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Down the Rabbit Hole with the Espresso Book Machine

Published in IPNE newsletter, June 2010

A group of fifteen IPNE members visited Harvard Book Store on June 4th, to witness the digital revolution turn yesterday’s “gentleman’s business” of publishing into everyman’s global printing press. The Espresso Book Machine (EBM), squired into reality by Jason Epstein, inventor of the trade paperback book in 1952, has the footprint of a large Xerox machine, featuring online laptops on either end. It can produce a perfect-bound paperback book in about 5 minutes, from download of PDF files to delivery of printed and bound book out its “mouth,” literally hot off the press.

On lease to Harvard Book Store from EBM, the machine costs between $75,000 and $100,000. Bookstore owner Jeff Mayersohn brought the machine into the store in the Fall of 2009, and is delighted with the results. Retail bookselling for independents has been difficult in recent years, as more book buyers head for low prices and convenience online, even in a highly trafficked area like Harvard Square. However, Mayersohn reports increases in sales thanks to the EBM, sales that offset the cost of the machine’s lease and the salary of one full-time staff member who runs the machine. Bronwen Blaney is networked with EBM headquarters and the elite set of other EBM operators around the world, a group that appears to have the kind of tech enthusiasm last seen when the first Macs came out.

With EBM, the barrier to entry to publishing has indeed fallen, opening the field to all. For as little as $10, one can now become a published author, with books sold at Harvard Book Store, simply by bringing PDF files into the store and waiting 5 minutes. The fiscal fetters of self publishing—printing, warehousing, distributing, marketing—have vanished. Not only are authors now publishers, but readers, bookstores, and libraries can easily cross the border and become publishers too.

Witness Mayersohn and his staff, who have taken to putting their logo on selected public-domain titles they find at Google Books. They transact with many book buyers every day, have access to an almost immediate feedback loop, and can thus invest very little in their publishing experiments, build on what sells, and abandon what doesn’t. They can print books for Father’s Day and for July 4th. For example, they recently printed several facsimiles of Lewis Carroll’s Christmas present to Alice Liddell, a handwritten and illustrated version of what would become Alice in Wonderland, and put it by the cash register in the front; hundreds of copies were sold and continue to sell.

Both Northshire Bookstore in Vermont (see below) and Harvard Book Store indicated a desire to stay out of the mainstream, ISBN-based publishing business, however, for with the purchase and assignment of ISBNs comes the legal responsibilities of a publisher, accountability for what is published in one’s name. Instead, both bookstores indicated that they saw their forays with the EBMs more as a way to offer printing services to their constituency of authors, readers, and publishers—and when asked, sometimes they might suggest freelance publishing professionals who can help produce high-quality books.

Publishers too have occasion to cheer the machine that offers them an inexpensive way to keep their backlists perennially green, and also avoid “invisible” expenses such as warehousing, shipping, and other overheads associated with publishing real books. Chelsea Green recently announced an innovative business arrangement with Northshire Bookstore. According to the publisher’s site: “In exchange for a prominent display in the store, Chelsea Green will provide the bookstore with books on consignment. The deal would reduce the wasted energy involved in shipping and returning books, and cut out middlemen remainder dealers.”

The EBM opens doors internationally as well. The company started out some years back as Three Billion Books, with the goal of enabling access to books all across the globe, and EBMs operate today in countries like Egypt, appropriately enough in the Library of Alexandria, where once stood a comprehensive world library. When we overcome the issue of shipping and distribution, the possibilities for literacy are inspiring.

While the technology and provocative new business models open many doors, there are tradeoffs, some immediately apparent, some yet to be discovered. The production quality of the paperbacks produced cannot match that of conventionally produced books in areas of paper choice (text stock comes in white and off-white and is all one weight that feels like 50#) and cover stock (all the same stock and easily scratched), for example. EBM prints 4-color covers, but interiors are one color; bleeds are not reliable and screens vary. And as is common with all Print On Demand (POD), the publisher loses control of the final product when printing remotely. Every book off the press is the first book, time and again, and especially for one-offs, issues like trimming and varying cover colors may pose problems. Perhaps the untrained eye can’t tell the difference, though, and there’s no doubt the EBM is great for a custom publication, a coursepack, a timely political tract or a travel book, but not acceptable for a photo book or one where aesthetics matter, where the book itself is the thing.

And it is not only the quality of the product that may vary. There lurks the Orwellian “barn wall” information control issue as well, in an online world where publishers no longer produce and sell ink-and-paper books. As information purveyors in a digital world, at the end of the day, publishers can no longer absolutely guarantee the integrity of their thought products, their intellectual property stored in files—files that represent the words and pictures to be fixed on a printed page—when those files are manipulated by remote third parties each time a printed book is produced. Even given advanced Digital Rights Management, in the world of intangible files, can a publisher guarantee that the EBM-printed book in Egypt has exactly the same content as the EBM-printed book in Harvard Square, and that the latter has the same content as the backlist book printed on paper in 1939?

Paranoia, or just another rabbit hole? With the EBM, it appears we are indeed entering a wonderland of sorts, where everyone is someone else, authors and readers are suddenly publishers, bookstores libraries, publishers file managers. And it doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to figure it all out anyway, because by the time we do, it will have all changed into something else.

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