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. I blogged about the eBook widget wars 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.