More than 100 metro-area libraries serving about 2 million users depend on one provider of digital audiobooks, but there's a problem: The company's technology is so plagued with glitches that one county library system temporarily suspended the service and another will be launching a separate service in February.
"We hate, we absolutely hate that the customer service we're providing right now is not working or variable," said Chris Olson, executive director of the Metropolitan Library Service Agency (MELSA), a consortium of 103 libraries. "We know that's poor service."
It doesn't appear, however, that the problems will be totally resolved any time soon.
Recorded Books LLC, the company that provides the service, has a storied past with libraries across the country for providing books on tape, books on CD and now digital audiobooks that download onto computers and devices such as iPods and MP3 players. A software change in mid-2011 in the platform that delivers the content has caused headaches across the metro.
Patrons and library staff say the OneClickdigital platform created and offered by Recorded Books has been problematic. Audiobooks are not downloading at all, loading partially, loading only after hours of effort and success varies depending on the device. Upgrades to the platform have solved some problems while causing new ones, they said.
Recorded Books and libraries cautioned users that the interface was still in beta phase and bugs should be expected, but the amount of ongoing problems and poor customer service from OneClickdigital didn't sit well with patrons.
"Their support wasn't helpful at all," said Tanya Cothran of St. Paul, who experienced a 50 percent success rate downloading audiobooks. "They'd say, 'This is how it works,' and it didn't work. I just sort of gave up at some point."
The Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott and Washington county and St. Paul library systems are members of MELSA, which pays $170,000 a year for the service. Most migrated to the OneClickdigital platform last year. That's when the old platform, NetLibrary, was phased out after being purchased by EBSCO Publishing, even though NetLibrary was working fine.
The uproar was near instantaneous.
"I think it's a rip-off," said Olga Stavrakis, a Minneapolis resident frustrated with the problems. "I just don't like that we're being treated badly."
Company CEO apologizes
Recorded Books CEO Richard Freese was upfront about the problems and apologized in a recent interview. He also acknowledged that the company fell behind on technical support because of the volume of problems.
"We were at a place where we thought we had something that would be relatively stable," Freese said. "Unfortunately, we were wrong. We had more difficulties than we expected.
"We are so sorry they have been frustrated with the platform."
A number of issues complicated the platform launch, Freese said, adding that the beta phase is over. It's more stable in 2012, he said.
Dakota County Library Director Ken Behringer said there's slow progress toward improvement, but it's not as stable as Freese claims.
"I'm hearing something a little bit different," Behringer said. "Occasionally, what fixes one thing breaks another. We're hearing a little bit more user anxiety in the last few weeks than we heard before that."
Washington County removed the digital audiobooks from its website last fall because of complaints, reinstating it late in the year after being told things had improved.
Anoka County spent $25,000 to start a new collection of digital audiobooks provided by OverDrive and has budgeted $15,000 annually to expand that service. It goes live Feb. 22.
Monica Campbell, adult services manager at Anoka County Library, said it won't cost extra because existing funds are being reallocated from the budgets for music CDs and books on CD, among others. She noted that the two companies work with different publishers, so the new collection won't duplicate the approximately 3,000 titles MELSA purchased from Recorded Books.
"And the other thing is, this works," Campbell said.
'An evolving situation'
The MELSA contract with Recorded Books was set to expire this July, but Olson said he got it extended through November at no extra cost due to the technical problems. The company expects the interface to work better soon, he said.
"That's not to say that they haven't said that before," Olson said.
Olson wants to extend the contract at no cost into 2013, but Freese said he's not interested in striking that deal. Patrons such as Stavrakis aren't impressed.
"[More months] of no service is nothing," Stavrakis said.
Walking away from the contract wouldn't be easy. Recorded Books is the world's largest independent publisher of audiobooks, and Olson said OverDrive won't contract with a consortium. Library staffers acknowledge that Recorded Books has an impressive catalog.
"This is an evolving situation," said Pat Conley, Washington County Library director. "The library is trying to keep pace. Where it ends, we do not know, but we are excited about this move into the digital future."
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib