Is the Caravan Project the right new distribution model for trade publishers? The basic offering is compelling–providing simultaneous access to print, print-on-demand, eBook, chapter eBook, and digital audio versions of titles. The Caravan Project’s publishers include university presses like Yale University Press and nonprofit publishers like Beacon Press.
The Washington Post has a very good and comprehensive article about the project and its executive director, Peter Osnos.
Osnos, a fast-talking, silver-haired man of 63, has been in publishing almost precisely as long as as Politics and Prose has been in business. He left The Washington Post, where he’d been a reporter and editor, for Random House in 1984. Ten years ago he founded Public Affairs, which specializes in the kind of serious nonfiction titles that don’t require six-figure advances to acquire.
Over the years, he became all too familiar with the chief bane of a moderate-size publisher’s existence: the difficulty of getting the right number of books into bookstores at the right time. The advent of digital books, along with greatly improved print-on-demand technology, seemed to offer new ways to address this distribution problem, so a couple of years ago, after stepping down as head honcho at Public Affairs, he began to wrestle with it independently.
The nonprofit Caravan Project — which is supported by the MacArthur, Carnegie and Century foundations — is the result.
To start the experiment, Osnos recruited seven nonprofit publishers, among them academic presses such as Yale and the University of California and independents such as the Washington-based Island Press. Each was to designate titles on its spring 2007 list that would be published in a number of formats simultaneously.
The intriguing idea, to me, of the Caravan Project, is that it is directed at bookstores, with a goal of providing a common platform for them to sell the various formats. The marriage of print distribution with POD is a natural one of course–and Ingram, which is the backbone of the Caravan Project has exactly the infrastructure for that. But adding the eBooks and digital audio is distinctly different, and it gives booksellers the opportunity to be the human conduit for this kind of buying. The potential here is to give booksellers an enormous inventory of product where potentially nothing is truly out of stock.
Of course, the Caravan Project is a finite effort, with seven publishers providing a subset of their current catalogs, but the goal of the project is to try the new model, and see how it impacts the business. According to the Post, Borders sees the potential. “This could be a pilot for what all publishers end up doing eventually,” agrees Tom Dwyer, director of merchandising at Borders. Right now, Dwyer adds, bigger publishers are mainly focused on ‘digitizing all their content.’ But when it comes to distribution, he says, he’s sure they’re “planning something in this direction.”
I think they are too.recently over at my own blog. The real story there is not the widgets themselves, but the mechanisms for digitization, access, and distribution behind those widgets. Project Caravan is an interesting effort, and one that publishers should watch closely.
Mywas in reaction to two recent vendor experiences. One had just briefed me on an enterprise search offering; the other had been ignoring my client’s efforts to get software support, training and respond to bug reports. The second blogged a reaction with a patronizing: “So Lynda should not feel too bad. I know its (sic) frustrating to deal with vendors but not all vendors are the same and she certainly hasn’t tried us all.”
With dozens of vendors offering search tools, it was fair to assume that I haven’t tried them all. However, having used search engines of all types since 1974 both as a researcher and analyst I have a pretty good sense of what’s out there. Having evaluated products for clients, and for embedded use in products I brought to market for over 20 years, it doesn’t take me long with a new product to figure out where the problems are. I also talk to a lot of vendors, search users, and read more reports and evaluations than I can count. The evidence about any one product’s strengths and weaknesses piles up pretty quickly. “Searching” for stuff about search has been my career and I do make it my business to keep score on products.
I’m going to continue to hold my counsel on naming different search tools that I’ve experienced for the time being. Instead, in this blog I’ll focus on keeping buyers informed about search technologies in general. My work as a consultant is about helping specific clients look at the best and most appropriate options for the search problems they are trying to solve and to help guide their selection process. Here is some quick generic guidance on making your first search tool choice:
- If you have not previously deployed an enterprise search solution in your domain for the corpus of content you plan to search, do not begin with the highest priced licenses. They are often also the most costly and lengthy implementations and it will take many months to know if a solution will work for you over the long haul.
- Do begin with one or more low cost solutions to learn about search, search product administration, and search engine tuning. This helps you discover what issues and problems are likely to arise, and it will inform you about what to expect (or want) in a more sophisticated solution. You may even discover that a lower cost solution will do just fine for the intended application.
- Do execute hundreds of searches yourself on a corpus of content with which you are very familiar. You want to learn if you can actually find all the content you know is there, and how the results are returned and displayed.
- Do have a variety of types of potential searchers test-drive the installed product over a period of time, review the search logs to get a sense of how they approach searching; then debrief them about their experiences, and whether their search expectations were met.
It is highly unlikely that the first enterprise search product you procure will be the best and final choice. Experience will give you a much better handle on the next selection. It is certainly true that not all vendors or products are the same but you need to do serious reality-based evaluations to learn your most important differentiators.