Peter Osnos

The problem with books

VTR Date: October 1, 2007

Publisher Peter Osnos discusses traditional book distribution problems.


GUEST: Peter Osnos
VTR: 10/01/2007

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind…and our subject today – “The problem with books” – is very much the same as it was a decade ago when today’s guest joined me at this table…namely, not so much how to see that they are written, but rather how to distribute books efficiently, really making them available to the people who still have an interest in reading something other than the hottest, most popular items in an entertainment pipeline.

A former Random House Vice President and longtime publisher of the Times Books imprint, in 1997 Peter Osnos had just founded PublicAffairs, a press I identified then as specializing in books by historians, journalists, critics and others who might write what would sell less but likely loom larger on the scale of social significance.

My guest remains Editor-at-Large at PublicAffairs, but focuses his attention now on “Caravan”, another reading venture, but one that now seeks what he calls “New Horizons for Bookselling” and that finds initial support in grants from the MacArthur Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York. Its innovations would take us light years away from traditional book distribution patterns…and perhaps it shall help solve what is truly “the problem with books”.

But let me now ask Peter Osnos just how he’s going to solve that problem.

OSNOS: (Laughter) Well, as you, as you correctly said ten years ago we started PublicAffairs, which has just had its tenth anniversary I’m pleased to say and has done probably about 500 books of which I think we can be generally proud; they’re serious books on important subjects.

But as time has gone on I, I have come to understand that the issue of content, the quality of the book and the issue of distribution have to be dealt with in a sense in a separate way. Distribution is less perhaps interesting or glamorous than content, but it is indispensable.

What we need to do is get good books into the hands of as many people as we can in all the ways that technology now permits. And just in the last ten years since we met and spoke, there’s been tremendous change in the way material information and entertainment is distributed. And everybody knows that. Just think about the way you watch movies these days or listen to music or read newspapers.

So the purpose of Caravan is apply that model to serious books. Taking the book and making it available in all the ways technology permits: e-book, audio book, large print book, by chapters, as well as the traditional printed model.

HEFFNER: And how will it work?

OSNOS: Well, it, it … it’s really very straightforward. If you take a book, in the same way as you take a film, and apply it to all the different distributions channels that are now available, you can find it, and read it in any, any manner of forms.

For example, if you … driving in this morning, I was listening to a new book by Jeffrey Toobin about the Supreme Court called Nine, a very good book by a thoughtful guy on the Supreme Court. The odds of my actually having the time to read the book and sit down and curl up, you know, on the edge of my sofa are very small. But sitting in traffic I got through with, you know, two hours or an hour anyway of the book. I believe that the, the ability to absorb that kind of material is, is enormously important in the way we get serious information. I carry around a little Treo and although I don’t do it, I could be reading books on the Treo standing in the subway. I could, if I wanted to, get books by chapters. I would simply download them onto my computer and take ten, fifteen, twenty pages with me when I was traveling.

And on and on and on. In other words the notion that you can only, you know, it’s like Henry Ford used to say about, about cars … “you can have them in any color, as long as it’s black.”

I no longer believe that a book has to be delivered to you only in the traditional, let’s say Gutenberg format. You can give it to people in a great many ways, as long as you protect its quality and as long as you respect the rights of the author to distribute it fairly.

HEFFNER: Now, are you going to be the new McLuhan?

OSNOS: Well … I’m hardly a McLuhan. I guess what I decided to do in this initiative as I … when my successor came in, I’m now called Founder and Editor-at-Large as a, you know, tribute to longevity I guess. It was to focus on this issue and to write about it a bit, to think about it … because I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t really do something you don’t understand.

And as I looked at the issue, for example, of Google search and Amazon surge and all the other things that were flying around that I didn’t truly understand, I said, “I’m going to figure these out and then I’m going to work with a group of people who will help me understand how to make books more available than they have ever been, because instead of going into a book store and saying, “Do you have Heffner’s book?” you can go into a bookstore and say, “Do you have Heffner’s book” in one of ten different ways.

