Frankly Speaking: Expanding the Concept of On-Demand Books
Once upon a time, there was the hardcover book, which was generally the only book format for about 500 years. Then, the mass-market paperback format was pioneered by German publisher Albatross Books in 1931. British publisher Allen Lane launched Penguin Books in 1935 with 10 reprint titles. Robert de Graaf, in 1939, issued a similar line in the United States, partnering with Simon & Schuster to create Pocket Books. The term "pocket book" became synonymous with paperback. Later, many publishers would offer paperback books, often published after the hardcover edition. They were 10 cents a copy when introduced and always less expensive than hardcovers. The low-priced, easily available book built the modern book industry.
Lane's other invention was the Penguincubator, the first vending machine for books, installed at 66 Charing Cross Road in London, which took the book beyond the library, the traditional bookstore and the traditional book price. For a few pence, you could have reading matter immediately. These were on-demand books without on-demand printing.
Later, a revolving metal rack displayed a wide variety of paperbacks in a small space. The mass-market paperback pioneered book-selling in nontraditional book-selling locations such as airports, drug stores and supermarkets.
Flash forward to today. The Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., is one of a growing number of retailers that has an Espresso Book Machine, which prints books on-demand. The catalog totals 3.6 million titles, mostly from Google digital files and public domain databases, along with previously out-of-print works. Few contemporary books are on the list. The system creates a library-quality, perfect-bound, acid-free, 300-page paperback book in about four minutes. It also can print your novel, cookbook, memoir, dissertation or anything else for about $100.
Over time, the independent bookstore was displaced by the chain superstore, which is being displaced by the online bookstore. I contend that each displaced the other because of price and availability. For books bought online, it may not be evident which were printed just for you.
Times and technology change. I was sitting in the 2,000-plus-volume library of the Cunard Queen Mary 2 in the North Atlantic with an Amazon Kindle. I connected to Amazon's website wirelessly and downloaded an e-book. Almost any book. Instantly. In the middle of an ocean. Get the picture?
Barnes & Nobles' Nook website, Amazon's Kindle Store, Apple's iBookstore platform and Google Books are the Penguincubators of today and tomorrow. These delivery systems also are being developed by publishers. Now, there is a virtual war between publishers and a new breed of book-sellers over pricing and other issues. For example, you can buy a hardcover at list price, which I cannot believe anyone does (about $30), or discounted at a chain store ($20), or at an online store, but with added shipping ($21), or the e-book version ($10). The only logic in book pricing today is illogic.
We do not buy books by publisher; we buy by title, author or genre. It may be too late for publishers to set up their own stores and entice us to have accounts with all of them. Also, little standardization exists in e-book formats, so not all books will work on all e-readers. Publishers are full of indecision as they try text-only e-books versus enhanced applications, weird release schedules to protect the hardcover-book sales, restrictive digital rights management, and infighting over pricing models, discounts and distribution policies. We cling to traditional business models in an age of change.
Thus, we are doomed to have a book world with books in multiple, non-standardized formats from multiple sources with erratic pricing. The concept of on-demand books can mean anything from a book in a library to a book on a sales rack, to a book in a vending machine, to a book shipped to me, to a book printed for me, to a book downloaded by me. And at the right price.
Frank Romano is professor emeritus at RIT School of Print Media and the author of 45 books.