Caravan Forms to Give Readers a Choice

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On April 3, a partnership of six nonprofit publishers, the nation's largest book wholesaler, and a group of independent and chain bookstores, announced a plan to provide book lovers with an on-demand choice in format, similar to those available to consumers of music, film, and television.

Using emerging digital and time-tested technologies for the manufacture of books, The Caravan Project will offer serious nonfiction consumers a menu of formats, both print and digital, from which to choose how they read a book. The goal is to make the distribution of these books more efficient by placing them where and when they are needed.

In particular, Caravan is working with bricks-and-mortar bookstores that usually stock only traditional hardcover and paperback editions. Similarly, the project will be offering books for sale by chapters (in "granular" form), an option that is expected to appeal to students, travelers, and others who want only part of a book.

In a press release, the groups stated that their hope for the project is that the "multiple frustrations of readers, unable to find the books they want, and of publishers, with too few or too many books in stock, should be substantially reduced in the Caravan Project, even as a greater variety of formats are available. With the use of print-on-demand [POD] manufacturing, publishers can more closely match supply-and-demand, reducing the likelihood of unsold inventory and returns."

In a demonstration phase of the project, scheduled to launch in early 2007, books will be available in traditional hardcover or paperback editions, along with e-books and audio books, both available for download, in their entirety or in chapters. A large-print print-on-demand (POD) version is also under consideration as an additional format. A prototype for each of the five formats will be completed by the summer. In the demo phase, approximately 24 books from participating publishers will be ready for sale in these formats in the spring of 2007.

In terms of downloadable audiobooks, Caravan noted that "few of the kind of serious nonfiction books that will comprise the Caravan Project are currently available in this format because of the high cost of studio recording and editing. Advances in audio technology, however, now make possible the conversion of digital text files, lowering the major expenses for audio publishing."

The project is the brainchild of Peter Osnos, the founder and editor-at-large of PublicAffairs Books, who serves as Caravan's executive director. The Caravan Project is based at the University of North Carolina Press. Other participating publishers include Beacon Press, the New Press, the University of California Press, Yale University Press, and the Council on Foreign Relations Press. The Ingram Book Group and Lightning Source Inc. will provide content management, fulfillment, and other services on the project.

Caravan has the support of the American Booksellers Association and a number of its members, including R.J. Julia of Madison, Connecticut, Politics and Prose of Washington, D.C., and Books & Books of Coral Gables, Florida, among others. A selection of Borders stores nationwide will also join the project. Caravan has the endorsement of the Board of Directors of the Association of American University Presses and is funded by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation.