In the next two months, seven independent bookstores in the U.S. will add Espresso Book Machines from On Demand Books capable of brewing a 300-page perfect-bound book in five to seven minutes. According to On Demand cofounder and CEO Dane Neller, the company will have 40 machines in bookstores and libraries in North America, the U.K., Australia and Egypt by the end of the first quarter of 2010 and will soon launch a venture in Africa. With two content-related agreements in the past six months, Espresso users can now imbibe two million previously out-of-print Google Books and 200,000 in-print titles from Lightning Source. For On Demand cofounder Jason Epstein, these agreements coupled with a new, much smaller and more portable machine mark the end of the Gutenberg age. But if publishing is at a turning point and centralized publishing is dead, as Epstein predicts, what does an Espresso age mean for booksellers?
Although the new 2.0/2.1 Espresso Book Machine, which sells for $75,000 or leases for $1,250 a month, enables booksellers to turn publisher, this is not the first time that booksellers have had that opportunity. In the early 1870s, for example, when Charles Lauriat and Dana Estes formed Lauriat’s in Boston, Mass., which went on to become one of the country’s largest regional chains, their original business model was to be booksellers, publishers and importers. More recently several stores have proved that it’s possible to publish and sell books successfully. And almost a decade ago, Sprout installed POD machines in several warehouses and signed agreements with 15 U.S. bookstores before the company went under.
For Neller, what’s key today is that because of digitization, the Espresso machine enables local retailers to do everything a national behemoth like Amazon does. Books can be delivered within hours of being ordered, and bookstores can access five million titles as well as self-published works. To make the machines more affordable, On Demand cut the 1.0 machine’s $144,000 cost in half, and Neller is looking for ways for booksellers to recoup their investment more rapidly by negotiating a turnkey approach to self-publishing.
Scott Beck, co-owner of four-year-old Boxcar & Caboose Bookshop and Cafe in St. Johnsbury, Vt., views the book machine not only as a paradigm shift but an essential one for a store of his size, 3,000 sq. ft., including the cafe. “The biggest handicap in smaller stores is space,” said Beck. “We have about 18,000 books and can’t fit anymore.” With the Espresso, he will be able to offer his customers many times that number while they wait. He recently redesigned Boxcar & Caboose’s front counter so that the book machine can sit next to the register. When a customer places a special order, they can pay for it and watch it print in a matter of minutes.
At Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., which held a naming contest for its new machine, now known as “Paige” (short for Paige M. Gutenborg), POD enables owner Jeffrey Mayersohn to get closer to his vision when he purchased the store almost a year ago: “to place any book ever written in any format in our customers’ hands within hours of them making that request.” Although Mayersohn foresees a day when bookstores become local showrooms, for now he is working to gain a strong national customer base, something arguably that no independent other than Powell’s Books in Portland has achieved. In November, the store will launch a new Harvard.com Web site, which will enable users to search all five million books available at the store. Local customers can even have their orders delivered by green transportation—a bike.
Robert Sindelar, managing partner of Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Wash., was drawn to the Espresso for a different reason, to compete head-on with e-readers. “While it may be the year of the Kindle,” said Sindelar, “stores like ours are bringing in this machine to validate physical books.” He hopes that the Espresso machine can help him recapture customers lost to the Internet a decade ago—researchers. “Those customers could come to us again,” he said. “Theoretically, we can do subject searches and print the books we find for them.” For now, though, his focus is on Third Place Classics, which will reprint books that schools have ordered from the store in quantities of 50 and up.
A number of stores are also looking at reissuing classics. According to Mizzou media coordinator Heather Tearney, the University of Missouri Bookstore is planning a line of university classics like Frankenstein and Romeo and Juliet, with introductions by faculty. The bookstore will also use the machine to print books by university faculty members.
Chris Schafer, who handles faculty relations at the University of Arizona Bookstore, envisions offering students more competitively priced coursepacks, which students can then resell back to the store, and bringing scholarly works back to life. The bookstore has begun building partnerships with the University of Arizona Press to make its out-of-print books available and with the university’s libraries to reprint rare books in their collections.
With five bookstores in and around Grand Rapids, Mich., Bill Fehsenfeld, co-owner of Schuler Books and Music, is one of the few to express concern over On Demand’s description of its machine as “an ATM for books.” “We have to manage expectations,” he said. Even with a van that goes between his stores on a regular basis, he estimates that some customers may have to wait a day or two to receive their books. Single stores could face similar delays. If a machine is printing an order for 30 books, a bookseller may not want to interrupt it to print a single copy for a customer, even for a customer in the store.
For Chuck Robinson, co-owner of Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., it’s been a long wait to get a POD machine; his store was originally slated to test the Sprout. What excites him most about the Espresso, he said, is that “technology is catching up with the ideas about how it might be used.” He’s already got several projects lined up, including the first book off the press, The Village Books Guide to Self Publishing.
Like many booksellers, though, Robinson plans to do more printing than publishing for customers, because of his concern over liability issues, and he will not be selling ISBNs to his Espresso customers. Robinson will, however, publish several books under the store’s imprint, Chuckanut Editions. Among them are John C. Miles’s Impressions of the North Cascades, which was published by Mountaineers in 1996, and an updated edition of Miles’s Koma Kulshan on Mt. Baker, also published by Mountaineers.
Although the University of Alberta Bookstore in Edmonton, Canada, the first bookstore to get an Espresso machine, in November 2007, recouped the cost in 11 months, the potential income that book machines can generate remains unclear. At Northshire Books in Manchester Center, Vt., for example, which got its Espresso in January 2008, the machine has made little difference to the bottom line. General manager Chris Morrow predicts that could change. Google Books and Lightning Source titles could make it “a big boon,” he said. Unlike the University of Alberta, which is planning to keep its original machine and place an Espresso 2.1 next to it, when Northshire upgrades to the 2.1 machine this winter, it will sell “Lurch.” It’s doubtful he will regret his decision anytime soon. The new book machine can print 60,000 books a year.