The Espresso Book Machine means that booksellers can publish and sell an enormous number of titles. But can they make the finances work?


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Every so often, a prominent article appears featuring the Espresso Book Machine, an amazing piece of technology that produces a finished book in a matter of minutes. The latest such story was in the Wall Street Journal, describing the installation of the Espresso at the Brooklyn Public Library headquarters, making it one of about 70 locations -- bookstores and libraries -- where people can watch a book get manufactured. For a writer, the experience can be thrilling. 

The Espresso takes up 25 square feet of floor space and, in its latest version, is about five feet tall and seven feet wide. The license for the machine, conceived by Jeff Marsh, a St. Louis inventor, is held by OnDemand Books, in collaboration with Xerox. Jason Epstein, long-time editorial director of Random House's trade book division, is the chairman and intellectual visionary of the enterprise. His dream is that every book would be available on call (and millions of public domain titles that have been digitized by Google already are in the database, along with a growing number of out of print titles, and very recently, much of the backlist of HarperCollins). Some stores have bestowed nicknames upon their machines-in-residence, such as Opus at Politics and Prose in Washington and Paige M. Gutenborg at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

I've been intrigued by the Espresso Book Machine since I first saw it in an oversized beta version in 2007 on display at the New York Public Library's Science Industry and Business branch and was impressed with the notion that so many printed works could be brought to life instantly, complete with cover, spine, and a choice of interiors. But the greatest allure of the device, as explained in interviews with a handful of the booksellers who have taken the plunge and installed the machine, is that it enables self-publishing by authors who have written fiction and specialized nonfiction (recipes and family genealogy, for example) and are satisfied with a small number of copies, at least initially. 

The first bookstore to install an Espresso was Northshire Books, a superb independent in Manchester, Vermont. It is now in its fourth year of operation and, after having reduced the inevitable hassles of maintaining the equipment to a bare minimum, it now has enough turnover to start measuring the Espresso as a potential profit center for the store, according to Chris Morrow, Northshire's proprietor. The list of stores that have recently reached agreements for Espressos includes stellar establishments such as Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, Tattered Cover in Denver, and libraries across the country in Sacramento, California, and Darien, Connecticut, among others.

Dane Neller, CEO of OnDemand Books, is invariably and understandably upbeat about the positives of the business, with an additional twenty machines expected to be installed over the next few months. In a generally positive profile of the venture from Bloomberg last month, Neller said that OnDemand's revenue is in the millions. A Xerox executive in the story said that the company is working with customers on ways to bring the costs down and simplifying the maintenance of what is, after all, a complex piece of equipment. The Bloomberg story then quotes Jeff Mayersohn, owner of the Harvard Bookstore, placing the number of books Espresso prints per month around 1,500, about two-thirds of which are by local authors opting to self-publish. The machine, according to what Mayersohn told Bloomberg, isn't "quite a moneymaker" for the store. "It obviously has to advance," he said, "the price has to come down and the speed has to go up." But, as Morrow and other booksellers told me, the prospect of a vast inventory of millions of titles to choose from and the excitement for authors of holding a book while still warm "with a laminated cover and bright white paper" at a price of $8 per book for 100 copies is a major attraction.

The main obstacle for booksellers is the cost of the machine. Buying it outright could be as much as $150,000, I was told, so a five-year lease option is widely preferred -- but even that can run well over $5,000 a month, plus a variety of add-ons for personnel and basic supplies. To overcome that problem, the Brooklyn Public Library and the library in Darien reached an agreement with OnDemand to operate the machines directly, which greatly simplifies their launch of the project. At Northshire, Morrow said, the Espresso has earned the store considerable cachet in the community. "We've created a whole self-publishing business," he said, "that has changed the perception of what our store can do." In the intensely competitive environment of the digital era, with so much attention focused on e-books and online ordering, Morrow and other booksellers seem energized by their ability to produce books with customers so engaged in the manufacturing process. "Espresso definitely is part of our future," said Morrow, whose parents were the original owners of the store.

OnDemand Books is still a long way from Jason Epstein's grand vision of universal availability of centuries of books. Taking on the machine and catering to would-be authors is a formidable task for booksellers and librarians. But the concept is so appealing and the commitment to solving the issues of cost and upkeep so deeply ingrained among everyone involved that it seems the right thing to cheer on the process. Take the time to go to the Espresso website and then peruse the detailed description of the undertaking at Politics and Prose's website under the heading Custom Book-printing (the shorthand is "Real Books in Real Time"). You may well still see the many challenges to be overcome, but if you love books the old fashioned way, you'll also be inspired.

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