When Peter Osnos ran Public Affairs Books, he became convinced that serious nonfiction titles were losing sales either because books were out of stock at the bookstore or not available in the format customers wanted. In a bid to solve that problem, Osnos created the Caravan Project last year, shortly after leaving the day-to-day operations of PA behind. Now the first books from Caravan are set to hit stores.

Contrary to what some industry members believe, Caravan is not a for-profit venture, but a two-year pilot project designed to demonstrate the viability of a new distribution model. At the end of 2008, Osnos will write a report on the results of Caravan and then the project will shut down. "We're not a vendor," Osnos noted. "We're setting up a system that hopefully others will be able to use."

The key to the system is the ability to deliver the contents of a book in multiple formats simultaneously—traditional print, large print, e-books, chapter e-books, audio and digital audio. To make that happen, Osnos brought on board several Ingram divisions, including Ingram Digital Ventures and Lightning Source. IDV will handle most of the digital distribution for bookstores, while Lightning will serve as Caravan's print-on-demand partner. OverDrive will deliver digital audio to libraries.

Even with all its digital elements, Osnos is quick to point out that Caravan is designed to keep bookstores an important part of the sales equation. The program has been built, Osnos said, to make sure that customers don't leave a store without the material they want, even if it's just a receipt that says they'll get the book in a few days. "Bookstores should be showrooms where everything in the room is immediately available," Osnos said.

About eight independent bookstores in various parts of the country have signed on with Caravan, as have 10 Borders stores. Twenty-three titles will be available this spring from seven publishers. A countertop display is on its way to all accounts; it will feature print copies and samples of other formats. Customers who want to order an e-book, for example, can place the order with the store, which, in cooperation with Ingram, will send the file to the customer's e-mail account.

A Web site has been set up at www.caravanbooks.org to keep publishers, booksellers and the public aware of the latest developments in Caravan, which Osnos is overseeing from PA's office. Osnos expects glitches to occur, but said that is part of the process. "We'll help solve problems as they come up," he said.