Coffee, Tea… or Literature?

 

High-tech meeting room facilities at the MLK Library. On the right is an Espresso Book Machine

Photo by Payton Chung, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License, courtesy of WikiMedia.org

 

In April at the Paris Book Fair, European authors and publishers cooed over the latest incarnation of The Espresso Book Machine (EBM), a $90,000 device that’s small enough to fit in a bookstore and prints an average-length paperback in about five minutes.

Some observers, such as WorldCrunch, went so far as to opine that “Print-It-Yourself Technology Could Save Publishing.” IR loves the notion of book lovers popping in to their neighborhood bookshops, choosing from a vast virtual inventory of titles — with more selections than a megastore — then sipping lattes until their freshly printed books slide out of the hopper of the EBM minutes later.

However, the EBM actually isn’t new, and can’t (yet) revolutionize bookselling in Europe or the US. But the tale of the EBM is a fascinating read for anyone who follows the fast-paced world of modern publishing technologies, and deserves a look from IR’s readers.

At the dawn of the “Print-on-Demand” (POD) era, which was to turn the book world upside down in the 21st century, the early leaders in the field built huge factories that could churn out 50,000 books a day at a single, centralized location, then ship to bookstores a day or two later.

POD was a true game-changer, because it made it possible to print books one at a time rather than thousands, the best of which were virtually indistinguishable from those traditionally found in bookstores. Even more important, POD books were printed only after they were ordered by consumers. Thus POD publishers could say adios to warehouses, inventory taxes and their worst enemies: returned and unsold books. And the book world has never been the same since.

But a man named Victor Celorio had a different vision: he saw not a huge, lone factory in a single location, but an army of smaller, more compact, self-contained devices scattered across the globe: perhaps even one in every bookstore! He believed that this approach would spare publishers the cost of shipping books over great distances, and give consumers nearly instant gratification, instead of waiting at least a day or two for their purchases to be delivered.

Celorio designed and patented such a machine, which he called the “Instabook Maker,” in the late 1990s. It worked, but was slow and expensive, and never gained meaningful traction among booksellers. Today, the EBM is made by Xerox [NYSE: XRX], and has evolved dramatically since Celorio’s Instabook, which he called “the Mr. Coffee of on-demand printing.” In spite of advances, it still faces formidable obstacles to widespread adoption by booksellers.

Do the math: The machine costs about $90k and can print a medium-length book in about five minutes. Even if the store is open 24 hours and the machine is printing constantly, that’s fewer than 300 books a day at an absolute maximum. More realistically, the store might be open 12 hours, and print perhaps 100 books a day.

At a profit of perhaps $5 per book, it will take a loooooong time (18,000 sales) for the shop to recover the $90k price tag — not to mention little things like staff time, downtime, paper and ink, maintenance costs, etc. These hard realities dispel the dream of a superstore hidden in the neighborhood bookshop… at least for now.

The good news is that with the power of Xerox now behind it, the machine will get faster in time. An average bookstore might have 10,000 titles in stock… but with the EBM, its “inventory” skyrockets to 200,000 or more titles, and they’re available within minutes, without shipping costs. That’s a wonderful prospect for those of us who adore our charming local indie bookshops — just a daydream today, but perhaps one that will someday come true.

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