HEFFNER: Look, I’m not going to deny for a moment that when I read the brochure and I read what you’ve written about this new Caravan and, and your ideas about it, that it’s exciting … it is exciting. I can’t help but think though … there are a number of people who say, well, you used the reference before … look at the different ways in which you see films. And one could say, “A film is a film is a film.” (THUMPING SOUND) I don’t think that’s true. And I think that there are a lot of people who say that it’s not true and who would say that what you’re going to produce is not a book. It’s going to be something else, and why call it a book. It is something else. It’s something you listen to in your car, as you did today.

OSNOS: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: It’s something you look at on your Treo, but it’s not a book.

OSNOS: Well, I … I don’t actually agree. I think that it is … in fact, in content it is indistinguishable. I think it’s actually the same words. It’s the means by which you absorb it. Now you may not feel that way, but Joe over here, or, you know, Barbara, who’s got three small kids, but wants to, to read. She might see it another way.

In other words. You’ve got to accept the fact that all of us have a different set of requirements in how we access information and entertainment. And if you made a list of things that you do each day to access information and entertainment. You find it’s fundamentally different than it was ten years, 15, 25 or 40 years ago.

I’m fascinated by the fact that when I published in 1995, still at Times Books at Random House, Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect, which was his book about Vietnam … a book that was tremendously controversial. I mean we were inundated with excoriation of various kinds, all of which came to us by fax. Because in 1995 there was no email. In 1995 Amazon was incipient. In 1995 there was only one cable news channel (laugh). In 1995 there was no AOL. Think about it. The change, the pace of change in the way we communicate is vast. And the purpose of Caravan, one way or another, is to say to independent publishers and book sellers, “you’re part of this”. Don’t be overcome, don’t be overwhelmed by the fact that you don’t completely understand how to take advantage of it. Take a book, give it other forms of life and let the consumer choose how they want it.

HEFFNER: You know, McLuhan rather felt that with the death of Gutenberg, with the end … as he saw it then …

OSNOS: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … of the printing press and the substitution for it of electronic communications … of television, in his time, and everybody says today, “Who’s McLuhan?”

OSNOS: Right.

HEFFNER: Okay. That we would change in a way our central neutral apparatus and I believe in that enough to feel that I could ask you, “Peter, at least don’t call it a book. Call it entertainment, information, by another distribution modality. But at least don’t call it a book because books, at least as far as I’m concerned and I’m sure, as far as you’re concerned, something sacred.” In the past, perhaps.

OSNOS: Well, but I don’t agree … again. Where we … you know, the distinction between what you’re saying and what I’m saying is …

HEFFNER: Is that you’re young and I’m old.

OSNOS: Naw, I’m not so young and you’re not so old. So, what I’m really saying it that it is no longer up to the gatekeeper to meet, to decide how the consumer will access information. It’s up to the consumer.

Interestingly, one of the first books we published at PublicAffairs in 1997 was called, The Control Revolution, it’s by a young man who was a fellow at The Century Foundation, who was describing a process that to be honest, at the time, I didn’t fully comprehend. What he was saying was that the ability to choose what you’re going to do had passed from gatekeeper to consumer.

And, of course, that’s what’s the case now. You no longer have three networks and a couple of, of radio stations and a couple of newspapers and a couple of this and a couple of that. All of us, are in fact, editors-in-chief of the information that we absorb. I will go on publishing books …

HEFFNER: Real books.

OSNOS: … in the most traditional sense until they haul me away. That’s what I do. But I don’t want to lose the consumer who is interested or the reader who is interested in a book in another format.

And let me give you another example. This spring there was a wonderful book called The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright, which won the Pulitzer Prize. It was a book about the origins of 9/11 through the stories of half a dozen people. Including Zawahiri and including Osama bin Laden and so on. Terrific book. 575 pages. Once again I got so much else I’ve got to read and so much I want to absorb, I didn’t have time to read it. So I bought the full, unabridged audio. And I listened to it. 17 hours, it was riveting. Every last minute was riveting.

