Since On Demand Books’s introduction of an Espresso Book Machine at BookExpo America in 2007, general independent booksellers have been mesmerized by the possibilities of what was promoted as “an ATM for books,” a machine that would allow them to keep every book available in stock. But the reality of the book machine, which at one time cost as much as $185,000 and now retails for less than half that, or $85,000, continues to be less certain. Since January 2008, when Northshire Books in Manchester Center, Vt., became the first U.S. bookstore to get an EBM, nicknamed "Lurch," only a baker’s dozen of U.S. independent booksellers have bought, leased, or brought in a book machine through a concession arrangement.
Over the past six months, four independents have quietly returned their machines. Lurch is no longer at Northshire, neither is “the Beast” at Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., or concession machines at Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif., or R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn. Over the same period two mass merchandisers have begun testing machines, Books-A-Million has added two of the first color EBMs, and an indie drugstore chain in Seattle, Bartell Drugs, is getting ready to try its first book machine at the beginning of 2014. Altogether, there are just over 80 EBMs at locations worldwide, and that figure includes independent and university bookstores, libraries, and chains.
Part of the problem has been the reluctance of publishers to make titles available. Shambhala Publications was among the first publishers to sign on in October 2010, followed by University of Pittsburgh Press for its paperbacks and HarperCollins the following year. Penguin, Kensington, Perseus Book Group, and Akashic are among the presses that have followed suit. On Demand CEO Dane Neller acknowledges that publishers have been slow to add titles. “Publishers have been reluctant to provide anything but deep backlist,” he told PW. “If you go to a Kindle, you get everything you want. But [publishers] haven’t done that for POD. So in an effort to deal with that we work with our booksellers to build a self-publishing program.”
That’s not to say that self-publishing isn’t a big market. It is, which is why three of the four bookstores that dropped the book machine are actively marketing alternative programs by working with local printers to produce books for their customers. In the process they’ve also lost any headaches connected with maintaining the machines. Nor does it imply that the independent book market doesn’t matter to On Demand. Neller calls it “very important,” but he thinks that the addition of more bricks-and-mortar stores, be they chains or mass merchandisers, will help indies by getting more publishers to participate. “Everybody’s fighting the same thing, to get customers to come in,” he says. And that’s what he sees as the EBM’s value proposition for all types of retailers: “to compete against Amazon.” He adds, “for it to really work, you have to have all the content. People don’t buy books by publisher. They buy books by title.”
Some book machine owners are finding them to be a profit center. “You have to put a lot of effort into it,” says Jeff Mayersohn, owner of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., who continues to value “Paige,” short for Paige M. Gutenberg. “I consider it as a robust part of our business, and we still have three employees working on it.” During a typical month, Harvard prints 1,000 books, about half of them are older titles from Google. On a particularly big month, Harvard will print as many as 1,600 books. Plus he notes, “it’s still a magnet, a destination for people visiting the store. If it was too small and much quieter, maybe people wouldn’t notice.”
Mayersohn agrees with Neller that getting more frontlist titles is starting to happen, although he would like it to be faster. When Mayersohn works at the store’s information desk he makes a point of checking whether an out-of-stock title is available on the EBM. He was recently able to satisfy customer demand by printing a copy of Jack Beatty’s The Rascal King (Da Capo) and Ron Rash’s Serena (Ecco) on Paige. Last year, when Drew Gilpin Faust was interviewed in The New York Times Book Review for the “By the Book” column and she recommended that all freshmen read Kathryn Schultz’s Being Wrong (Ecco), there was a run on the book. Harvard Book Store was able to solve the out-of-stock problem with its book machine.
“Ultimately, it’s a chicken-and-the-egg game,” says Neller, “to get the content that’s really important.” For now, On Demand and some independent booksellers are willing to wait. “Our business is very strong,” says Neller. “We just signed a major licensing deal with China.”