Amazon, Apple, and Caravan

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It is fascinating and encouraging to see the titans of technology competing to distribute digital books. The new Apple reader will feature multi-media applications that have proved to be hugely popular on the iPhone. Amazon's Kindle, among other devices, already has validated the e-book experience for significant audiences. Recognizing the importance--the potential and the risks--of this digital transformation, the publishing world, from industry behemoths to authors willing to self-publish, have mobilized to join a major new marketplace. What follows is a wrap-up I wrote as the executive director of Caravan, a just-concluded, four-year project to support leading university and nonprofit presses in dealing with changes that have arrived with astonishing speed:

The Caravan Project was launched in early 2006 with the objective of enabling university and nonprofit presses to take advantage of emerging digital technologies for the distribution of books. Our prospectus said "the intention is to create a chain that provides access and benefits for all participants from the author to the publisher, to the retailer or library and reader."  From the outset, Caravan's focus was on books of serious purpose with relatively limited distribution that would become substantially more available as the formats for delivery on-demand developed. Caravan's goals came to be summarized in this motto: "Good Books. Any Way You Want Them. Now."

The project received an initial grant of $225,000 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in October 2005. After the demonstration phase, MacArthur provided an additional $1 million. The Carnegie Corporation of New York made a grant of $200,000 and the National Association of College Bookstores Foundation donated $25,000, one of the largest such commitments in its history. The Ingram Book Companies gave considerable in-kind support to the project, including help in shaping strategies for online presentation, marketing, and technical innovation. In its first year, Caravan's 501(c)3 host was The University of North Carolina Press, whose director, Kate Torrey, served as the founding chair of the project. Subsequently, Caravan moved to The Century Foundation, whose president, Richard C. Leone, and staff offered oversight and administrative infrastructure. The production director of Caravan has been Della Mancuso, who coordinated the work of a number of vendors and partners across the spectrum of technologies and services the project utilized.

Over the course of the project, thirteen university and nonprofit presses participated, representing a cross-section of sizes and experience in digital initiatives. These publishers were: Beacon Press; University of California Press; University of Chicago Press; Columbia University Press; Council on Foreign Relations Press; Harvard University Press; Island Press; Kent State University Press; University of Michigan Press; The New Press; University of North Carolina Press; University of Wisconsin Press; Yale University Press. The publishers contributed 139 books that were distributed in some or all of these formats: e-books, print-on-demand, large print on demand, and downloadable audio. Caravan's sales vendors included: Ingram, Overdrive, Sony Reader, Lightning Source, E-Music, and Audible. Libraries and independent and chain booksellers were offered the books for retail distribution. In every case, the Caravan formats supplemented the books' original print publication, and all revenues from sales flowed to the publishers.                       

When Caravan's work began, the prospects for digital, multi-platform publishing remained unclear. As a percentage of sales and readership, electronic books were a marginal factor. Digital audio and the conversion of digital files into print-on-demand books had established roles in the marketplace, but neither was considered significant. At the start of 2010, e-books are poised to become a major contributor in the expansion of book availability; downloadable audio books account for about 20 percent of overall sales and the use of print-on-demand technology is widespread through such large manufacturers as Lightning Source and the emergence of smaller printers such as the Espresso Machine being sold or leased to bookstores and university libraries by Books-on-Demand. The e-book still is only a small portion of overall book volume, but it is multiplying very fast, with sales reaching $130 million in 2009.

The digitization of millions of books by Google and the consequences of that process for authors, publishers, libraries, and booksellers has produced a landmark agreement, now under court review, that establishes principles and payments governing electronic distribution. Protecting the rights of ownership to books under copyright as well as ensuring access to books in the public domain are fundamental issues in the Google case. But the reality that an almost incalculably vast number of books will be rendered in digital formats is no longer in any doubt, as is the need for guidelines to assure that the dominance of Google and others at the forefront of digital development do not overwhelm the interests of traditional participants in the publishing process. Among all the discussions and practical demonstrations in which Caravan has been involved, two concepts have emerged that help to frame the results of the project:

(1) Convenience and quality are the determining attributes for readers. The acceptance of digitally delivered books in a variety of formats reflects the fact that readers increasingly turn to what suits their purposes for information or entertainment.  Books, the most time-honored device for providing that material, have succeeded because of the ease of navigation and the standards of the content. Nothing in the digital age has changed that fundamental fact.

(2) For the digital and on-demand book to become widely adopted, the marketplace needs "compelling business reasons" as one distribution executive characterized it, to invest in growth. Business is not merely a matter of accumulating revenues, but of attracting demand. The more readers expect material to be provided to them in a variety of ways, the more publishers, libraries, and booksellers will respond. In the years of Caravan's activities, authors, publishers, and libraries have recognized the prevailing trends and reacted accordingly. Virtually all publishers now have a plan for the digitizing of books and promotion of them on websites. Libraries have also been at the forefront of spreading the digital word working with OverDrive, and other vendors.

