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    'Espresso' books, steaming hot off the press

    Seattle is the nation's most literate city and the coffee capital of the world. Naturally there are now three places with "espresso" machines that print books.
    An Espresso book-printing machine

    An Espresso book-printing machine Third Place Books

    They call it the Espresso Book Machine, but even the spiffy new Version 2.0 won't brew up a double latte.

    It will, however, print a book for a fledgling poet or deliver an individual copy of War and Peace in less than the time it takes you to drink that latte.

    Maybe it's the name, but the biggest concentration of the newest Espresso Book Machines is in the Puget Sound region, already in operation at Village Books in Bellingham and Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, and coming this month to the University of Washington Bookstore. Oscar's Art Bookstore in Vancouver, B.C., will install an EBM this year as well.

    Introduced commercially in 2007 at the New York Public Library, the EBM is the brainchild of publishing executive Jason Epstein and inventor Jeff Marsh, who formed On Demand Books to market the machines, a marriage of robotic binding machinery and a commercial copier. The unit takes less space than a pair of commercial bookshelves, but has the potential of printing from a menu of millions of titles.

    It's another way for independent booksellers to stay alive in a market threatened by online retailers, big-box discounters and electronic books.

    Both Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books and Chuck Robinson of Village Books see three primary markets for their EBMs: 1) either public-domain (out of copyright) books or copyrighted books with very limited or specialized audiences; 2) self-published books by amateur authors or writers with specialized subjects; and 3) specialized books they can publish using their own bookstores.

    Sindelar, looking for a "signature book" to launch his enterprise, is reprinting copies of Arthur Denny's 1892 book, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound, long out of print. Robinson is printing and marketing Impressions of the North Cascades: Essays about a Northwest Landscape, out of print for several years, and The Birth, Death and Resurrection of Fairhaven, a collection of reminiscences by George Hunsby from the early 20th Century.

    None of these three books is readily available in bookstores, although used copies exist if they can be found. All EBM editions will be available for the cost of a standard paperback.

    Retrieving lost book titles figures to be a steady use for the machines. The EBM gives independent bookstores a reserve of millions of public-domain books, whose copyrights have expired but for which there is a market, without holding an inventory. "There's a huge number of titles that sell a few books a year," says Village Books owner Robinson. "Together these books amount to something, but economy precludes keeping them in print and on the shelf."

    Sindelar sees these lost titles as "expanding our title base as a bookstore," and as a method of retaining customers. On Demand Books boasts over 1.6 million public-domain titles, and added another 2 million through a contract with Google, which has been copying books in several of the nation's major university libraries. In addition, ODB has permission to copy over 200,000 books still under copyright; these will be available to Espresso Book Machine outlets.

    Issues of copyright haunt every attempt to broaden the list of titles available through systems like the EBM. An ongoing struggle between Google — which has now scanned roughly 7 million titles in leading university libraries — and an array of authors, publishers and scholars, was settled in October, but limitations remain on the availability of copyrighted works to On Demand Books and holders of EBMs.

    Congress in 1999 extended copyright protection to 70 years beyond the death of an author, even longer for corporate publication, and Google's agreement with On Demand Books covers only those books out of copyright. But that's still a very large library, full of specialized titles out of print for many years. Readers may read them digitally from Google, but the EBM machine allows them to order a printed volume at a reasonable cost.

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    Posted Fri, Jan 8, 8:57 a.m. Inappropriate

    It's important to recognize that the books coming out of an EBM are not like the books you'd buy off a shelf, though. The books are 'perfect-bound,' meaning that a wad of glue is stuck to one side of the text block and a cover is slapped around it. Sure, there are lots of books on store shelves that are perfect-bound, but these are of even lower quality than those. They're rarely aligned properly, and don't stay together well - though perhaps that will improve with time. I had an EBM book made for me, while I watched, at a conference a few months ago, and it's not a very attractive book. The machine is just a big combo printer/gluer/page cutter. (Very cool to watch, though.) Yes, the result is readable and it's something that you might otherwise not have been able to get. It's good for those reasons, no doubt, but it isn't a particularly attractive example of bookmaking.

    A much larger version of this technology is available through Amazon - my wife occasionally buys scholarly books that we assume were actually printed by a printing house and are sitting on a shelf at an Amazon distribution center, but when we receive them we see that they came from Ingram's Lightning Source service - which is just a massive book-on-demand system, based in Tennessee. You order the book from Amazon, they tell Lightning Source to print it and mail it to you, and then you receive a poor-quality (but better than EBM) version of the actual printed book.


    Posted Fri, Jan 8, 12:39 p.m. Inappropriate

    I'd suggest that folks see the books for themselves from the latest version of the machine--which, was not available several months ago when pmac attended his convention. Copies are rarely misaligned now (and the stores would certainly reprint if they were) and most folks comment on how much books resemble other books on the shelves. Paperback books you buy in any store are "perfect-bound," not just those on the EBM machine and, there's no evidence that EBM books are less stable than other "perfect-bound" books.

    Many of the Lightning Source books are currently available to be printed on the EBM machines, saving a week to ten days in transit from Tennessee. And, we expect more and more in-print books to be available over time.

    I'm, obviously, not un-biased since I have one of the machines in our store in Bellingham and, there are still many bugs to be worked out with this cutting edge (or, as I say, "bleeding edge," technology). However, I would, once again, invite folks to see for themselves. I think you'll be surprised.

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