image On March 24, George Soros delivered a finished manuscript by e-mail to PublicAffairs, his publisher, where I am founder and editor-at-large. Soros had concluded that the current turmoil is “the worst financial crisis since the 1930s.” He wanted his analysis, titled The New Paradigm for Financial Markets, available immediately.

Ten days later, on April 3, having been through the full range of publishing procedures-copy-editing, design, proofreading, and so on-the book was offered for sale, exclusively as an e-book. It was available through every major Web retailer, including Amazon’s Kindle, Sony’s Reader, booksense.com (which serves independent booksellers), and Overdrive (which supports hundreds of library systems). By its first evening, the book was #12 among Kindle’s “bestsellers.” The printed book (and a downloadable audio and large-print on-demand version) will be for sale on May 19, but based on pre-orders, it was #110 among Amazon’s overall listing.

image In principle, and with certain technical limitations described below, the Soros book was now “published.” The distribution of books, like information and entertainment of all kinds, is being transformed. The impact will be profound, and unlike our counterparts in news, the effect can be all positive. Books have no advertising to lose and no subscribers to maintain. The biggest challenge to authors, publishers, and booksellers has been to make books available when, where, and how the consumer wants them. Technology, innovation, and eventually popular demand can now make the world of books significantly stronger than it has ever been.

The HarperCollins experiment

Coincidentally, on the day the Soros e-book went on sale, HarperCollins announced that Bob Miller, a respected publishing executive, was joining the company to create a new imprint called, at least for now, Studio. The plan is to use the techniques of multi-platform publishing to release books and a range of other initiatives to deal with such challenges as high author advances and returns of unsold printed inventory. Miller, who was the founding publisher of Hyperion, the successful book imprint of the Disney company, had shown that traditional publishing could hold its own in a demanding corporate setting. But he and his new boss, HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, clearly understand that new models of acquiring and publishing books are essential to the future growth of publishing.

In a number of past columns, I have written about the work of The Caravan Project, a partnership of publishers based at The Century Foundation and underwritten by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the National Association of College Stores Foundation. Caravan’s goal has been the development of a new publishing paradigm: “Good books any way you want them . . . now.”  PublicAffairs, in the case of Soros’ book, and HarperCollins’, in its Studio imprint, were implementing a similar strategy. The publishers in Caravan have now released dozens of books in multiple formats. Significantly, they have learned how to do the technical work of preparation themselves and have a network of vendors who can provide production services for audio and large print versions, for example.

Biggest barrier

The biggest obstacle to widespread delivery of digital and downloadable books has been making them available to consumers through the retail systems that exist for selling books in traditional formats—hardcovers, paperbacks, and audiobooks on CDs. Amazon and Sony have excellent hardware-reading machines, but they are essentially for people who use only their proprietary systems. There are many other ways to read e-books on your laptops or smartphones, but consumers have to navigate the protocols of each on choosing a device or retailer. In a sense, this is reminiscent of the VHS-Beta or Blu-Ray-HD-DVD competition in movies. Everyone (but the losers) benefits when a single standard or two is adopted. The beloved community booksellers and the big bookselling chains have been focused on other challenges and, until very recently, they’ve paid little attention to digital opportunities, leaving the field to start-up businesses designed solely for Web marketing. Digital and on-demand publishing is still a process in development.

So the market for e-books and other downloads (audio, primarily) remains small, but it is no longer negligible. The new paradigm for publishing—to take every book and make it available in a variety of formats simultaneously—is becoming more common and feels less formidable. It is distinctly encouraging that publishers, the great university presses that have been part of Caravan, independent publishers like PublicAffairs and our colleagues in the Perseus Books Group, and corporate giants like HarperCollins are moving into the new era. As in all periods of change, there are enormous uncertainties and the pressures of competition do not dissolve.

What publishers and booksellers are learning, however, is that there are now ways to reach more readers, more efficiently. That is definitely progress.

Moderator: Peter Osnos is founder and editor-at-large of PublicAffairs Books and executive director of the Caravan Project. Reproduced with permission from a regular Osnos column called The Platform. Please note that I added the Wikipedia links to a Soros bio and item on PublicAffairs, as well as the book cover image and links to description of the Soros book. Meanwhile here’s the book’s Amazon Kindle page. Go here for availability info for other formats. – D.R.