Caravan Project Begins Second Year with $25,000 NACS Grant

Now entering its second year, the Caravan Project has refined its methods and goals to help scholarly publishers deliver books in non-standard formats. Developed by Peter Osnos as a way to navigate the emerging digital culture, Caravan has made 62 titles from eleven presses available as downloadable ebooks and audio books, and also created large-print editions through print-on-demand. Recently, Caravan was awarded a $25,000 grant by the National Association of College Stores (NACS), which will allow for increased exposure in university bookstores.

Osnos describes Caravan as a "system of research and development" aimed at increasing serious non-fiction publishers' options for producing and distributing content. AAUP members participating in the Caravan Project include Beacon Press, University of California Press, University of North Carolina Press, Yale University Press, and more. "Caravan is an effort to enable publishers to do books in all the ways that technology now permits and to support distribution of those books through all the available channels." The goals, Osnos said, are twofold: "We want to help publishers to know how to do electronic books, and distributors to know how to sell them." He acknowledged that while many university presses operate their own digital initiatives, Caravan provides the option of offering multiple electronic formats, including PDF, Microsoft Reader, and audio files that can play on any portable music player. Though the POD aspect of Caravan may seem out of place—a physical product in an otherwise digital operation—the experiment is paying off. Recently, one vendor ordered three hundred copies of a large print book through Caravan's print-on-demand service, an order that might not have been possible to fill through traditional publishing systems.

With Caravan established as a service for university presses and other scholarly publishers, it is perhaps not surprising that it was awarded a grant from the National Association of College Stores (NAS) to promote its products in the academic environment. The groundwork for the grant was set when Osnos gave a presentation on Caravan at an NACS convention, and the association saw the potential benefits of this publishing program for its members. The NACS grant will allow college stores to sell Caravan's digital products, thereby giving the stores a model on which to base other sales of digital content in the future.

The distribution piece of the Caravan Project has already undergone notable changes since its inception, based on early results. Caravan has moved toward a more comprehensive system of digital distribution by taking advantage of recently-launched initiatives from Ingram's Digital Ventures, booksense.com, and Overdrive's Content Reserves, which offers e-books and audio books to libraries and can be adapted for use at retail stores. "The most effective way we can sell these books, once we've created them, is through the growing universe of digital delivery systems," Osnos said. In addition to taking advantage of these larger-scale distribution systems for booksellers, a partnership with Emusic.com, one of the largest vendors of digital music, will soon make Caravan titles available for download at the site's recently-launched audio books section.

As patterns of user preference emerged, there were also some changes in the available formats. Caravan had been offering its audio books on CDs in addition to the downloadable mp3s. But Osnos said that audio books on CD were less popular than digital files. "What we've found is, for people who do want the CD, we can distribute an audio book as a download and allow the listener to create one CD, and that way you don't have to ship a CD." The digital rights management (DRM) code of the audio book digital files allows customers to produce a single disc for personal use.

According to Osnos, the possibilities created by Caravan represent a substantial shift in publishing, as new technologies will allow publishers to operate on a more "made to order" system. If books are printed on demand, or serially available in digital formats, the problem of excess inventory will be greatly reduced. The flexibility of digital media also allows Caravan to make participating publishers' books available by chapter or section, an option that will prove useful to students and researchers. Though some of this may have been possible in the recent past, only in the last few years has research been available that has indicated the most effective methods of producing and distributing digital content. In addition, consumer interest in e-books is currently in an upward swing with the advent of Amazon's Kindle and Sony's E-Reader devices, and the popularity of audio books has soared with the ubiquitous use of mp3 players such as the Apple's ipod. "In time digital books will become increasingly significant sources of revenue, as the public become more familiar with digital formats," Osnos said.

Because Caravan is not itself a publisher or vendor, it does not set or suggest prices for the digital and POD books created through the initiative. But Osnos hopes that as publishers gain greater familiarity with these formats this will lead to audio and e-books bearing prices that are competitive with the standard editions. Currently, he noted, audio books can be fifty percent more expensive than a new release hardcover.

The Caravan Project is set to conclude in mid-2009, at which time the findings of the program's research will be published in a final report, possibly as a multi-platform book. But the life of Caravan will continue in the implementation of its research into digital publishing and distribution systems. "By all means, we hope and expect publishers to use what we've all learned in their own multi-platform programs," Osnos said.

Shaun Manning
Communications Coordinator, AAUP