Navigating the digital book course: the Naval Institute Press

September 17, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Though the conviction may brand me as hopelessly unprogressive, I believe that books as most of us know and treasure them are not going to disappear from this earth. But any wisp of doubt about the electronic future of a huge body of book-bound knowledge was wiped from my mind the other day in a book-crammed office in a 19th century building on the very traditional campus of the U.S. Naval Academy.

It was the office of Ron Chambers, director of the Naval Institute Press. In my hands was a freshly minted copy of "Combat Fleets of the World," one of the N.I.P.'s most successful and important publications. More comprehensive and current, by their claim, than "Jane's Fighting Ships," it is said to be kept on the bridge of almost every significant warship in the world, for identifying strangers.

With 1,088 slick pages, the thing weighs 8 pounds, 5.5 ounces, unwieldy to riffle through while deciding whether to shell a hulking hull looming in the half-light.

My fantasizing was probably more directly influenced by Thurber's Walter Mitty and swashbuckling romances than by actual naval warfare usages. But at the precise moment my mind had 8-inch artillery hitting my foredeck, and as I dropped eight pounds of paper and binding on my left foot, Mr. Chambers flicked on the video monitor on his desk.

The entire Bosnian Navy

This was no Star Wars super computer. It was a simple PC, the sort most secretaries and many primary school students use. Mr. Chambers slipped in a single CD-ROM disk, touched a few keys. Up came the entire Bosnian Navy.

Now, that is not one of the larger sea-born fighting forces on Earth, thank God. But literally in a flash, it was replaced by a table listing every frigate in all seven seas, with a half-dozen technical characteristics by which with a few more keystrokes or mouse-nibbles, the match-and-search process could be narrowed.

I'll spare you more intricate details, mainly because I was quickly at sea, over my depth. But at the end of the brief demonstration, I was dead certain that a half-hour's instruction or exploration would make most or all of the data, including the book's more than 4,600 illustrations, quickly available.

So?

You, or anybody else, can buy the book for $145, hardcover. In a few weeks, or months at most, the CD will be on the market - for $495. That 240 percent mark-up is justified, Mr. Chambers reports, by the cost of the initial, difficult, expensive construction of the intricatelyhe capacity to change human perceptions. You don't hold and treasure a bundle of electronic impulses, however much we pretty up the envelope."

Heavy decisions

She is, of course, quite right. And she, Mr. Chambers and the rest of the senior staff of the N.I.P. are working intently on drawing the line between data-bundles and art pieces. With a back list of more than 600 titles and 95 new books scheduled or published this year, this smallish, unusual press has heavy decisions to make.

Its books range from authoritative references, to training text and commercial guides, to major histories and biographies. There is a short trade list, including novels. Some of its books, it seems obvious, will be on paper and have weight for a long, long time: The two biggest best sellers in the N.I.P.'s history have been "Hunt for Red October," Tom Clancy's runaway blockbuster novel, and "The Bluejacket Manual," which is given to every new enlistee in the U.S. Navy, and has been for decades of updatings and revisions. Both are bricks of paper.

The press is a core element and revenue source for the Naval Institute, founded in 1873 as a private, nonprofit professional and scholarly institution. Despite the location of its quarters on the Annapolis campus, and the virtually official status of many of its publications, both the Institute and the Press are entirely independent of the Navy and of government.

Impressively businesslike, the press and its staff nevertheless maintain the affectionate sense of the romance of books that makes publishing irresistible. But the digital revolution is upon 00 them, shaking foundation assumptions.

They face head-on the challenge for dominance by huge multinational companies that are pouring tens of millions of dollars into gaining access to the ground floor of the data trade - and then dominating it. They are too smart to sink, I hope.

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