life to get one audiobook from OverDrive. It is abundantly clear that the entire system was designed by people who don’t actually understand how libraries work. Never mind making it easier to get books into the hands of a reading public. Preventing piracy was their number one concern, with user experience a far distant second.

OverDrive has miles to go before it even begins to approach the simple convenience of walking into a library and leaving with a book in your hand. Unfortunately, I don’t know if libraries will ever be enough of a priority for publishing houses to fix the experience. I know I’ll be sticking with Audible and good old-fashioned books on CD until they do.

14 thoughts on “Underwhelmed by OverDrive”

  1. You have just about convinced me it would be cheaper and I know it would be easier to buy a cheap netbook for the one and only purpose I would have for a Windows setup, virtual or native. I too just wanted to be able to use WMA audiobooks.

    I’ve spent a lot of time already getting acquainted with the pros and cons of using Windows on Intel-Macs in virtual or native mode. And, like you, it took me awhile to arrive at an understanding of the arcane process you outlined for getting the original drm’d WMA loan from a library through Overdrive to a Windows-formatted iPod on a Macintosh running some flavor of Windows.

    It’s a big irritant to set up a Windows environment on a Mac just for what SHOULD be a very ordinary, occasional use.

    My four-county regional library in upstate New York has few enough ebooks and audiobooks as it is, and the majority of the audiobook offerings appear to be WMA, not MP3. Now I managed to resolve the issue of drm’d Adobe format epubs by registering stuff with Adobe, and using Bluefire Reader on my iPad. But that was nothing compared to the hoops we must jump through with Overdrive in order to get a Mac-compatible solution for using audiobooks loaned in WMA format.

    Overdrive and Apple and Microsoft could sit down and simplify this in an afternoon, if they wanted to… so I point to the publishers and say this: for shame. This is not the way to encourage people to use the libraries of the future, or to read and listen to published works. What does it say about publishers who make it technically difficult for people to borrow ebooks and audibooks on whatever equipment they own? That they don’t like the digital marketplace? Too late! It’s here, and stepping on it by making access difficult even for people who would never pirate intellectual property is just absurd.

    I won’t even go into the matter of publishers making public libraries in broke counties pay for so relatively few loan instances per agreement per book. Just another very shortsighted way of publishers stepping on their own markets of the future.

  2. So…Your library had a limited collection (no OverDrive’s fault)

    and you messed up when placing the hold (again…not OverDrive’s fault)

    and you tried to checkout a format that was not compatible with your iPhone (and yet again…not OverDrive’s fault)

    and tried to download to your Mac (you know what…not OverDrive’s fault)

    and tried to transfer to iTunes (wow…not OverDrive’s fault)

    and you spend 2 hours of his life downloading and transferring a book because you didn’t spend the time to get the info you needed (and finally….not OverDrive’s fault)

    • I get the strong impression you’re doing your best to pick a fight with me, but I just can’t resist responding with a few points:

      – The OverDrive website should not allow users to place a hold without being logged in. That’s a bug, plain and simple.

      – The OverDrive website clearly indicates that the audiobook I selected can be transferred to an Apple device (iPods, iPads, and iPhones). I did in fact read FAQ pages before checking out the book, but it is my firm belief that I should not be required to extensively read documentation before downloading an audiobook. If you are comfortable with those sorts of requirements, you are welcome to them.

      – Sending WMA books to iTunes and converting them to AAC files is a required part of the process to transfer those books to an Apple device. The OverDrive software does this for you once you’re up to date. Blame rests squarely on their shoulders for this one.

      – I find it strange that you place the burden of usability and clarity on the user and not the website. Again, it’s my firm belief that websites should be designed with ease of use and accessibility in mind. Users should not be required to “get up to speed” before making a transaction.

  3. Thanks for sharing this. I got through your step 7 before giving up, but I’m glad that you followed through so that I know it’s theoretically possible to listen to a WMA audio book on my iPad if I really, really want to. I completely agree that advertising iPod/iPhone compatibility in the current state is a stretch considering the hoops you have to jump through and the fact that you have to have a Windows machine. I feel that the folks at Overdrive could way more easily & way more securely offer downloads directly into their native iOS App. Anywho, thanks again for the great documentation of your experience!

    • It turns out that Overdrive implementations vary depending on the library. Another local library started offering the service as well, and their site seems to have a better selection and fewer bugs. I’ve also figured out a workflow that lets me consistently convert the books for my iPhone without too much hair-pulling.

      Of course, I’m willing to figure out the workarounds and deal with less-than intuitive interfaces to get something done, and I doubt that’s the norm. They’ve still got a long way to go before I feel like this service is ready for prime time.

      It’s also particularly telling when I can also check out Kindle books from the newer service, and it’s so much simpler. The only downside overall is the short lending period and lack of renewal options. Of course, the Kindle books seem mostly designed as a trojan horse for Amazon to sell you the full version of the book if you don’t finish it within two weeks.

