The group that gathered last Thursday at the New York Public Library's Science, Industry and Business Library for the unveiling of Jason Epstein's Espresso Book Machine was not large. Nor did it comprise many of the industry types who are “supposed” to be high tech and cutting edge and into gadgets (read: under 40). Instead, most of the two dozen or so in attendance were middle-aged and up, and most seemed to know a bit about what they were about to see. After all, Epstein, former Random House honcho and industry curmudgeon/visionary, has been saying print on demand to consumers is the future of bookselling for years.

And he spoke about it again, in a somewhat halting prepared speech that was whittled down from an earlier, longer paper he delivered elsewhere earlier this month. His basic point: POD is the real revolution “already under way” in publishing. The cofounder of their company, On Demand Books—former Dean & DeLuca CEO Dane Neller—explained that the Espresso machine is, ultimately, a delivery system, and they expect to license, not sell, the medium-size-closet devices to retailers, libraries and even hotels. Consumers could go to one of these machines and download a book—currently only titles in the public domain and a few other titles, including Epstein's own Book Business and Chris Anderson's The Long Tail.

But how realistic is this plan? When can we expect it to catch on? Certainly not until copyright issues are addressed, and Neller seemed loathe to address them, saying only that On Demand “respect[s] intellectual property,” will pay for the digital rights (declining to say how much) and that publishers are responding “very well” to providing them with material. Is that so? It seems to me publishers are a long way from sorting out who gets POD rights and when. Was On Demand hiding under a rock a few weeks ago, during the whole S&S/Author's Guild flap?

The machine itself was impressive, especially if you believe the new version, due soon, will be half the size and twice as sleek as the surprisingly silent contraption that produced for the crowd a paperback copy of The Long Tail in three minutes. And putting the first prototypes in such bookstore-challenged places as Russia and Egypt and New Orleans—and giving away one book free per customer—is surely a wise and generous move. But what does the Espresso machine, assuming it gathers, uh, steam, really mean for booksellers and readers? Maybe, as Epstein & Co. suggest, everybody—publishers, chains, independent stores, customers—will save money thanks to reduced warehousing, printing and shipping costs, not to mention the certain misery and miserable uncertainty of returns. But will that gain be enough to offset the loss of the joy of browsing? Will pricing change? Will 20,000-sq.-ft. superstores be redundant? It seems to me that in a time when new technologies promising revolutionary effects are being trotted forth at a dizzying pace, the responsible thing for their promoters is to envision how we are all going to work with it—or not. Otherwise, the cautious fear that Epstein decries among publishers is perhaps well-founded, and the slim turnout on Thursday understandable.