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:
Print editions would be shipped to bookstores as usual. The other formats would be available for purchase through a small selection of bookstores nationwide -- eight independents plus a number of Borders outlets, including stores in Rockville and downtown Washington -- that had volunteered to be part of the Caravan experiment. Ingram signed on to fulfill these orders.
It seemed like a natural fit, Freeman says, because his company had many of the necessary pieces already in place, including relationships with bookstores and print-on-demand capability, "and we were moving into the digital space." Right now he's trying to demonstrate to the booksellers the nitty-gritty of how Caravan will work. A camera from C-SPAN's "Book TV" zooms in on his computer monitor.
"Just one moment, I'm not rolling," the cameraman says.
"Can we interrupt for a second," Freeman says a couple of minutes later. "I lost my connection."
Connection restored, he explains that the process of ordering digital material will add a layer of complication for booksellers. They'll need to "capture some information from the customer" so that, once paid for at the store, an e-book or the digital audio version can be zapped directly to that customer's e-mail address.
Up comes an e-book on the screen. It's "In Pursuit of the Almighty's Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism," from the University of North Carolina Press. The pages look just like those in the print edition. But the digital version will be searchable, among other advantages -- and if the buyer so chooses, he or she will be able to order a single chapter instead of the whole book.
"I think that I need to be walked through like maybe an entire transaction," says Rebecca Kirk.
Kirk is the lucky bookseller who's been asked to figure out this Caravan thing and communicate it to the rest of the staff -- though at the project's current scale, she'll probably handle most transactions herself. This spring, Caravan is offering just 23 books.
The big problem, as everyone involved acknowledges, won't be figuring out the mechanics of Caravan. It'll be letting customers know it exists.
But hey: We're talking demonstration project here. "It's a relatively small group of books," Osnos says, "but a very big idea."
Not surprisingly, his partners agree.
"He's trying to do nothing short of change the way the entire industry publishes their books," says Mark LaFramboise, the head book buyer at Politics and Prose. If it works, "it would be huge."
"If this takes off, other people may try to replicate it," says John Donatich, director of the Yale University Press.
"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."
Maybe so, maybe not.
Distributing digital content through bookstores "is not something we've been exploring," says HarperCollins President and CEO Jane Friedman, though she emphasizes that brick-and-mortar bookstores remain " extremely important to us."
"Peter is a trusted figure in the community," says another big-company executive, declining to be quoted by name. But "my two cents is that this is not likely to be at all significant."
Still, as the Politics and Prose demonstration proceeds, it gets easier to conjure a bookstore's multi-format future.
Imagine you're a customer looking for a book you don't find on the shelf. As you would now, you'll likely ask a bookseller to check the store computer for it. As is not yet possible, the bookseller will say: "We can order you a print copy or we can sell it to you in other formats, some of which could be ready for downloading by the time you get home. How would you like it?"
So why did Politics and Prose get involved with the Caravan experiment?
"Peter asked us to," explains co-owner Carla Cohen, who's joined the group halfway through the proceedings. Osnos has been a friend of the bookstore since it was launched, "and we owe it to him."
Cohen herself worries more about competition from non-book entertainment than she does about digital books. But who knows? "He may be -- and I hope he is -- a visionary," she says.
As for the possible visionary himself: Osnos says he's especially proud of figuring out ways to reduce the cost of producing audiobooks, allowing the kind of modest-selling titles Caravan puts out to appear in that format for the first time.
He's also proud of the fact that the Caravan Project is going to disappear.
The first paid transaction could occur as early as next week, he says. Caravan will double in size in the fall and continue to grow for another three seasons. "And then we're going to say: 'Ladies and gentlemen, now you know how to do it.'
"Publishers should know how to do the books in all the formats. Booksellers should know how to sell them. And we go away."