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.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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