With all the emphasis on digitizing texts, ebooks and ejournals, and new ebook readers, you might be surprised to hear of a recent development in printing technology. Yes, a new company is hoping to brew some espresso buzz around printing a paperback book. New York City-based On Demand Books (ODB; www.ondemandbooks.com) is planning to become the first company to globally deploy a low-cost, totally automatic book machine. The Espresso Book Machine reportedly can produce 15-20 library-quality paperback books per hour, in any language, in quantities of one, without any human intervention. This technology and process will produce one each of 10 different books at the same speed and cost as it can produce 10 copies of the same book.
The first Espresso Book Machine is already in operation at the World Bank InfoShop in Washington, D.C., where World Bank publications have been selling since April 2006 at prices that are less than the traditionally printed editions of the same titles (http://pgpblog.worldbank.org/the_espresso_machine_for_books). A second machine was installed last fall at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (the Library of Alexandria, Egypt). A newer commercial model of The Espresso Book Machine will be installed in February 2007 at The New York Public Library's Science, Industry and Business Library.
ODB said that it is also finalizing technology to access a network of content that can be accessed and produced via The Espresso Book Machine Network. The content will reside in numerous locations from a multitude of sources, including collections of digitized texts available through the Open Content Alliance (OCA), Google, and others. The system will accept multiple formats and "fully respect licenses and rights," according to the company. The chief benefit of the machine is that no book would be out of stock or out of print.
The co-founders of ODB are publishing executive Jason Epstein and his business partner Dane Neller. Epstein worked in book publishing for more than 40 years. He was editorial director of Random House and founded Anchor Books, The New York Review of Books, The Library of America, and the Reader's Catalog. Now in retirement, he said he wants to "digitally reconstruct publishing, just as digitization is re-creating the music industry." The technology for Espresso was developed 6 years ago by Missouri-based inventor Jeff Marsh, who now serves as a technology advisor for ODB. (Epstein's earlier venture to achieve his goals was a company called 3BillionBooks, with Michael Smolens as his partner. Smolens and 3BillionBooks are not involved in ODB.)
ODB's Espresso Book Machine is designed to make ordering and printing a book as easy and fast for the consumer as a cash withdrawal from an ATM or selecting a song from an iPod. Here's a description of how it will work: Customers will order titles via the Web at their own computers. Next, On Demand's proprietary software will transmit a digital file of the book to an Espresso Book Machine, which might be located at a neighborhood bookstore, school, library, or even a coffee bar. Then, within minutes and without human intervention, the machine will automatically print, bind, trim, and laminate the customer's selection as a single, library-quality, printed paperback book. (You can see a video of an alpha machine producing a book at the ODB site.)
Epstein said: "Printed books are one of history's greatest and most enduring inventions, and after centuries, their form needs no improvement. What does need to change is the way books reach readers. For reference books—from cookbooks to dictionaries—the digital format is superior to physical books since it allows information to be accessed and read online instantly and item-by-item. But for permanent works of fiction, history, poetry, philosophy, and other books that constitute our literary culture, physical books are here to stay forever. Our goal is to preserve the economic and ergonomic simplicity of the physical book, and to replace the 500-year-old inefficient supply chain for the distribution of books with a highly decentralized direct-to-consumer business model."
The direct-to-consumer model of The Espresso Book Machine will eliminate shipping and warehousing costs for books and will allow simultaneous global availability of new and backlist titles in all categories and languages. These savings permit potentially lower prices to consumers and, hopefully, greater royalties and profits to authors and to publishers.
It is the recent explosion of content in easily accessible digital format that enables this type of direct distribution at this time. Neller said that the company is working now to develop links to OCA content, and it expects to be able to print all of the OCA files in about 6 months. He estimated that The Espresso Book Machine will cost approximately $50,000 when it is released in full production mode—much less than traditional print-on-demand machines, which might cost $500,000-$1 million per unit and are not as automated.
Time will tell if the brew from ODB's Espresso Book Machines will satisfy consumers' book-fulfillment needs. Would you like a latte with that title?