Books-A-Million’s three-month experiment with the print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine has been a success, but the country’s second largest bookstore chain is not yet ready to take the program beyond the two locations that have been operating EBMs since last November.
“It’s been fabulous,” said Mary Gallagher, senior v-p in the BAM merchandising group, adding that the EBM business has had steady growth over the past three months, since machines were first placed in BAM’s South Portland, Maine, outlet, as well as in its flagship store in Birmingham, Ala. “We’ve been just delighted with the community’s reception in both locations.” Portland is one of the company’s top-volume stores, according to Gallagher, and was also chosen for the pilot because New England has a “strong writing and self-publishing community.” The flagship store was included to keep things “close to home.”
“Where we see the biggest action is in the self-publishing area,” said Gallagher, adding that there has been growing interest in public domain classics. “If you’re a bibliophile, you can find amazing things in there.”
Two employees at each location operate the machines. “What they do spend most of their time doing, besides printing physical books, is assisting people on the self-publishing front. It’s a lot of fun, talking to serious book lovers. It’s always great to hear from customers.” One EBM operator with the company said that most projects have centered around family history and genealogy—the employees manning the machines have worked on everything from helping children bind a book of illustrations for their grandmother, to printing a fully researched family biography. In the public domain space, the operators have come across fascinating and esoteric works, like a copy of Alice in Wonderland written in Lewis Carroll’s handwriting.
While the self-publishing business has been strong, Gallagher would like to see publishers add more titles to the EBMs that could be printed at the store. Certain titles are available through partnerships with Google, Lightning Source, HarperCollins, and Hachette, while select content comes from publishers like Random House, W.W. Norton, and Simon & Schuster. Gallagher said she talks with publishers “every day” about making more content available on the EBMs. “We do wish we were doing more volume [on the machines] in copyright situations with books that are available through standard publishers,” she said. “But they haven’t gotten on the bandwagon yet, and the lion’s share of the business is really from the self-publishing community.”
Asked if BAM currently has plans to install more machines, Gallagher replied that the company would like to get “a good year under [its] belt,” but, again, she believes that “a lot of it depends on where the publishers come down.”
“We can’t understand why they’re slow to the party,” she added. “It’s all about servicing the customer.”