Back in the early 1980s, Steve Potash—founder, president and CEO of OverDrive Inc., a digital services, media and distribution company—was a technology-minded lawyer in Cleveland, trying to figure out how to automate his law practice by digitizing his reference books and legal forms. “Why can't we make this stuff electronic?” Potash says in an interview looking back over a career that has essentially defined the development of today's digital publishing marketplace. In fact, by 1983 Potash had done just that—automated his law practice and moved on to develop a series of digitized law books on those now-ancient 6”×8” large-format floppy discs. “I had a vision to marry the PC and digital content,” Potash says. “People started calling me the PC lawyer.”
Potash saw very early that the personal computer would be central to the future not only of book publishing and distribution but the dissemination of content of all kinds. In 1986, Potash founded OverDrive and began publishing tax and accounting forms and general reference works on searchable CD-ROMs. OverDrive was among the first wave of digital services companies to usher in the new era of electronic distribution. “This was the basis for OverDrive,” Potash says. “We partner with publishers to create new revenue channels for their materials.”
From law books on floppies and searchable CD-ROMs in the late 1980s, Potash has seen digital publishing grow into a viable publishing platform in the early 21st century. OverDrive's library business—yet another pioneering digital venture initiated by Potash—grew 76% last year. These days, OverDrive supplies more than 8,500 libraries with digital content, and traffic at those library accounts has grown from more than three million digital checkouts in 2007 to more than five million checkouts in 2008. Today, OverDrive offers more than 150,000 individual digital titles, providing library and retail consumers with digital downloads of everything from bestselling e-books and video to MP3s and audiobook downloads of all kinds.
OverDrive provides the digital infrastructure to institutions like the New York Public Library, public school and university libraries across the country, private e-book retailers and even publishers like Harlequin or international book retailers like W.H. Smith, while remaining completely in the background. “Our mission is the same today,” Potash says. “License and partner with publishers to take print products and create new revenue streams for them.”
Not only did Potash create a business model to support digital media, but by 2000 he was among a group of visionaries that formed the Open E-book Forum (now called the International Digital Publishing Forum), a nonprofit industry association focused on creating technical standards for a new digital publishing industry. Through his work at the IDPF—Potash is president and a member of the board—he's overseen the development of .epub, a new e-book file standard that cuts costs for publishers and offers consumers “interoperability”—nonproprietary e-book software that works on different devices. About the standard, Potash says, “It will reduce the cost of getting into the e-book market.” And he's instrumental in organizing and hosting the annual IDPF show, an international forum that showcases everything from new digital business models to digital accessibility for the visually impaired.
Like Potash, OverDrive seems to be everywhere—government agencies; providing e-books to troops overseas; and even sponsoring the Digital Bookmobile, a rolling digital classroom-in-a-truck that promotes digital reading at libraries and schools. Potash says there's still much work to do to bring about a new world offering complete access to digital content. “Mobile services are growing. We're looking at new business models. There's an acceleration of e-books into the library market. We're creating communities using social networks and programming content that cuts across markets,” says Potash. “And we're still at the beginning of this. Only a small part of the audience realizes that the book they want is available 24/7. The other 95% of the market is still unaware.”