Among booksellers, progress has been less consistent. As a retailer and developer of the Kindle reader, Amazon has led the way in popularizing digital books. Adobe, Google, Sony, Apple, and the inventors of other reading tablets and applications all have played a part in the growing acceptance of e-books. But the least active participants in that process, until very recently, have been the "brick and mortar" book retailers, the independent stores as well as the national chains, who did not see value in the expenditure of time and money on what seemed to be a small return. Their priorities were determined by more immediate concerns: competition, the management of inventory and limited resources, and the marketing to customers on the premises rather than those who might visit online. Caravan actively solicited the partnership of retailers, but ultimately had little success in directly supporting their digital strategies. Lately, however, both Barnes & Noble and Borders have expanded their digital offerings. The American Booksellers Association, which represents mainly independents, has a plan for increasing digital sales, but it remains largely in the background of consumer awareness. As the digital market expands wholesalers and retailers that have been the mainstay of the book business will need to do more to support multi-platform delivery or see their market share decline.  

The Caravan Project has shown that there are no insurmountable technical obstacles to multi-platform book publishing. In the space of four years, many of the questions surrounding the digital dissemination of books have been resolved. Other issues remain to be addressed such as the proper tagging of digital formats to make them easier to track in bookstores and libraries as formats proliferate. Caravan's first list of 24 books carried over 900 ISBNs (as identifiers are called) because each format and each chapter that might be sold had to be separately listed. As a result, Caravan did not continue its program of releasing books by chapters, which would be of particular use to students and librarians. Some headway in simplifying the proliferations of formats and identifiers has been made, but more work is required. The pricing of electronic and audio books remains a contentious issue with a lively debate over how to determine and apportion the savings that result from eliminating manufacturing and shipping costs for digital books. Digital rights management to limit piracy remains a problem, but proved to be less a factor than anticipated in Caravan deliberations because technology has made unauthorized copying easier to limit and trace.  And finally, there remain some differences about what constitutes "fair use" of copyrighted books that are digitized and offered for reading and/or sale by Google and other aggregators.

The continuing discussion about the transformative effect of technology continues a process that is, in its way, eternal. Cave paintings, scrolls, the codex, the teleptype, the telephone, radio and television have all preceded the computer and Internet in shaping how we access data. The essence of our latter-day re-invention is choice. The creators serve it up and consumers make the decision about how to access it. Books are widely available in traditional printed form as hardcovers or paperbacks. They can be printed on demand. They are available on reading devices or as PDFs on computers. The can be downloaded as audios or purchased as CDs. Not all books are distributed in all versions, but they can be and over time it will be increasingly common to repurpose the digital file for whatever form the reader finds most convenient.

The digital age has had a tumultuous impact on the printed word. But books are different from newspapers and magazines. They have neither advertising nor subscribers, so the loss of these revenue streams is not an issue. Technology is an ally to the book process by increasing access and bringing down costs. There will always be a tug-of-war among all those in the chain from author through distributors to consumers in which every one focuses on their particular self-interest, particularly when it comes to revenue and price. Technology will shape the outcome of that tussle. But the market will, as it always does, set the value of the goods.

Information and entertainment are indispensable commodities in the organization of civilization. We are clearly at a major juncture in the way books are made available. Whatever the outcome in the short term, books in various forms will endure--in your hand, on the screen, in your ear. As The Caravan Project has demonstrated, the choice increasingly will be made by readers about where, when, and how to take advantage of the best of scholarship and creativity.

Additional material about Caravan and the production director's Operations Manual for publishers and authors are available at www.caravanbooks.org. The site is no longer operational for sales.

Photo credit: goXunu/flickr

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Peter Osnos is a journalist turned book editor/publisher. He spent 18 years working at various bureaus for The Washington Post before founding Public Affairs Books. More

Peter Osnos is founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at The Century Foundation which distributes this weekly "Platform" column. (An archive of the columns is available at www.tcf.org.) He is vice-chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review and executive director of The Caravan Project, which is also based at The Century Foundation.

Osnos spent 18 years at the Washington Post, where he was variously Indochina bureau chief, Moscow correspondent, foreign editor, national editor and London bureau chief.

He was publisher of Random House's Times Books Division from 1991 to 1996, and was also vice president and associate publisher of the Random House imprint. Authors he has worked with include President Bill Clinton, former President Jimmy Carter, Rosalyn Carter, Nancy Reagan, former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, Barack Obama, Boris Yeltsin, Paul Volcker, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Clark Clifford, Sam Donaldson, Morley Safer, Peggy Noonan, Molly Ivins, Stanley Karnow, Jim Lehrer, Muhammad Yunus, Scott McClellan, Robert McNamara, Natan Sharansky, and journalists from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The Atlantic and the Economist.

He served as chair of the Trade Division of the Association of American Publishers Committee, and is an emeritus member of the Board of Directors of Human Rights Watch. He serves on the board of other journalism and human rights organizations and is a member of The Council on Foreign Relations.
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