“It’s always been the holy grail of the book business to walk into a store and get any book,” said Kirby Best, president and CEO of Lightning Source. With the signing of today’s strategic agreement with On Demand Books, proprietor of the Espresso Book Machine, Best sees that goal coming a little bit closer.

“When we first got into this, we thought our technology would be ahead of the content. Now we have to catch up,” said Dane Neller, cofounder and CEO of On Demand Books. The Espresso Book Machine prints and binds inidividual books in a few minutes. (It takes about eight minutes to print a 300-page book.) The partnership with Lightning Source gives On Demand access to its scanning facilities, but it also gives the company access to copyrighted material through an opt in/opt out clause that Lightning Source will add to its publisher contracts. At present, the titles available through Espresso fall mainly in the public domain.

Just how much difference the agreement will make in the short term is debatable, given that there are only seven Espresso Book Machines in use, two in bookstores. One is at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt.; the other at the University of Alberta Bookstore in Edmonton, Canada. Of course, one of the possibilities that the Espresso Book Machine opens up is for libraries, which have also been early adopters of the machines, to sell books, not just lend them. As the machinery becomes cheaper and easier to operate, nonbook businesses could choose to become publishers and booksellers, as well.

In its current iteration, however, the Espresso Book Machine is costly, and it takes over a month to produce a single machine. “We’re building a new machine that’s much smaller that can be mass produced, version 2.0,” said cofounder and chairman Jason Epstein. Neller adds that a beta machine, which will be the size of a copier at Kinko’s (3’ X 2-1/2’ for the finishing unit with another 2’ for a duplex printer), will be ready in the fall. If all goes well, a less expensive model will begin leasing in 2009.

“The point of this machine is to represent the ultimate in POD,” said Epstein, who sees it as the best way to preserve backlist. If the machines catch on and proliferate like so many Starbucks outlets, the marketplace would become radically decentralized and book distribution would require simply an Internet connection.

Despite the fact that much of Ingram’s business relies on the very distribution methods that On Demand could destroy, Best has been in touch with the company for several years to find ways to work together. “The most important thing for us,” he said, “is to create more and different channels for our publishers.” By providing content through this alliance, Best wants to free up On Demand to focus on the technology.