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Print on Demand Goes Local
Posted On October 6, 2008
Localized print on demand (POD) is ushering in the next era of book publishing and distribution. It could create a dramatically new paradigm for libraries. In September 2008, the University of Michigan (UM) libraries entered relatively unchartered territory with the installation of an Espresso Book Machine (EBM), a point-of-sale POD book making machine (demos are available at and at UM, UM is the first university library among a very select group of libraries, bookstores, and other organizations that have either installed or tested installations of the "ATM of books." According to CEO and co-founder of On Demand Books, Dane Neller, there are currently 11 EBM locations around the world, but many more will hopefully follow with the 1Q 2009 release of EBM version 2.0.

Version 2.0 is slated to be cheaper, faster, and smaller, thus better suited for mass distribution to libraries and bookstores. In terms of affordability, Neller says, "We are hoping to get version 2.0 machine in the price range of a large Xerox machine." The EBM—a TIME magazine "Best Invention of 2007" —is produced by On Demand Books ( and can produce a "library-quality copy" of digitized material within minutes.

When asked what makes the EBM different from other POD initiatives, Neller replied, "This is a point of sale machine. This is like an ATM. All the other ones are just huge machines that sit in these enormous manufacturing facilities wherein you basically print a book and ship it out. We are a fully distributed model versus a centralized model."

With the EBM installed in local libraries, the line further blurs between bookstore and library, between digital and print. Maria Bonn, director of the Scholarly Publishing Office at the University of Michigan libraries, commented, "Overall, one of the things we are trying to demonstrate with being able to produce and reproduce print is that we really do have a commitment to supplying information in the form that is most useful. It is not a binary choice between digital and print. By holding so much of our information digitally, we have the opportunity to locally produce different kinds of formats for different needs."

To qualify "library-quality," Bonn noted, "The quality seems to be certainly indistinguishable from what we are seeing from other POD printers. The overall quality seems sound; it’s as good as any other perfect bound book that you would see out there. Not a library quality binding in hardcover, but it’s sturdy and the glue holds."

UM is initially offering—for sale—public domain materials scanned in one of several ways, including via their own digitization projects like the Making of America (; via the Open Content Alliance (OCA, a part of the Internet Archive;; or via its Google-scanned library copies. Bonn says, "On the EBM, we’ll only print materials that are out of copyright or where we have a clear agreement with the rights holder." When asked about any plans to begin systematic printing of in-copyright materials, Bonn said no. "If other people are doing the work of making the agreements with the rights holders, we might be able to offer that kind of service."

At UM libraries on Oct. 1, 2008, the EBM began production of books up to 150 pages for $6 and books up to 440 pages for $10. These prices were set and designed to cover UM costs, but Bonn noted that at the end of this school year in 2009, they will do an analysis to see if these prices need to be adjusted. Neller noted that the EBM could conceivably become a source of revenue for libraries and that libraries could become retailers, particularly when networking possibilities are realized.

By no means is every EBM intended to function as an island. One of the most interesting possibilities of this point-of-sale model is the potential to network all EBMs. Imagine the new interlibrary loan: walking into a library in Alaska and printing a copy of a book held in a library in Alabama. With only 11 current installations, Neller said that such networking is a "realizable concept" but not an immediate reality. Bonn went on to comment, "I think the networking piece is the really interesting piece of this machine. You begin to have access to the inventories of hundreds of bookstores and the collections of hundreds of libraries if this really works."

Parts of the networking infrastructure are in place. On Demand Books has a number of agreements with publishers and content providers to make in-copyright content available on the machines. Neller explained: "Our model is that we pay them [publishers] by the book. They [publishers] are okay with that because they are controlling their rights." Neller went on to broadly reveal the technology behind the agreements. On Demand Books retrieves a specially formatted PDF of a book file from the content provider or publisher, and once printed, it is returned. Moreover, Neller says, "Even if we were to keep that file, say if we put it on one of our servers, we assure the publishers that the file stays with us and we encrypt so that they don’t have to be worried that we will give it to someone else for duplication." Two of On Demand Books’ largest content providers are Lightning Source, an Ingram content company (, and the OCA.

In addition to the printing of large digitized public domain collections, such as Google or OCA, many other local POD possibilities emerge for libraries and bookstores: affordable self-publishing for community members; textbook and coursepack printing for professors; unprecedented multiple print copies of rare book and special collection materials; and out of print publishing for materials whose rights have reverted to the authors. Both Bonn and Jacqui Wong of the University of Alberta bookstore, another EBM location, stated that their respective universities have begun offering these sorts of services. Wong noted that their local printing of custom textbooks with the EBM have cut costs for students as much as 50%. The University of Alberta bookstore has had its machine in production since Nov. 1, 2007.

Other ramifications of localized POD availability dot the horizon as well. Many libraries purchase or lease ebooks from a variety of ebook vendors and content providers. One could see the day when libraries begin negotiating for localized printing rights for these ebooks. As Neller commented, libraries already have an e-relationship with these ebook vendors; local POD is an evolution into a print relationship. For such POD, the technology is the relatively easy part. In the simplest terms, the EBM is one platform that reads a specially formatted PDF document. It is the pricing and agreements that complicate matters. When one of the first ebook content providers, NetLibrary, was contacted for a comment, a representative said, "We are not prepared to discuss this at this time."

The EBM is not UM’s first foray into POD. Since 2004, UM has sold approximately 10,000 titles through other centralized POD channels like (via BookSurge; see for more information) and Ingram’s Lightning Source. UM’s installation of the EBM will likely encourage other Google library partners as well other libraries in general to explore localized POD, particularly with the release of version 2.0.


Online demonstrations of the EBM ( and
On Demand Books (
Lightning Source, an Ingram content company (
Open Content Alliance (OCA, a part of the Internet Archive;
Making of America (

Jill E. Grogg is electronic resources librarian at the University of Alabama Libraries.

Email Jill E. Grogg

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