The founder of the leading ebook distributor furthers his plans for world literacy
The history of literature is a history of formats. In Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh on cuneiform tablet. Medieval Gospels in illuminated script. The Communist Manifesto in pamphlet, Plato’s Republic in trade paperback, the United States Code as a leather-backed, shelf-sized encyclopedia.
It’s this enormity that pushed a 27-year-old Steve Potash (JD ‘79), then a recent law school graduate, to find the most efficient digital delivery service for all of them.
Citing legal code especially.
“I thought, ‘There’s so much paperwork, so many forms,’” Potash says. “Wouldn’t it be great if I could take these print law books, informed books and practice books and somehow get those law books digitized and use automation?”
With that, voila, comes the birth of OverDrive, the largest supplier of eBooks and audiobooks in the world. With millions of titles being served to 76,000 libraries, schools and government agencies, the stretch of Potash’s brainchild makes the 69-year-old the Jeff Bezos of the digital library. Today, after millions relied on e-reading — namely through OverDrive’s public app interface, Libby — during the pandemic, Potash can be seen as a global steward of literacy, with aims to be on devices in every corner of the world. (They’re now in “dozens of prisons” and in 100 countries.)
The child of parents who fled the Nazis, on foot in present day Ukraine, Potash was raised in a Cleveland Heights household filled more with an immigrant’s hustle than one packed with hardbacks. At Cleveland Heights High, Potash met Loree, an east sider who gifted him, Potash brags, his “big library and book moment.” Though Potash would later marry Loree before graduating Cleveland State, where she also pursued law, such romantic bonding grew tighter when Potash’s business yearnings surged.
“Loree’s always reading, always in book clubs, and a great student,” he says. “It was her influence that really helped provide guidance…”
Years later, in Potash’s twenties, OverDrive’s roots grew at his Heights kitchen table. Besides “monkeying around with automating form factors and spinning out paper with Daisy wheel printers,” Potash experimented with a proto form of EPUB, a native file format for digital text. In the late eighties, a light bulb ding went off: Not only could Potash partner with nearby publishers in New York, St. Paul and Chicago, but he could help modify their books in a customizable, searchable format. (Exactly why law eBooks were so handy.)
In 1987, he pitched West Publishing, the law book behemoth. They were hyped. “And we did a deal,” Potash says.
In 2017, after three decades in business, Overdrive became a Certified B Corporation, a mission-based company, further certifying Potash’s plan for global reach.
Besides buddying up to librarians, he and Loree have helped put Libby-loaded smartphones in the hands of Seattle homeless; shake hands with the royal family of Abu Dhabi; form an entire contract with the state of Wisconsin; and create a kid-friendly reading app, Sora. Last July, Potash acquired Kanopy, the Australian “thoughtful entertainment” company, to add to the OverDrive family.
As for those devotees to print, Potash puts his hands up with deference. It’s not that he’s against print per se, but more so unabashedly pro-written word. Whatever the device might be.
For everyone else, he has an answer: “Audiobooks.”
“We just want more options and more access—it’s not a competition,” Potash said.
“I can tell you a great story is a great story, no matter whether it’s on a screen or in print or in your earbuds. A bad book is the same. It doesn’t matter.”
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