Optimizing Firefox
Silos, Politics and Turf Wars, by Patrick Lencioni

The Caravan Project

I read about this one in the 4/10 issue of BusinessWeek and I see there’s other coverage of it here as well. In short, it’s the vision Peter Osnos has for multichannel book content delivery. Here are the 5 ways content would be delivered simultaneously in this model:

  1. Hardcover – Nothing new here…simply today’s model.
  2. Digital – Typical e-books.
  3. Audio – The new twist here is that the Caravan Project will use software to do the audio conversion with a simulated voice at a lower cost.
  4. Print on demand (POD) – Also nothing radical here, although going immediately to POD (rather than waiting till original inventory levels are low) is new.
  5. “Piecemeal” – Lets customers pick and choose content to make their own books, tailored for their specific needs.

Osnos is looking to mimic the film model championed by Mark Cuban where movies would be available in theaters, on DVD, on demand via download, etc., all from day one. That model makes loads of sense in the movie industry but I’m having a hard time getting excited about his vision for books. Here’s why, working from item #5 back to item #2 above…

The piecemeal approach is something that’s been tried before. One experiment was Hungry Minds and the “a la carte” initiative: Loads of content was available for customers to pick and choose from, enabling them to make their own book from a variety of sources. Although I think there’s still a place for this model in the world of content distribution, it’s missing a key ingredient: Ready-made assemblies of content. Rather than asking customers to go to a well of content and figure out what they need, why not have an editor or other expert stitch a few combinations together? Then, as the model matures, add the capability for customers to share their creations with other prospective buyers; those combinations could be made available for review and immediate purchase by others who visit the site. Customers could also comment/vote on existing combinations, much like the way the customer review portion of Amazon works today.

The print on demand option in item #4 exists today. It’s interesting to think about a model where every major bookstore has the equipment on site to manufacture any book that’s ever been written, but that’s not what they’re talking about on the Caravan Project. Rather, they’re just saying that the POD option that typically exists today (when demand isn’t high enough to warrant a reprint) will be available from the start. There’s still a delay in waiting for that book to be mailed from the POD vendor though, so I don’t see this as a huge benefit. (However, when the day comes where all bookstores have their own POD equipment, Amazon suddenly loses one of its key competitive advantages: Being one of the few providers of all those long-tail books.)

Audio is #3 and the only thing that intrigues me here is the fact that conversion will be quick and cheap. For the handful of audio books I’ve listened to I never thought it made a difference whether the author was reading it to me or if someone else read it. As long as it doesn’t sound like a robot I think it will work.

The e-book option (#2 above) still seems to be a solution without a viable platform. As I mentioned here, I’m anxious to see how Sony’s new reader is received, but I’m not holding my breath. Without a truly killer device at an aggressively low price I think e-books are going to remain a very tiny part of the business.


Renee Wilmeth

I think it's an interesting concept but not quite on the right track. The real solution will be seperating out the tools (like POD) from the actual channels (like audio). I don't see POD kiosks taking off in stores for a while for the same reason we're not all watching on demand movies by picking up the phone and calling our order in to a central hup (ala Motorola's approach in the early 90s.) Somebody has to jump first -- either someone to produce kiosks and finance a wide roll out or publishers to get the content ready. No one's willing to make the move until the other party commits.


I think the entire publishing and bookstore business is missing the point. There already exists solutions for cheap and inexpensive POD. They are copy providers like Kinkos. Why don't you just let consumers print papers and bind them using Kinkos? Maybe some people want a book that looks like a book with pretty cover and perfect binding. Professor Christensen calls it disruptive innovation. But very often, if not always, I will be happy with a binder from Kinkos. Innovation very often comes with a solution that is not really good but good enough. And people are different. And I believe there will be some people like me, especially people outside US who feel pain paying for high shipping costs and waiting for the delivery. I am trackbacking my blog post about this here.

Joe Wikert

Kinkos is another type of POD solution. More POD providers are popping up all the time. What will really help POD get to the next level though is when the hardware is ubiquitous and you can go to your local bookstore, if they don't have what you're looking for, they can download and print it in a few minutes. As I noted in the original post, it's not just for the old, out-of-date content; if the local brick and mortar stores could implement something like this it takes away of of Amazon's unique advantages (huge inventory/selection).

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