And you want to know something, I think I got more closely involved with it by listening than I would have had I sat and read it in a hurry. Because the simple reality is that when I got to Zawhiri’s great grandfather, I would have skimmed. You can’t skim audio. And I can tell you with a clarity that surprises me, six months later, what that book said.

And I … you know … I think … listen, I think somebody listening to this show today might get more out of listening to you ask good questions and me trying to answer them, than they would have reading the articles that I write because it’s a different process. Now, you’re going to assign a value. You say “books are better than anything else.”

I say, “Books are wonderful” and I’m … you know, completely obviously devoted to them. But I think we have to make the book content available to people in other ways as their lives have evolved. We don’t use smoke signals any more to communicate. We went from black and white television to color television. We went from the teletype to the telex to email. And you know, civilization did not collapse.

HEFFNER: Peter, do you think we changed in any way the meaning of communications, of information, of entertainment when we went from one modality of communicating it to another?

OSNOS: Ahh, I think yes.

HEFFNER: And will we now, of course, is the following question.

OSNOS: Well, you know, one of my favorite sort of little tests that I do whenever I go into a room with 100 people who I’m going to talk to about Caravan or PublicAffairs or about anything else. Is I say, “How many of you in this room read The New York Times? How many of you watch Open Mind? How many of you listen to public radio?” And invariable every hand goes up in the audiences that I would find myself with.

And I said, “If I had told you 30 years ago that you would say that publicly supported radio, associated with universities, publicly supported, university based radio stations, was now one of the countries most significant, most reputable, most formidable and most influential sources of information, you would tell me I was crazy.

Radio? Radio was moribund, radio was on the way out. Radio was top 40 and maybe, you know, one all news station. And you know what happened? Something changed. The paradigm changed because it turned out that there was in this country a group of people who wanted to have a certain kind of information and there were radio stations that could deliver it. And that congealed. That … those, those molecules, in a sense came together in the sixties and seventies and produced something which is really quite extraordinary.

HEFFNER: There also was someone called Frank Mankiewicz who had a great deal to do with that and I wonder now if my friend Peter Osnos is going to play a similar role. What are you going to do with Caravan? How are you going to go about …

OSNOS: Well, what we did was … we started … as I said, it started as sort of a figment and an idea and I did. You know, I began … I realized initially that I didn’t want to do it as a business. I’d already created a business in PublicAffairs and we still are, very much, a business.

So I decided to do it as essentially an R&D project … research and development. And went to the MacArthur Foundation, explained my idea and put together a group of partners and part-timers, as I call them. The partners were a group of leading university presses … Yale, University of North Carolina, California, Beacon, New and Island, which are non-profit, prominent, non-fiction presses and the Council on Foreign Relations were in the first group. And in the second group we added Harvard, Columbia, Michigan, Minnesota and Kent State small presses to add to that. So 12.

I then went to a group of book sellers who I managed to persuade to at least pay attention to what we were trying to do. A group of independent book sellers and to Borders. Significantly, I was able to attract the attention of the country’s largest book distributor, Ingram, which sensed in what I was saying, although it slightly inchoate at the time, that I had an idea that could help their book distribution business. And so they offered to provide us with the infrastructure that we needed, the technical infrastructure that we needed.

So here’s what we’ve done, very simply stated. For the publishers we have enabled them, for the first time, to take their books, on their own, for themselves … and do them as e-audio and large print with footnotes, which is more sophisticated than it sounds.

On the book seller end we’ve given them, and attempted to persuade them to learn how to sell digital product to consumers in the store as well as online. And that’s a process and we’ve been through one season, we’re in our second season, we’ve made some headway, we’ve got some, you know, frustration. None of which, by the way are technical. We’ve overcome every technical obstacle.

