In Response To… The Espresso Book Machine

Posted on June 22, 2009 in Uncategorized

Hot on the heels of the e-reader, the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) is the latest development in new technology that could bring us one step closer to a revolution in the industry akin, in terms of scale, to that of Gutenberg’s printing press. In recent times, the capacity for change in the publishing industry has been overwhelming. It seems like forever now that digitisation has been threatening to make books obsolete but I think it is becoming evermore clear that this is not going to happen.

At the same time though there is a lot to be said for the claim that it is physical books that are the main problem with the industry. It sounds strange at first but I don’t think Jason Epstein is that far off with his claim that the only way to save the publishing industry is to get rid of all the books. The inherent risk factor that has always been such a part of the industry stems from the fact that it has always been a guessing game, to an extent, as to what the reading public will buy and therefore, a gamble is always taken when deciding on a print run. The advent of print-on-demand (POD) has always meant that there could potentially be a complete turn around on the ‘print first – sell after’ basis by which the industry has always worked. The simple reversal of these two is something that we know is achievable. It seems that it has just been a matter of waiting for the right technology. Enter the Espresso Book Machine.

Scaling down from that rather dramatic introduction of an invention that may revolutionise the industry, I do have to start with a commonplace observation. It looks like a giant photocopier. I know it has been said before, but it is the first thing that strikes you. Still for a printing press that can easily fit into a book shop, I suppose aesthetics are not what I should be concentrating on. POD is nothing new but this is the first time it has been made accessible to the general public at point-of-sale. The results for publishers, authors and bookshops, amongst others, could be huge. Customers can choose an out-of-stock book from a catalogue that offers almost one million titles. Then, for the price of 10p per page (or shelf-price for in-print titles) the customer stands and waits while their book is printed in front of them. The end result is a high quality paperback that has just gone through the production and distribution process, all in front of the customer, in the space of ten minutes.

It does all sound a bit too good to be true. The first flaw I can pick is in the range of books available. At the moment, the majority of the books are out-of-copyright titles. While there is the undeniable benefit of being able to obtain these in printed format so quickly, I am inclined to wonder if people will be that bothered about material they can get online for free, from resources such as Project Gutenberg. However, this is nitpicking a bit. It is early days and the machine does have a very impressive amount of titles available as it is. As, with most other aspects of this machine, the potential is huge if utilised. Blackwells are working with publishers to increase the amount of in-copyright works in their catalogue. I would say that positive cooperation on the publishers’ part will play a large part in the success of the EBM, and, thus, the extent of the change it will bring about in the book industry. By giving access to in-copyright materials that are harder to come by the machine really will be dramatically increasing the options available to customers, rather than being a novelty attraction in a number of key bookstores. Also, it is only once the machine starts selling a large amount of in-copyright titles that the publishers will really see the effect the EBM can have for them.

Apparently, the initial feedback from publishers has been largely positive which is no huge surprise. It is no secret that the long-tail makes up much of a publisher’s profit. By making their in-copyright materials accessible through the EBM, the publishers are further utilising their backlist, but with limited effort and use of resources. Theoretically, the machine could remove much of the risk element from the industry, by making the distribution and production elements of publishing redundant. It is a bit of a long shot but if the machine really takes off then it could put less pressure on publishers to get immediate results from a new title. As has always been the case with POD, the EBM could be of particular benefit to academic publishing where titles generally sell in lower quantities at higher prices. If the machine was to progress to the stage where it was widely available in universities (already it has been set up in a number of American universities) then the results in this sector could be huge.

Of course, one of the main benefactors of the EBM’s success will be the bookshops themselves. Whilst most people have an undeniable attachment to bookshop, Amazon undoubtedly has the edge when it comes to meeting our increasingly high expectations for getting immediate delivery. Most of us like the romantic image of the book shop where we can spend hours browsing through titles, but the reality of modern life is that most people do not have the time to buy their books in this way. Moreover, people certainly don’t have the time for a wasted journey to the bookshop to find the title they are after is not in stock. Bookshops with limited space just can’t compete with Amazon’s storage and ability to supply a huge range of titles as quickly as possible. It has long been acknowledged that if the bookstore is to survive then it will have to somehow keep up with the times. With the EBM the bookshops may finally have a weapon with which to strike back and survive the onslaught from e-books and online retailers. The EBM’s ‘virtual warehouse’ gives back to the bookshop the trump card they lost to Amazon a long time ago.
The EBM’s success is dependent on a lot of factors. Perhaps the most important being dramatically increasing the amount of in-copyright titles available to the general public. One major hurdle may be the asking price, currently at £137,000, the EBM is probably out of reach for your average independent bookshop. That being said, if the EBM does get to the stage where it is placed in a large number of bookshops, universities and libraries (with the possibility of them all being interlinked) then we really might be looking at the start of something interesting.