  4. Thanks for outlining your process! I have used Overdrive previously several years ago when I had a Samsung Blackjack and a Gateway laptop. No issues. Since then I’ve gotten (and fallen in love with) a Mac desktop and an iPhone. I decided to go back to Overdrive to check out some audiobooks. After reading the FAQs like you did I concluded that this shouldn’t be an issue. Wrong! After spending most of my day trying to figure out how to download the audiobook to my phone, I am thoroughly disgusted with how difficult they make it to accomplish that. You mention in the recent comment a way to “consistently convert the books for my iPhone without too much hair-pulling.” Would you be willing to share that process? Thanks again for a great post!

  5. Jeff-

    Thank you so much for posting this. As a big-time fan of public libraries, I am sympathetic to the issues they face with shrinking budgets, restrictive DRM, and other issues. Your post allowed me to help myself without burdening my friends there.

    I have tested out the steps you outlined and it works for me, too. It’s very slow as you mentioned (my audiobook conversion took two hours, 7 minutes), but it’s great having converted AAC files that I can use in iTunes, on my Mac.

    In my case (and perhaps yours, unless I was misunderstanding part of your post), I was forced to have a Windows-formatted iPhone or iPod paired with my Windows version of iTunes in order for the transfer option to work in OverDrive Media Console.

    Since I like syncing my iPhone and iPod Touch with iTunes on my Mac, I took a slightly different path. I used an old 3rd generation iPod Nano and reformatted it as a Windows iPod in iTunes. OverDrive Media Console converted the files and copied them directly to the iPod Nano. There were no converted files in my Windows iTunes library.

    Then, I used a utility to extract the files from my iPod, since they didn’t appear in the iTunes Library. I tested both iExplorer on Windows 7 x64 and Phoneview on Mac OS 10.8.2. Both did the job, and enabled me to reach my ultimate goal: transferring my audiobooks to my iDevices on iTunes on my Mac.

    I totally understand if people think I’m nuts I went through this much effort. I get that. I just wanted to let the next “nut” know it’s possible, and how I modified your method to fit my (slightly) different goal.

    For those of you interested, here’s my test environment:
    Intel MacBook Pro 6,1
    Mac OS 10.8.2
    iTunes 10.7
    VMware Fusion 5.0.2

    Inside my VMWare virtual machine I am running:
    Windows 7 x64
    iTunes 10.7
    OverDrive Media Console
    Windows Media Player 12.0.7601.17514
    Windows Media Player DRM version



    • Having a spare iPod on hand definitely makes the transfer process much easier. Interesting that Overdrive didn’t use iTunes to convert on your system, however.

      I actually discovered that when iTunes is converting the files, it’s working with WAV versions in a temporary folder. All you have to do to find them is right-click on the converting file and choose the option that shows it in Windows Explorer.

      • Jeff-

        I had the OverDrive Media Console window foregrounded, where it was showing the progress bar. I should have looked at iTunes, which I had running in the background. Next time around, I’ll be checking for those WAV files.

        On a side note, an old iPod with a dead battery (but powers on when plugged in) would be ideal for this. I had a 1st gen Shuffle like that, but I think it got e-cycled.

        Thanks again. There’s a lot of confusion out there, and your post really helped.

  6. I work at a library that has subscribed to OverDrive. In fact, one of my jobs is to answer the Ask a Librarian email that we get. When our OverDrive site went live, the ‘Contact Us’ on the Help page forwarded … to me! I hadn’t a clue. OverDrive offers no technical help to its library subscribers. (Or maybe that costs more and my library couldn’t afford it.)
    OverDrive still doesn’t play well with others, especially iPods and iPads.Today I got an email from a customer who asked me to phone her and walk her through it, because Apple Support couldn’t figure it out. Really!!??!! Me??!!!?

    • Ouch. I have a few friends who work at a library and one of them said she had pretty much the same experience trying to help a user with Overdrive. I told her it was just easier to stick with the MP3 audiobooks if you have a Mac.

  7. Hey Jeff! Still avoiding Overdrive? I have been using it with my public library for about 8 years now, so I have seen a lot of improvements. Now, most of the eaudios give you the choice of WMA or MP3 formats. MP3 format is for download to your iphone or any other device using i-tunes. Otherwise, as you discovered, it’s a long process to convert the WMA file. There are still some books that only come in WMA. That is the publisher’s choice, not Overdrive. I prefer the WMA format just because I like using my MP3 player rather than my i-phone. But I have successfully downloaded to either/or to the tune of about 3 eaudio books a week!

  8. I have been enamored with my library offering digital books to read via my kindle. However, I got it in my head to finally get audiobooks working for me so I can listen during my commute. I can’t find the right place for this question, so here seems as reasonable as any other. What I cannot figure out is this: supposedly my devices will sync and play well with one another, bookmarking and pausing on one device, picking up there on a separate device. This appeals to me as I can listen during commute and occasionally during work. I got it all set up, chose a book, hit transfer so it would go to my phone’s Overdrive and what do you know – it wants to go only to iTunes. Why is there no option to transfer to my phone’s Overdrive? Doesn’t that seem like a natural thing to do if they state that the devices will sync and play well together?

    Now after all of that, I just come across as a complainer. It’s just weird to me since I went to the trouble of putting the app on both of my devices.

    I really do think that while the system has a way to go, it’s good that libraries have a way to offer the public what we’re wanting and are managing not to go completely extinct this way.

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