Following the death of legendary Random House editor Jason Epstein in February, many tributes pointed to his various publishing innovations, including his final creation, On Demand Books, maker of the Espresso Book Machine. Dane Neller, who cofounded ODB with Epstein in 2003, told PW that though the use of the Espresso Book Machine has stalled, he believes there is still a place for what the company describes as “an ATM for books” in bookstores, coffee shops, libraries, and airports.
Many booksellers and publishers got their first look at the EBM, which was invented by Jeff Marsh and could print a 300-page black-and-white paperback with a four-color cover and bind it together in three minutes, at BookExpo America in 2007. The following January, Northshire Books in Manchester Center, Vt., became the first general bookstore to add a beta machine, nicknamed Lurch.
A number of indies added book machines, among them Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif.; R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn.; Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C.; and Village Books in Bellingham, Wash. All four returned their EBMs a few years later, as did Northshire. Some gave them up because of major publishers’ reluctance to make more titles available, while others did so because of space (the machine takes up 75 sq. ft.).
But other bookstores found EBMs worth keeping. “Our printing and publishing division is an important part of our business,” said Scott Beck, co-owner of Boxcar and Caboose Bookshop in Saint Johnsbury, Vt. He views the EBM that the store got in 2009 as part of the diversification it needs to stay competitive. The EBM was an important contributor to Boxcar and Caboose’s sales throughout the pandemic. Even now, when traditional book sales have more than rebounded at the store, the EBM contributes 6%–8% of revenue. It is used primarily to publish and print books by local authors.
Schuler Books also added an EBM to its Grand Rapids, Mich., store in 2009 and has taken advantage of ODB’s partnership with Google Books to print and sell titles that are in the public domain. Typically it prints between 1,500 and 2,000 public domain titles per year, according to EBM operator Pierre Camy. The EBM has also played a key role in getting the store into offering printing and publishing services for self-publishers, and that business is growing. Schuler now prints 3,000–5,000 books annually.
ODB also partners with Ingram to print books provided to Lightning Source and makes some titles from major publishers available. Still, Camy noted that it is cheaper for the store to order many titles that are in stock from Ingram than it is to print them from the EBM.
At its peak, ODB had 100 book machines in the field. However, fewer are active now, according to Neller. Neller has made the EBM the centerpiece for his 2014 venture Espresso Bookstore & Café Holdings, which includes ODB and does business as Shakespeare and Co. Currently there are two Shakespeare bookstores in New York City, including the flagship on Lexington Ave. next to Hunter College, and a third store in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square.
“Pre-pandemic we had ambitious growth plans,” Neller said. “We would focus on Shakespeare and have a small footprint and use the EBM for inventory replenishment.”
For now, Neller, who had been owner and CEO of Dean & DeLuca, is focused on opening a few more stores in the New York City area and would consider a broader expansion if the opportunity arose.
As for the EBM, Neller said, “I believe one day this technology will take off. There are a lot of disruptive technologies that take time. Look at the electric car. Jason had a good vision: the printed book is important, and this is an important technology for small bookstores worldwide to sell printed books in any language.”
The biggest stumbling block to expanding the use of EBM, Neller said, is getting rights to print fast-moving trade titles. “Some publishers have expressed a concern that every book printed on the machine is one less book sold from the shelf,” he said. “This is not the case, since booksellers sell books first from the shelf or from display tables. The EBM is intended to print books that are out of stock, since small booksellers do not have space to inventory every backlist or midlist title.”
Neller has no intention of giving up on the EBM. “We still have machines,” he said. “We still sell machines.”