The Slush Pile

A Column by Sarah Vogelsong

The Espresso Book Machine: The Resurgence of Print Publishing

If you heard that your local bookstore was installing an Espresso machine, you could be forgiven for thinking that, like so many other struggling literary peddlers these days, it was diversifying into coffee.
But the truth would be much more exciting. Instead of dispensing a single steaming cup within minutes to jolt the mind and stimulate the senses, the Espresso Book Machine dispenses a single book to the waiting customer—any book that he or she chooses of the almost eight million that currently line the “shelves” of its digital catalogue—within minutes.

Need that book on the New York Times bestseller list that’s been sold out for weeks? Need an obscure book on farming that hasn’t been in print since the nineteenth century? What might once have taken months to track down can now land in your hands within five minutes—just enough time to enjoy a real espresso.

At a time when authors, book review sections, and national magazines are mourning the demise of print publishing, the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) is quietly swimming against the tide, seeing digital publishing as not an end, but a means to better book production.

The arguments in favor of electronic publishing are substantial: ebooks can be downloaded and accessed anytime and anywhere; they are less expensive than paper volumes to produce; and they eliminate the enormous waste that accompanies the process of issuing, warehousing, and eventually pulping inventory.

The EBM tackles these problems from a different angle. A print-on-demand (POD) machine that is small enough for a bookstore or library, it is connected to a vast digital catalogue of content called EspressNet. The POD design eliminates wasted stock, and EspressNet—which contains the public domain books in the Google Books catalogue, as well as the catalogues and backlists of Hachette, HarperCollins, and Random House, to name only a few—offers customers the same choice and accessibility as an ereader.

How does it work? Briefly, the machine marries high-speed print and copy technology (developed through a partnership with Xerox) with POD technology and robotics. The user first selects content from the digital catalogue. This material is then rapidly printed and a cover produced on a separate four-color inkjet. The pages are clamped together, glue is applied to the spine, the pages are trimmed, and the finished paperback is deposited in the waiting customer’s hands. From start to finish, the process takes about five minutes.

“It’s still very exciting to walk into the store and watch a book be printed,” says Debbi Wraga, the EBM coordinator at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont, the first independent bookstore to acquire the machine back in January 2008. “I love that feeling when a book comes out of the machine and it’s still warm and you can smell the glue.”

At present, however, only 57 EBMs exist in 11 countries around the globe. Roughly half are in the United States, with almost a quarter in Canada and the rest scattered as widely as the United Arab Emirates, China, and the Dominican Republic.

The technology is still in its youth, however. Created less than 10 years ago, the germ of the idea was planted in a series of lectures that renowned publisher and founder of the New York Review of Books Jason Epstein delivered at the New York Public Library in 2003. In one of these talks, Epstein outlined his vision of a machine that could print and bind single copies of books on demand at innumerable sites around the world.

Unbeknownst to him, however, a St. Louis inventor named Jeff Marsh had come up with the same idea and developed a prototype of the device. One of his acquaintances happened to be sitting in the audience that night at the library, and after the lecture, he approached Epstein and put the two in touch.

Shortly thereafter, Epstein joined forces with his neighbor Dane Neller, the former CEO of Dean & Deluca, to found On-Demand Books (ODB). Through a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the company built the first beta version of the machine, which was installed at the World Bank InfoShop in Washington, DC, in April 2006. A few months later, a second machine was installed at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, which later purchased two more.

Today, approximately a third of EBMs are in independent bookstores, a third in university bookstores, and a third in libraries. A few chain stores, such as Blackwell Bookstore in London, have also purchased one.

“They all have different uses for the machine,” says Jason Beatty, Vice President of Sales at ODB. “Everyone does it a little differently.”

In the long run, this versatility has benefited the spread of the EBM, which did not catch on as quickly as ODB hoped.

“Our initial goals were that it would be adopted faster than it has,” says Beatty. “It has taken a bit longer than we thought.” Most of this delay has been due to the difficulty of convincing publishers to integrate their own content into the EspressNet catalogue. Many companies were reluctant at first to jump into the new venture.

“It changes the model of how it’s always been done,” says Beatty.

A September 2009 partnership with GoogleBooks that gave the EBM access to about 4 million searchable public domain titles was a significant step forward for the company.

But the greatest surprise came from the sudden boom in self-publishing. Because the EBM works by converting PDF files into print, anyone can use it to transform his or her words into a professionally bound volume.

“Right now our main volume is with self-published authors,” says Chuck Rugh, Digital Printing Manager at Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, Colorado, which acquired its EBM in December 2011. “That’s the segment that’s been growing the fastest as well.”

Across the country at Northside, Wraga agrees: “We primarily independently publish, but there’s bookstores that do a higher volume of the Google titles.” In the past few years, she has witnessed significant growth in the machine’s usage. Today, Northside’s EBM prints an average of 5,500 books a year.

According to Beatty, those numbers may be only the beginning.

“Some of the bookstores are producing 15 to 16 thousand books a year on it,” he says. The machine has the capacity to produce 40 thousand books per year.

Out in California, the Riverside County Library System has put its own twist on the technology. As the first public library system to permanently own an EBM, the county has built a number of educational and community initiatives around the machine.

The county first purchased the EBM using funding from a technology grant for the purpose of studying whether the machine could drive down the costs and provide better service in interlibrary loan and collection development programs. Although the study ultimately found that the EBM didn’t have as much of an impact on these areas as hoped, as with bookstores, another use for the system quickly arose in the form of self-publishing.

“We’ve been doing quite a bit of business through that,” says Cindy DeLanty, Deputy Administrator at RCLS. Literary, history, and genealogy groups have used the machine to print volumes of local interest. The fees charged to use the machine are then used to sustain the county’s self-publishing program, called FlashBooks.

As well, the technology has been used to augment the library’s own collections and fill particular needs such as supplying students with books on the summer reading list and providing materials such as reading and writing journals that are used in programming.

“Libraries are continually trying to find ways they can provide service to their community and find more efficient ways of doing it, to be innovative and inventive in using the latest technology to improve their services,” says DeLanty. With the EBM, she continues, “We’re still experimenting in many ways.”

That atmosphere of experimentation today pervades much of the publishing industry, which has released a bewildering array of new technology in the past few years.

Familiarity with the EBM is growing, however. ODB encourages bookstores and libraries to place the machine in a visible place so that people can see the technology at work.

“That’s the best marketing for the machine, to be down there operating it while people are in the store,” says Rugh. People often perceive the machine as no more than a fancy copier and are surprised to see it produce a professional-quality paperback.

When Jason Epstein first outlined the EBM back in 2003, he didn’t stop at visualizing the technology. He went further, imagining bookstores of the future “where the book one wants can always be found and surprises and temptations spring from every shelf.”

That day may be closer than we realize.

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