The 'Mr. Coffee' of Bookmaking
When espresso was first popularized in America, in the 1950s, it had all the qualities of a fad—commanding a lot of attention, then quickly fading out. The drink roared back into popularity in the ’90s on the back of a killer app called Starbucks, proving itself indispensable among a digital generation partial to need-it-now energy solutions. Who today can imagine life without it?
Naysayers may assume fad status for the drink’s namesake, the Espresso Book Machine, the most high-profile attempt at introducing an all-in-one manufacturing package to the volatile world of book retail. In fact, the stars might be aligned just right if you’re rooting for the success of this curious contraption, which may, after all, prove itself the drip brewer of book manufacturing—a vital part of a suite of technologies central to an emerging “instant” product fulfillment system. Perhaps it should have been called “Mr. Coffee.”
A Need to Economize
A major goal in book manufacturing and fulfillment since the introduction of on-demand printing solutions has been the ability to economically produce any book in any location, says John Conley, vice president, publishing at Xerox. “It’s a waste problem,” he says. “Having to work in this returns environment is not just a problem for the publisher, it’s a problem for the retailer, because he has to handle them. If anybody has to touch them, it’s adding cost. The [question] becomes, ‘How do I take cost out of that model?’”
Publishers and manufacturers have, of course, been working on this problem on many fronts—making offset more economical in ever-smaller quantities, introducing short-run digital printing to minimize inventory and returns, and print-on-demand for very small orders. The next frontier is to minimize, if not eliminate, shipping and storage costs.
“If you have, in metropolitan areas, a process that allows the book to be produced locally, you remove the distribution costs and eliminate the returns issues,” Conley notes.
Enter book-at-a-time technology, which, while still in its early stages, offers the promise of filling a key piece of the economizing puzzle, eliminating the need for stores to give over shelf space to books that only sell a few copies a year, and allowing Amazon and other Internet retailers to minimize their warehouse and shipping costs by strategically locating printing machines around the country.
The two major players in this emerging market are On Demand Books, manufacturer of the Espresso Book Machine, first installed at the World Bank InfoShop in Washington, D.C., in 2006, and the InstaBook Corp., which debuted its InstaBook Maker in 1998 at the offices of Denlinger’s, a Florida publishing house.
“Our machines are not intended to produce millions and millions of books at one machine,” says Dane Neller, co-founder and CEO of On Demand Books, which is installing a smaller, cheaper 2.0 version of the Espresso Book Machine at the University of Waterloo in Canada in early 2009. “It is intended to produce fewer copies, but right at the distribution point. I still see a model where publishers could produce a best-seller centrally, but might not need to print all of those centrally.”
Limitations to the adoption of this technology include cost, which should decrease as more machines are produced (the Espresso 2.0 retails at $88,750), and the current inability to produce case-bound books—not to mention a reluctance on the part of publishers to abandon older distribution models, which Neller says is sometimes driven by a fear of cannibalizing existing inventory. He sees the most viable short-term application of his machine in libraries and campus bookstores, where book-at-a-time technology is already being used.
“Nontraditional sellers like campus bookstores, libraries, hotels and airports that don’t have those legacy issues are more willing to embrace the technology,” he says. Cash-strapped libraries especially have an opportunity to create a revenue source through these machines, he adds.
Victor Celorio, inventor of the InstaBook, agrees that publishers have, up to this point, been resistant. “The publishing industry has been afraid of losing control of their content. This is why they have been very slow in adapting their books to the new form of distribution our technology offers them,” he says. “Bookstores will not adopt the technology until publishers do, so it is a little bit like the chicken-and-the-egg conundrum.”
Celorio says he sees installation in bookstores as a long-term goal, but, like Neller, has so far seen success with small publishing houses, colleges, universities and libraries. He has also sold systems in countries where a lack of infrastructure makes book production very expensive and complicated. The InstaBook Maker III currently retails for $17,500.
As it turns out, the timing could not be better for book-at-a-time to be introduced in libraries, just when these institutions are grappling with the implications of the Google Book Search settlement. “Because of the Google settlement, I think libraries will begin to try to find a way to generate revenue,” Neller says. “You have something like 15,000 public libraries in America, all with very good real estate. They all sit right in the town center where everybody goes. Why shouldn’t they start thinking of themselves not just as a place to warehouse books? Why not offer them for sale?”
Google is compiling a database of millions of scanned books, and the recently-announced settlement with publishing industry groups includes free public-access terminals in libraries around the country. A provision will allow for these books to be printed on a pay-as-you-go basis—a perfect opportunity for patrons to buy high-quality bound versions of books on the spot.
“The focus of the [Google] project is simply to make that database available for people to see, not necessarily for print, but if you can find a way to make those files printable, it opens up a huge market, and you simply have to have the ability to fulfill it,” Conley says.
While no successful business model has yet been put forth to capitalize on the vast quantity of new material being made available (a large portion of what Google is scanning is out-of-print books, and many are in the public domain), Conley believes book-at-a-time is one viable option. (Others include standard, centralized on-demand print fulfillment, which at this point is cheaper for libraries than investing in a book-making machine, he says.)
Also built into the settlement is a resolution of most of the highly debated rights issues, which should speed adoption of on-demand purchasing solutions. Rights are still more of a barrier in campus bookstores, which have a goal of instant anthologizing—the coursepack of the future. At the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., the Espresso Book Machine is enabling the publishing of classics in the public domain, the fulfillment of special orders, and a self-publishing package (including marketing services and professional editing, if desired) for customers.
“I believe that at some point there will be an InstaBook Maker in each bookstore, which will have access to millions of titles available from around the world, in many languages, to be downloaded and printed on-demand, and in a few minutes,” Celorio says. “Imagine that: any book, any time, anywhere.”
Whether or not this happens, the technology seems well-positioned to one day take its place alongside other digital and on-demand options. The current limitations of book-at-a-time have to do with margins, not content, Neller says, and the number and type of books printed this way should increase as the process becomes less expensive.
“There are two major [fulfillment] trends: decentralization and personalization,” Neller says. “Both trends funnel into our technology, and to some extent, to the e-readers as well.”
Stephen Mettee, publisher of Sanger, Calif.-based Quill Driver Books, believes adoption of a universal file format and “IT substructure” to store and deliver files is all that stands in the way of getting publishers fully on board with book-at-a-time technology. He envisions new print- revenue opportunities made possible by consumers being able to create short-story anthologies based on smart-search and tagging/categorization tools; an example would be a custom book featuring 10 well-regarded stories set in Denver in the 1890s.
“This is definitely a part of the future of book publishing,” he says. “Like the one-hour photo-developing machines, we’ll find these book machines many places, including bookstores, of course, but also drugstores, mall kiosks, and even chain warehouses like Costco. People will access a database of available titles, select the one they want, hit a key, and then finish shopping while their book prints and binds.”
Mettee believes Amazon.com will eventually use book-at-a-time technology for most of its orders, thereby improving the bottom line for publishers by way of lower printing, freight and warehousing costs.
“You have to think of this as a re-supply system and not one particular tool,” Conley says of the range of new technologies coming into play. “You will still have web offset, you will still have centralized digital print for scale, and a distributed inventory-replenishment model [based on some form of localized digital printing]. The platform is far more diverse than what you had five years ago.”