Q&A: The 'ATM for Books'
The Espresso Book Machine, essentially an ATM for books, shook the book industry in 2006 with the first beta installation of the book-at-a-time manufacturing machine at the World Bank InfoShop in Washington, D.C. A second machine was installed that same year at The Library of Alexandria in Egypt, which printed books in Arabic. Several installations followed in various countries in 2007.
Many in the industry wondered: Will this invention completely change the concept of book distribution and inventory? Will it solve issues of limited shelf space in bookstores and retail outlets? What quality can produced from such a machine?
It prints, binds and trims perfect-bound paperback books with color covers within minutes on-site, at point-of-sale. “A 300-page book can be produced in four minutes for a cost of consumables of a penny per page,” according to the company’s Web site.
The machine, now known as the Espresso Book Machine, stemmed from Jason Epstein’s vision of a device that would make any book accessible anywhere, whether in a bookstore, a coffee shop, aboard a cruise ship, in a hotel, etc.
Epstein, who formerly served as an editorial director for Random House for 40 years, joined forces with Jeff Marsh, who in 1999 already had designed a prototype of such a machine. Epstein then partnered with Dane Neller to found On Demand Books in 2003, to further develop Marsh’s machine and bring it to the global marketplace, with the help of Marsh in research, development and design.
Named the Espresso Book Machine (EBM), Epstein and Marsh’s device was named on Time magazine’s “Best Inventions of 2007” list, and in the past few years, the number of installations has grown significantly.
On Demand Books COO Tom Allen will be speaking at the session “Your Future On-demand: What You Need to Know About the Future in POD and Book-at-a-Time Printing,” during the 2010 Publishing Business Virtual Conference & Expo, Sept. 16. Here, he discusses with Publishing Business Insider his perspective on the growth of the EBM, its potential in the evolving book publishing marketplace, and more.
Insider: How many Espresso Book Machines are currrently installed worldwide? How many are in the U.S.? How does this compare to the number of installations last year?
Allen: We currently have 51 Espresso Book Machines (EBMs) either installed or pending installation. Of these, 39 are in the USA and Canada, and 12 are overseas, so we are seeing a healthy demand for the technology, not just domestically, but worldwide. (This fits well with our technology, which can print a book in any language.)
We began 2009 with nine installed EBMs, so we are up significantly since then and expect our sales to accelerate in 2011 and beyond. A number of factors will drive our accelerated growth: First, our institutional partnerships with Xerox, Google, Ingram and others; second, as we permission additional content, this reinforces machine sales, which in turn drive new content—i.e., a virtuous cycle of growth; and third, as we grow, our company continues to add resources in-house, which drives and supports additional sales.
Another factor driving interest in our technology is the growth in custom and self-publishing. According to Bowker, 764,448 new print-on-demand and self-published titles were released in 2009, up over 30 times from 2006 numbers. (The number of traditionally published titles has remained more or less steady.) The EBM is ideal for these titles, which tend to be printed in smaller quantities and distributed outside traditional channels.
Insider: Are any installations currently in the works?
Allen: Yes, of the 51, 13 are expected to be delivered and installed shortly. In addition, we have a significant pipeline of future installations.
Insider: Is this growth rate what you anticipated? If not, what do you think has hindered the speed of growth?
Allen: The growth rate is in line with what we had expected. With 51 installations, we now think of ourselves as a “mid-sized chain.” As we hit future milestones (100-plus machines, 250-plus machines, 1,000-plus machines) and become a “major international chain” with brand recognition, more content will flow to our network, leading to a further acceleration of growth.
Insider: What are the primary types of retailers or outlets that have installed the book-at-a time machine?
Allen: Any site that has a use for producing books on-demand, at point of need, and matching supply to demand with no returns or supply-chain inefficiencies, can find a use for the EBM. That said, our key market segments to date include university bookstores and libraries, independent bookstores, some chain bookstores, and public libraries.
Insider: Do you anticipate seeing an Espresso Book Machine in a Borders or Barnes & Noble anytime soon … or ever? Why or why not?
Allen: We would rather not comment on a specific customer. It goes without saying we want to place as many EBMs as possible and reach as wide a consumer audience as possible, and one quick route to that is through a major chain.
Insider: Do you expect the launch of Google Editions to impact the demand for the EBM, where readers/those who buy books from Google Editions, can access their digital books “in the cloud,” but may want to print them out as well?
Allen: Yes, we see this increasing demand for our technology. Perhaps counterintuitively, the growth of e-books is a net positive for us, as more digital content available to e-readers means more available to our EspressNet catalog of content. In addition, as publishers release books in both e-format and print-format, the overall impact of e-books (if it reduces print books) will be to drive more titles into POD or digital-print platforms, and by extension, our network, because run lengths will get shorter.
According to a recent article in The Economist (“Just Press Print,” Feb. 25, 2010), which prominently featured our technology, 6 percent of books in the US are now printed on toner-based or inkjet machines (a rough proxy for print-on-demand) as opposed to on offset presses. Citing projections from [research and consultancy firm] InterQuest, The Economist article estimates that this ratio will increase to 15 percent over the next five years.
Insider: What do you think attendees to the session, “Your Future On-Demand,” will benefit from most?
Allen: The book industry is undergoing a time of major change and upheaval. This presents opportunities to publishers and booksellers (and others in the book business) who are open to new ways of distributing content and reaching readers. Perhaps more important, improved technologies such as POD are a more environmentally friendly way to distribute books, since they reduce shipping, and eliminate returns and the pulping of unwanted books.