Old, Weird Tech: The Penguincubator, a Book Vending Machine

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In our discussions about the future of books, it is easy to focus on the production of the book as an object. Somehow when we talk about e-books, we end talking only about Gutenberg and printing, when the biggest changes are about brick-and-mortar stores and distribution. Literature, as an industry, has been dominated by its adherence to traditional distribution schemes, moved as a product like bags of cashews or detergent or cardboard. Books came out of factories, got packed into boxes, and loaded onto trucks, which drove across the country and delivered them to stores. Or at least that's how it seemed to go in the pre-digital age.

Which is one reason that the Penguincubator is so interesting. As recently described by publisher and author James Bridle, this book vending machine was created by the selfsame man who perfected the cheap paperback.

"Lane's other invention, alongside the cheap, quality paperback, was the Penguincubator, first installed outside Henderson's (the "Bomb Shop") at 66 Charing Cross Road," Bridle writes. The book vending machine "signaled his intention to take the book beyond the library and the traditional bookstore, into railway stations, chain stores and onto the streets."

To me, it's no surprise that the guy who thought differently about what a book was would also see that there were new possibilities in how books would get distributed. Bridle continues:

In the Penguincubator we see several desires converge: affordable books, non-traditional distribution, awareness of context, and a quiet radicalism. And it's not a huge leap of the imagination to see how these apply now.. And slowly -- oh, so slowly -- publishers are seeing that what we are presented with is not the death of everything we trust, value and hold dear, but a similar widening vista of opportunity to that which arrived with the mass-market paperback.

From my perspective as an author, what's most important about e-books new types of books will get written and sold precisely because they're distributed differently, with all the new limits and possibilities that entails. You're already seeing this with The Atavist, The Byliner, and Cursor/Red Lemonade. And from what I hear, it seems like every third writer is working on a project that will accelerate that process.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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