Ebook Providers in New Zealand: OverDrive and Wheelers

This article began life as a story about Tauranga City Libraries soon-to-be launched ebook service and upon doing some background research I realised that there was a larger story to tell. Hopefully you will find it as fascinating as I have.

With ebook sales surging and library ebook lending becoming increasingly competitive around the globe, New Zealand libraries have also been investigating their options.

Recent announcements by the Association of Public Library Managers (APLM) and Tauranga City Libraries indicate two major initiatives:

  1. a nationwide arrangement with OverDrive and
  2. local supplier Wheelers launching an ebook platform

1. OverDrive
I spoke with Paul Nielsen Hauraki District Libraries’ Manager and the Upper North Island Consortia Overdrive Project Manager to learn more about the OverDrive deal.

Paul Nielsen, Hauraki District Libraries' Manager

Can you tell us about the nationwide OverDrive agreement?
About three years ago Auckland City Libraries, Wellington City Libraries and Christchurch City Libraries began purchasing audiobooks from OverDrive but the pricing of the service didn’t make it feasible for other libraries to consider individually. About two years ago, public libraries started to work together at a national level to see if we could negotiate at a consortium rather than individual level, and it’s continued from there really.

Remember that even just two years ago ebooks were not really on the radar of the general public, there were still lots of technology compatibility issues and there were many unknowns, so for us to get together at a national level and discuss a consortium agreement was pretty daunting. Now though, we are so close to making this project a reality and ebooks are everywhere you turn it would seem.

So how does the agreement work? Is it like EPIC where the National Library of New Zealand negotiated with database suppliers on behalf of New Zealand libraries?
No. We’ve gone it alone really, with some advice from EPIC at various stages. The project working group negotiated with OverDrive to provide an annual subscription with a four year contract to member libraries. Each library individually signs a contract with OverDrive, unlike EPIC. As the number of participating libraries was confirmed we formed into three regional working groups (Upper North Island, Lower North Island and South Island) which represent the participating public libraries within their region.

We were also really pleased to negotiate subscription prices proportional to a library’s population catchment and independent of the total number of libraries that actually ended up subscribing to OverDrive. This made it easier for libraries to determine whether it was a service that met their customers’ needs rather than feeling pressured to remain part of the group just to keep subscription prices affordable.

What will the regional working groups do now that the negotiations have been completed?
As part of the agreement the regional working groups have also agreed to pool resources for purchasing titles from OverDrive. So the regional groups will buy on behalf of all participating libraries with the collection being available to all library members in the group, rather than to just an individual library. This maximises the value to Councils and makes the resources available to as many New Zealanders as possible.

We’re thrilled that 40 New Zealand public libraries will be offering a great selection of ebooks and audiobooks to their customers come September this year.

2. Wheelers
Tauranga City Libraries will be the first library to launch Wheelers ebook platform in August. I spoke with Jill Best Tauranga City Libraries’ Manager to learn more about how it will work.

Jill Best, Tauranga City Libraries' Manager

Can you tell us a about the ebook service you will be offering to your customers?
In August we’ll be launching a trial with Wheelers new ebook platform.  The ebooks will largely be bestseller titles and can be used on all ebook readers, except Kindle. Kindle’s software is different and they won’t let it play with anyone else.

Why Wheelers? How do they compare with other providers?
We had been keeping an eye on the ebook market for some time and we were part of a regional library consortium looking at an offer from OverDrive. When we realised that OverDrive didn’t allow the option of charging for ebooks we knew that it wouldn’t be a viable option for our Council*. So we began discussions with Wheelers who are our chief stock supplier.

Wheelers were interested in exploring an ebook service with us and they have developed a service that enables us to choose whether or not to charge borrowers for ebooks. Wheelers also have a number of other advantages:

  1. We already have a great relationship with them as our chief stock supplier.
  2. They are New Zealand-based which means we’re supporting a local business and their customer service and technical support is in the same time zone.
  3. Tauranga City Libraries will own the ebooks it purchases. As far as we know, all other ebook providers licence their ebooks rather than allow libraries to own titles. This also enables us to use our CAPEX collection budget rather than our OPEX budget.
  4. Wheelers allows us to upload free ebooks, such as those from Project Gutenberg and titles from various government ministries.
  5. The contract terms are more flexible e.g. the contract is for 1 year rolling over, instead of 4 years.
  6. Their ongoing platform development will be focused on our needs, and those of other NZ libraries, first and foremost.
  7. The cost of setting up their ePlatform is significantly lower, they don’t require a minimum annual spend on books and their price for hosting is lower.

Why charge for ebooks, aren’t they cheap enough to be free?
Not all ebooks are $2.99 or less. The bestsellers that we will have in our ebook collection cost on average $NZ17 from Amazon. We already charge $3.00 for our print bestsellers and if we did not charge for ebooks we would reduce the revenue from these. The ebooks will also be issued for 2 weeks, just like our print bestsellers.

Do you have ereaders available for lending?
No we don’t, and I can’t see that we will be in the near future. Many of our borrowers already have ebook readers, and with their increasing availability we expect that they’ll be a popular gift at Christmas time. We do provide a FAQ sheet (pdf) for our borrowers who may need assistance in choosing which ereader may be best for them.

Hamilton City Libraries will also be launching their ebook service through Wheelers later in the year. Jeff Downs, Hamilton’s Collections Leader, said “Wheelers offers greater flexibility in our ownership of titles and accessibility to New Zealand content. It also makes sense to dovetail our ebook offerings into our current outsourcing arrangements with them. We will only be charging for our Best Seller ebooks, just like we do with our print collection. All other ebooks will be free to borrow.” Hamilton City Libraries have also started lending ebook readers (Kobos) to give borrowers an opportunity to experience the new technology and so far interest has been high.

Despite the odds, New Zealand public libraries have successfully negotiated with OverDrive and Wheelers to purchase ebook collections that reflect New Zealand’s economic, political and legislative climate. We can be proud to be riding the crest of the ebook wave and to have two significant solutions available to all New Zealanders.

*Background information on Tauranga City Council’s proposed charging can be found here and here.


  1. Awesome story again. Thank you;)

  2. MandyD says:

    After hearing the presentation by Paul from Wheelers on their ebook platform at the SLANZA conference recently I am very interested in this option, and I am delighted to see that public libraries will be using this service as well. The list of reasons Jill provides for using Wheelers certainly makes sense. I will certainly be investigating further, and watching Tauranga’s experience with interest.

    1. Sally says:

      @MandyD This is certainly an exciting time for ebooks in New Zealand and I’m sure there will be many libraries looking forward to learning more about the practicalities and realities of both Wheelers and OverDrive.

  3. Angela S says:

    The initial decision to use Overdrive horrified me because I researched the titles they had available in libraries in the US and the UK and was very disappointed at the lack of recent titles and the poor range – for all ages. It is heartening to see people thinking outside that restriction and especially to see a NZ company that has put a lot of work into providing a suitable local service. There are of course a number of other companies in the lending and purchasing platform business so it’s to be hoped they each provide something special for us and that we are able to take advantage of them.

    1. Sally says:

      Hopefully there will be more great things to come 🙂

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