I mean, I, I can … if you’d like I can tell you about audio and large print, because I think they’re particularly interesting. Audio books, the way they’re now done, are very expensive to produce. You have a studio, you have a reader, you have, you know, bells and whistles. So what we said was, “how can we reduce that cost?”, which was roughly $1,500 an hour … it’s very expensive.

So what we did was, we hired a freelance producer, with a public radio background and he went to public radio studios around the country and got their down time, when they weren’t using it for something else … when we could use the … to do the reading.

He has an ISPN line, a line in his, his home studio which allows him to listen to the reader. In the first season we used authors as readers. So what we did was reduce the cost of making an audio by about 70%. So that instead of it being $1,500 the finished hour, it was $3,000 a finished book.

Now, for a university press book, which is going to sell six or eight thousand copies, if you reduce the cost down to what we did, you can actually for five or six hundred sales, you can more than cover the cost of having made it. Well, that fundamentally changes the way that book will be available. Those books have never been audio before.

Secondly … large print. Turns out that in the United Kingdom they have regulations about making books available to the vision impaired that we don’t have. So, in response to that they developed a system which allows you to take the pages and flow them with footnotes, without having to reset them. Once again, saving substantial amounts of money.

So there you have it. University presses doing large print and audio. Never done it before. I think that that expands the reach of what we’re trying to do and gives people who didn’t previously have the way to access a book, the way to do it.

HEFFNER: What’s your bet, and obviously you’re betting here … and your colleagues are betting, too. Your partners. What’s your bet on the timing for making this a meaningful venture. Meaningful enough to get broad-based support for it.

OSNOS: Well, there is a … you know, one of the axioms that I’ve picked up along the way was one that came from the CEO of, of Ingram, who’s a very good guy, Jim Chandler. And he said, “What you need to show is that there is a compelling business reason …


OSNOS: … for people to do something.” Compelling business reason means that things start to sell. Very simple. I’m absolutely convinced that in the course of the next five years that there will be a fundamental understanding of how important it is to get digital material in “e” and audio forms to the consumer. And it will just be adopted.

Look, everyone of the major publishers … one of the privileges of being a … you know a small, relatively small entrepreneur is, is that I’m not burdened by bureaucracy in, in the corporations. But I know that at places like Random House and Harper Collins, they are deeply immersed in the digital … the transformation of their books into digital products. And they will make them available.

And if the book seller, and this is really important, if our beloved friends, the book sellers, do not know how to sell that kind of book to their consumers the publishers will go direct. Absolutely.

HEFFNER: When you say “direct” you mean … my printing out a book at home?

OSNOS: Well, that eventually would happen, too. I mean, I don’t think there’s any doubt … but, you know, you may not want to print a book out at home because you may want to have a proper book with a binding.

On the other hand you may want to because you, you’re traveling. (Laugh) I mean I went across the Atlantic at the time I was starting Caravan with a friend of mine, who was reading an 800 page biography of Chairman Mao for a book that she was writing and she didn’t want to carry an 800 page biography of Chairman Mao, so she cut the spine in thirds and I remember I felt the pain. Well, maybe there’s another way to do that.

I think that what will happen eventually and probably sometime in the next decade, when we next meet in ten years … that you will buy, in effect, a book with a chip or a URL, an identity code, which will allow you to then convert the book into the ways you want it.

So that if you buy the book or buy the chip you can then print out the pages you want to take with you. You can then have the book and put it on your shelf. You can then listen to it if you want to … in other words, the book becomes a delivery vehicle, a distribution vehicle. And you get to choose where, when and how you want it. And that is, I think, the essence.

Look … the, the … Caravan’s motto is “Good books anyway you want them now”. That’s fundamental. I know as a book reader and publisher that the mind, the way our mind works now … when we hear about a book … the first thought we think is not, “I’m going to get it”, it’s “I’m going to see if I can get it.” Fundamental difference.

