Espresso Book Machine could open new pages in local retailing

December 12, 2009

Once upon a time, finding a book meant hunting through a bookstore shelf, filling out an order form, or even shuffling through a card catalog, but all that hassle seems like just a fairy tale now.

Developments like Amazon.com, Google Books and the digitalization of library holdings have turned the reality of book selling into something more like science fiction.

But why stop there? On Demand Books LLC, a New York company founded in 2003, claims its Espresso Book Machine will do for modern publishing “what Gutenberg’s press did for Europe in the 15th century,” only this 2,000-pound invention may take a bit longer to catch on.

The technology hasn’t spread like wildfire across North America like Gutenberg’s press did through Europe during the Renaissance. Heck, it hasn’t even reached Indiana. But industry professionals say it’s only a matter of time.

The machine is aptly named, since a customer can choose a title, download it, and print the text into a “library quality” paperback book in about the time it takes to enjoy a cup of, well, espresso. The built-in database holds about 800,000 titles in addition to 1.4 million available through Google Books.

Without the burden of shipping cost or overhead of inventory, a bookseller can offer a much lower price on printed books not under copyright.

On the surface, such technology seems to threaten bookstores the way Netflix and its on-demand options have done to video rental stores. Instant gratification is king, it would seem.

On the contrary, booksellers and publishers alike are salivating at the doors, or pages rather, the machine can open for the world of books.

Pat Hoefling, director of sales and marketing at Indiana University Press, said the development is par for the course.

“I don’t see [the machine] as a threat to the industry,” Hoefling said. “The publishing world is changing rapidly and this is a piece of that.”

In fact, IU Press has been using an on-demand format for its titles with smaller distribution numbers, like “Who’s Your Hoosier Ancestor?” for more than a decade. Only the publisher doesn’t print the titles in-house on an electronic book machine; instead, it uses Lightning Source Inc., a division of Ingram Content Group Inc. in La Vergne, Tenn.

“Virtually no book needs to go out of print anymore due to financial feasibility,” Hoefling said. “On the other hand, books with time-sensitive material, like texts for a college course, can be reprinted without producing any excess.”

While Lightning Source machines can produce books at much lower costs than the Espresso can, its services aren’t readily available to the public.

Kevin Weiss, CEO of Bloomington-based Author Solutions Inc. custom publishing, believes that’s the reason Lightning Source last year put a stake in On Demand Books, allowing its clients the option of uploading their title holdings to the Espresso database, in case the machine ends up dictating a drastic price decrease in book retail.

“Look at the Blue-Ray disc,” Weiss said. “That was supposed to save the movie industry. But ever since people have been able to get a movie for a buck out of the Redbox at the supermarket, no one is willing to spend $39.99 on a movie.”

Weiss sees the future of the Espresso as something similar.

“Right now, this machine is about the size a copy machine was a few years ago. Eventually, the technology will be small enough, fast enough and affordable enough to fit into something like the Redbox.”

Weiss said he hasn’t invested in an Espresso for his custom publishing business because at approximately $125,000 for the machine and printer, the cost is still too high for a small publishing firm.

Len Vlahos, chief operating officer at the American Booksellers Association, said Weiss’ vision is premature.

“The [Espresso] technology is so new that the pricing and business model are still being ironed out,” he said. “As it stands, the machine needs the bookstore as a sort of showroom.

“But the gap between traditional offset printing and an on-demand format is shrinking,” Vlahos added. “If On Demand Books can figure out how to make their machine faster, smaller and cheaper, the book vending machine may become a reality some day.”

In the meantime, while the machine still needs a trained operator, Vlahos said it will stay in bookstores and libraries.

The University of Michigan, which is working with Google to digitize its entire catalog, purchased an Espresso two years ago with donor funds and uses it frequently to print things like dissertation materials a student would normally have to check out several times. But at its current cost, Elaine Drew, director of collection management at the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library, said it’s not really feasible or necessary for a public library.

Bill Fehsenfeld, who owns Schuler Books and Music Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich., bought an Espresso for his chain of five stores a month ago and sees the technology as an enormous advantage to independent booksellers.

“I can offer huge amounts of titles without investing in the inventory,” he said.

That’s among other perks, like when a man from London coming to town to do a lecture contacted Fehsenfeld to print 50 copies of his book instead of lugging them overseas.

“This is the way to bring digital books back to the bookstore,” Fehsenfeld said.

Liz Barden, owner of Big Hat Books in Broad Ripple, is unsure whether she’ll ever invest in the machine.

“As it stands, I could never afford it, especially without knowing how long it would take to get a return on my investment,” she said. “Hopefully, by the time it becomes imperative for an independent bookseller to own a machine like this, it will be affordable, like with the personal computer.”

Barden also worries about what the Espresso would do to the ambience of her store.

“There’s a yoga class going on upstairs as we speak. I’m not sure a big machine like [the Espresso] would really fit in here.”•


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