For Bookstores, a Real Page-Turner

Politics and Prose staffer Rebecca Kirk with a new tool for booksellers.
Politics and Prose staffer Rebecca Kirk with a new tool for booksellers. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 19, 2007

Want to see the future of the book? Pay attention to what's on the screen.

That's what a clutch of booksellers are doing at Politics and Prose, the 23-year-old independent bookstore in Northwest Washington. They cluster around a long table downstairs on a recent afternoon, peering at a free-standing monitor hooked up to a laptop that's wielded by a man named Kent Freeman. They're getting an update on the Caravan Project -- a tiny, experimental venture that just might be a harbinger of their digital destiny.

"The trick for you," Freeman tells the booksellers, is to answer a simple question: "How does the physical bookstore provide digital content to the consumer?"

Or to put it a bit more starkly: With books increasingly available in multiple formats -- among them digital "e-books" and audio versions downloadable to your iPod -- what's to prevent people from bypassing brick-and-mortar bookstores entirely, further undercutting enterprises already under pressure from online competitors?

Freeman represents the digital arm of Ingram Industries, which among other things is the country's biggest book wholesaler, and he is a key part of Caravan. Sitting across from him is the man who thought up the experiment: Peter Osnos, the founder and editor-at-large of Public Affairs Books.

One of the project's main goals, Osnos says -- "and this is just enormously important" -- is to make sure that "Politics and Prose and its like are part of the means of selling digital product."

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:

  • Regular print editions (either paperback or hardcover, depending on publisher preference).
  • Digital books, in several formats.

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