'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.
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An Espresso book-printing machine

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.

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.

Many of these books, less known than the relatively small number handled by the big publishers, are what Chris Anderson, in an influential 2004 Wired magazine article, dubbed "the long tail." His theory works for any element of mass culture; essentially the "long tail" is the trailing edge of a distribution curve, long and slender to represent very few sales of a specific item. Visualize the profile of a crouching rat. The large body represents the Robert Ludlums and J. K. Rowlings of the book world; the slim, tapering tail represents millions of books you've never heard of but might like if you knew about them and could get them inexpensively. (Hey, a couple of my books are in that tail!)

According to Anderson, Internet retailers such as Amazon.com have learned that selling "long tail" titles works. "If the Amazon statistics are any guide," he wrote, "the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are. In other words, the potential book market may be twice as big as it appears to be, if only we can get over the economics of scarcity." The EBM and the partnership of Google and On Demand Books is an attempt to deal with this phenomenon.

In the long run, depending upon copyright protections and the inevitable challenges of new technology, taking advantage of search engines and "long tail" requests is likely to be the future of booksellers investing in the EBM. But in the short run, their investments may require the patronage of folks with an idea for a book.

Booksellers Robinson and Sindelar need to attract self-publishing authors to bring in sufficient revenues to justify the $100,000 machines, which Robinson has leased but Sindelar has purchased. The possibilities for self-publishing are particularly great in well-educated communities such as Bellingham, Lake Forest Park and Seattle. Obvious subjects are poetry, community or family histories, memoirs, cookbooks, local guidebooks and other specialized publications that are not attractive or feasible for traditional publishers.

An author would purchase a publication package, depending on how much assistance is needed in preparing the copy and whether the author or the bookstore is to be the publisher. A basic package for 200 pages, black-and-white with a color paperback cover, could range from $7.50 to $12.50 per copy at the two stores.

Books are individually printed and bound as you watch. The drawback of this is the loss of any economy of scale. The 100th book costs exactly the same as the first one to print; don't look for Jeffrey Archer or Elizabeth George to be using the EBM. Another major limitation is the lack of color printing for the text; only the cover can utilize color. Color would open up large new fields for self-publishing, but at a much higher cost per-page, as is the case with copy machines.

Individual printing eliminates the costly guesswork of deciding on a press run that may not sell, leaving boxes of books in warehouses after costly printing and shipping. Since most of the operation is handled electronically, a copy can be ordered and shipped almost overnight without ever taking up shelf space at a bookstore. Authors will have access to the bookstores' marketing and online presences.

Although the EBM is touted as a way to extend publishing into small markets and greatly expand the choices available to readers, don't expect a rush to the system. For one thing, the machines are costly, and you won't find parts at your hardware store. Village Books' EBM was down the entire New Year's weekend waiting for a technician from St. Louis to fix an electronics issue.

No doubt the early technology will advance. In fact, it already has; version 2.0 is smaller and sleeker than the model that debuted in 2007 in New York. But your average bookseller won't have the technical expertise to fix the machines, at least not for a while. The financial demands, whether purchasing or leasing, will keep all but large booksellers out of the game, at least in its experimental stages.

In addition to the four existing or planned Puget Sound locations, On Demand Books has another 28 machines working or pending, about two-thirds in the United States. Machines are in some well-known locations, including Blackwell's Bookshop in London, the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., and four university bookstores in Canada.

None of them will make you a coffee.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.