Exploding books: Decaf prose

I missed the announcement that the print-on-demand Espresso machine — backed by publishing veteran Jason Epstein and former Dean & DeLuca president Dane Neller — is now being tested at the World Bank, where digital books can be printed, trimmed and bound in 8 minutes.

“Our goal is to preserve the economic and ergonomic simplicity of the physical book,” said Epstein, who laments the disappearance of backlist and ready access to books in other languages. By printing from digital files, ODB hopes to make warehousing–and much of today’s distribution model–obsolete. “In theory,” said Epstein, “every book printed will be digitized, which means the market will be radically decentralized. A bookstore with this technology, without any expense to themselves [other than the machine] can increase their footprint.” Of course, that also means that Kinko’s or Wal-Mart can transform themselves into mini-bookstores, especially given the machine’s affordability. Neller anticipates that it will retail for less than $100,000.

From a World Bank story:

The Bank works with approximately 100 commercial distributors worldwide, who struggle to have a few of these publications in stock and sell them locally. The Bank also supplies nearly 100 public information centers and roughly 250 depository libraries worldwide with free copies of Bank publications for local distribution.

“To maintain this infrastructure, we spend almost $1 million annually on shipping alone. And still, all too often, customers and clients don’t find exactly the document they want at the location they want it at the time they need it,” said Koehler. “And all too often we have books sitting in warehouses overseas and nobody wants them. This is a bigger problem for us than it is for the typical academic publishing house because our books are supposed to reach developing countries and to be affordable there.” . . .

Jason Epstein, former Editorial Director of Random House and a main supporter of the Espresso, called the book machine “the future of publishing.”

“By the time all books are digitized over the next few years, we will have replaced the 500-year- old Gutenberg system,” said the publishing industry icon. “Everyone will have access to the machine and will be able to download any book ever printed,” saving thousands of dollars in inventory losses from unsold books.

See this post on the role of print-on-demand in the business. [via Hal Halladay]

  • dfrisme

    About 10 years ago, a booklet making machine, that is a machine that ingested collated printouts and produced saddle stapled booklets, costs about five grand. Now we have a fancy color printer at work that hooks up to the network and can output collated, 3 hole punched front and back pages or saddle stapled booklets. It cost something on the order of $10,000. The output is very nice.

    According to the article, the Expresso Machine produces paperback volumes. I assume this means glue bound rather than stitched.

    This is pretty cool, and I can think of a lot of uses, but eventually, what I really want is a decent tablet reader. Something about the size of a comic book or trade paperback, about 1/4 inch thick. A flip-open that displayed two pages and lived a nice leatherette binder would be nice. It should at least display HTML with stylesheets and PDFs (I’m not interested in DRM junk. My money, my choice.)

    Networked access to my online library would be required, so it might as well have access to the rest of the internet. Ergonomically, it would need to be practical and comfortable to use in the typical household library annex (that little room down the hall…)

  • I would like to see the quality of these express printed volumes. I fear that a system like this would strike solidly in the middle ground of the two sides – but be beloved by no one. This may solve a problem for publishers, but does may not address all of the needs of readers looking for a publishing system that takes advantage of the information explosion. Likewise, book lovers may not like the idea of a cheap printing and demise of browsing the aisles of a book store.

  • dfrisme

    Clearly the type of books to be produced by the Expresso device are intended to be used (and used up) rather than collected. The World Bank’s target audience are almost certainly users rather than collectors. And they are probably in parts of the world where decent tablet readers will be a while coming. It makes a lot of sense for them.

    I own a book printed in the 1700s, a law book entitled _A Treatise on Ejectment_, that is printed on vellum paper and beautifully stitch bound. It is a wonderful artifact that has a value that is more dependent on its physical attributes than its intellectual content (at least to me. I’m not a legal historian.)

    The kind of books that one would buy in glue bound paperback, on cheap paper, are exactly the kind of books I would rather have on a decent tablet reader. Books that are primarily artifacts, like art books, photo albums, chap books, and various collectors items, should be stitch bound on archival paper.

    There are already several vendors that produce more or less archival print on demand volumes from your digital photos or PDFs. They are not that expensive, about on par with a decent art book.

  • Old Grouch

    Dan, I don’t see this as being “the demise of browsing the aisles,” but as a way for stores to deliver “any book in about an hour.” A good full-service bookstore does a significant percentage of its business as special orders (“long tail,” y’know). On-demand printing helps the store compete with the on-line merchants: Amazon (if in stock): A day or two, or overnight with express shipping. Fred’s Neighborhood Books: Go have a cup of coffee, and it’ll be waiting when you’re done.

    BTW, as to quality issues, IIRC IBM already has a system that’s being used by some of the big distributors. The look-and-feel of its output is supposed to be similar to better paperbacks (think Dover), although I don’t believe it uses sewn signatures.

    This is exactly the kind of thing the music cartel (*spit*) should have done years ago. Any-CD-in-about-an-hour might have extended the life of the format (and kept a lot of retailers in business), by keeping the customers off the internet (where they found just what they wanted was available free!).

  • Keep in mind that this is but a step in a process. As time goes by and the technology improves, you’ll see hardbacks and possibly even text quality books coming out. Distributed printing is on it’s way.