Retailing for $185,000, the Espresso Book Machine, developed by On Demand Books, costs more than the annual revenue of some independent bookstores. But with a new partnership with the American Booksellers Association to help get frontlist and midlist titles from mainstream houses (something that has eluded ODB to date), an agreement with HarperCollins for some backlist titles with the promise of new releases at some point in the future, and more involvement from Xerox, the EBM could be poised to become a bookstore staple. The marketing arrangement with Xerox last March gives the ODB a sales force of 4,000, and more financially attractive leasing options for the EBM.
Somewhat counterintuitively, as ODB CEO Dane Neller points out, the rise of e-books has opened new opportunities for print and, by extension, the EBM. "As more frontlist goes to e-books," he says, "it's put more pressure on unit costs. Publishers are looking for [new] ways to sell their books." Plus they've become more open to new models, adds Johnny Saunders, v-p of finance and business development at ODB. Both Neller and Saunders are quick to differentiate the book machine from print-on-demand. "We're not a POD solution," says Neller. "We're a sales solution."
Another reason that book machines have started to come into their own is that publishers are looking for ways to support bricks-and-mortar stores. "Publishers cannot afford to lose retail distribution. So they also see this as a mechanism for the distribution model," says Neller. For Saunders, whose task is acquiring content for the machine, the desire to keep indies in business is translating to a new willingness to make content available. To date, most of the books that the machine can print have come from deep backlist available from Lightning Source, Google Books, and the Internet Archive. Most frontlist titles are from smaller presses and open source publishers, like Shambhala Publications, Harvard Common Press, ECW Press, and Flat World Knowledge.
A question put to attendees at Xerox's first Thought Leadership Workshop about the EBM in Rochester, N.Y., last month indicates another possibility for the machine's growing popularity: Amazon. "We need to compete with Amazon," says Linda Gregory, who handles Web site and order fulfillment for Colgate Bookstore in Hamilton, N.Y. Matthew Woodcock, in charge of accounting and course materials at the Bookstore at the University of Montana in Missoula, agreed, although the store partners with Amazon on textbooks. "For trade books, there's a lot of inventory sitting on the shelves. Unit sales are going down, but people are reading. How can we capitalize on that?" he asks.
Statistics from ODB are tantalizing: within the first three months of having a machine McNally Jackson Books in New York City has gone from zero to 1,000 books a month. At Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., which added a machine in October 2009, owner Jeffrey Mayersohn expects to surpass 2,000 books a month this summer. "Digitalization is the salvation of the neighborhood bookstore," he declares. He regards Amazon's infrastructure as "20th-century" and believes that the key competitive issue is inventory, not price. With the EMB Mayersohn says, "The store becomes a well-curated showroom with books published to specification—and a manufacturing operation in the backroom."
One of the advantages of the book machine for Heather Tearney, Mizzou Media coordinator for the University of Missouri Bookstore in Columbia, Mo., is "it allows you to grow at your own rate." Although the original impetus for getting a machine in fall 2009 was to reduce the cost of course materials for students, she has become one of the few EBM operators to create a work-around to the machine's black-and-white only printing capability by hand-feeding color pages. UM's color business grew to 40% of its EBM printing of roughly 10,000 books in 2010. Coursepacks remain an important source of revenue, with 50% of students buying print coursepacks, even when they can download them for free online.
Xerox's v-p of publishing, John Conley, sees opportunity for EBM users in the self-publishing space, which is seeing rapid growth. Conley also suggests that booksellers start printing their own "traditional" books, like all the early titles of bestselling authors in the past 40 years where rights are available.
But book machines aren't limited to Xerox and the EBM. Hewlett-Packard began testing its 13-foot-long Raptor machine in three college stores last school year, and the National Association of College Stores is currently running a pilot program with eight to 10 stores to create a regional POD network that relies on various short-run printing machines. If all goes well over the next seven or eight months, says CIO Mark Nelson, NACS will do a soft launch in January, with a possible full launch by next March's Camex.