Friday, April 17, 2009

Want an Espresso? An Espresso Book Machine That Is
By Persia Walker

Good news for everyone, really. Print-On-Demand books might be coming to your neighborhood stores for real now, print-on-demand as in the ability to print books on the spot, when customers order them.

According to Publisher's Weekly, Lightning Source has entered into an Espresso Book Machine pilot program. The EBM device, which is made by On Demand Books, is said to work fast -- taking only 15 minutes to copy, print and bind books. Apparently, it can print 112 pages per minute, including four-color covers, producing books identical to traditional methods of printing.

Here's a YouTube video of an EBM from 2007. On Demand says it will display an updated model at the London Book Fair, so this video might be a bit dated. But it's still very informative.

LS has gotten some of its leading clients to sign on. That includes Simon & Schuster, McGraw-Hill, Macmillan and the Hachette Book Group. PW said that readers will soon be able to choose among some 85,000 titles at EBM stores across the country. However, it gave no specifics on which U.S. bookstores might be using the EBM.

So far, Blackwell's, Britain's leading academic bookseller, is the only bookseller I'm aware of to have formally announced its introduction of the EBM in its bookstores. Its news release is giddy with anticipation of increased sales.

It's clear that the EBM offers excellent benefits to booksellers: they needn't ever go out of stock and can offer a huge increase in their number of titles. What does it mean for writers and readers?

For writers whose books are regularly on display, this development mightn't mean anything. But for those whose books have disappeared from the shelves, it could mean a great deal. For self-published authors, whose books were never displayed in stores to begin with, it could be a watershed event.

For this last group, the EBM could help open up a whole new channel of distribution. One of the concerns that has caused bookstores to be so unwilling to stock books by independently- or self-published is fear that the books are unreturnable. Obviously, with the EBM, this isn't a problem. To underscore the point, Blackwell's says it actually "hopes to attract a new audience of eager, budding authors and self publishers keen to see their work in print." So here's a bookstore chain that's not only open to undiscovered talent, but thanks to its use of EBMs, can eagerly embracing it.

The EBM could also offer a lifeline to small, independent bookstores. These stores have suffered because they couldn't offer the kind of inventory available in larger chain bookstores. People would rather go to a large bookstore and make their on-the-spot purchase than go to a small one, order the book and wait a week for it. Now, when it's a matter of purchasing an out-of-stock or unstocked book, they might well decide to go to their neighborhood store rather than trek downtown to the larger store. Who knows? I hope so.

So far, there's only a smattering of EBMs in North America. That could soon change, given the number of titles now available. On Demand Books is seeking to develop the market. It will have a version of the EBM on display at the London Book Fair.

Questions remain, of course. While it's clear that the EBMs could be moneymakers for bookstores, it isn't yet clear how much of an investment they would represent. Some stores, especially smaller ones, might be reluctant to spend a significant sum on such new, and relatively untested, technology, no matter how exciting it might be. It could well be one of those cases in which everyone takes a wait-and-see attitude, then sees that it's working and makes a sudden rush for the gates.

One last point: It would be interesting to see how or if EBM printing affects the retail cost of a book. So far, on-demand printing has resulted in higher costs per unit than traditional off-set methods. Theoretically that wouldn't change with EBMs. However, EBM printing means no more warehousing or transportation costs for publishers. It means fewer returns and no unwanted copies. That means real dollars-and-cents savings. Wouldn't it be nice if such savings were passed on to customers?

As a closet techno-geek, of course, I'm really excited about the advent of the Espresso Book Machine. As a writer, even more so.


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