When I lived in Russia in the seventies, there was no verb for “to buy”. It just wasn’t in common use. The verb in common use was “to obtain, to acquire with difficulty, I’ll see if I can get …” Well that is, in fact, still the case with our kinds of books. You don’t automatically assume you can get, you have to go look for it.

Now Amazon has changed that very dramatically because you go on Amazon and you say, “Oh, I can order it” and it says, you know, 10 days, two weeks, whatever it is, but you’ve made and closed the sale.

In the traditional relationship between the customer and a bookseller, you don’t close the sale. You go in and ask for the book and they say, “Gee, I don’t know, we’ll look for it, we’ll see if we can get it for you.” And then you have to come back. Well, in today’s world, that’s a lost sale.

So one of the things that we’re trying to do is persuade the book seller to close the sale by telling the reader, “Yes, you can have it.” And offering the reader the choices of the ways they can have it.

HEFFNER: Including one, as now.

OSNOS: Sure. Well, and that goes … I’m sorry … I sort of perambulated around your question … but the truth is I think that there will come a time where you will be able to print the book out in a book store.

HEFFNER: What’s happening with the technology for that?

OSNOS: For the … printing a book out at the bookstore? Well, it’s preceding. I mean, you know, you can already … you can already print a book out … you know you can already have a book made in Kinkos, it looks very much like a book. You can set any book, you know, as a … as a, you know, as a page and print it out that way. You know they used to call it “vanity”. There’s so many things about the book business … are a mis-use of language. They used to call it “vanity publishing” to do your own book. Well, I don’t think it’s vanity publishing to do your own book. I think if you have a great story to tell and the way to tell it is by printing it yourself … that’s not vanity, that’s telling your story. If … and I very much admire the people who choose to do that. And the technology for doing that is more and more available. In addition to which, you know, there are now all these … you know, anything that’s been out of copyright … like the Gutenberg Project which has these books that you can just print out and, and read at your leisure. The … let me try to give you one more sort of metaphor that explains what we’re trying to do. And that is that if you look at the world in which we live … over here you have water content and over here you have the thirsty people … readers. And between them you have the pipes. And to a very large extent today’s contest is over who really controls and manages the pipes. And what happens is that Google … a great enterprise, clearly … comes along and says, “you folks who do the water, don’t need to worry about the pipes … (THUMPING ON THE MIKE) let us worry about the pipes … we’ll get it to the thirsty.” And I look at that and I say, “if they’re going to deliver it, they’re going to own it.” And whatever their other virtues are, I want to be the owner of that material because I think I know what I’m doing with it and Google, Amazon and all the other new behemoths have a different approach to material because of the way they’re … their history and the way they’re structured.

So if you look at this as a battle over pipes, I say the author and the publisher … the author, the editor, the agent, the publisher … should make sure that they can make books available through every pipe, in every way that technology will permit so that the thirsty, the reader on the other end can get it where, when and how they want it.

HEFFNER: Do you think this is good for the book writer … what used to be called a book … for the writer?

OSNOS: Oh, absolutely.

HEFFNER: A communicator.

OSNOS: Yeah, I think it is. I think … you know, one of the things that you see is, if you’re a young writer, or a young journalist today you do need to learn how to communicate in a variety of ways. You have to be able to come on programs like this … and it’s one thing to be able to sit up, you know, in an attic and write your book and hope that people would find it. In today’s world, there it is … an integrated process between the act of writing and the act of promoting. And I don’t see that as a … as necessarily a bad thing. I see it as something in which you can convey your message. You know the truth of it is that most people spend years writing books of great sophistication that have a relatively small audience. I want books of great sophistication to have much larger audience. And I think that this is the way … it’s one of the ways in which we can do it.

HEFFNER: Peter Osnos, you’ve always wanted to do that. And I’m grateful to you for coming here to talk about the new ways. Thanks for joining me on The Open Mind.

OSNOS: Thanks very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. For transcripts of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.