A Good Alternative To E-books? Print On Demand With The Espresso Book Machine

Print-on-demand technology: what are your options and are POD books really a viable alternative to the e-revolution? With all the talk that we do about e-books, and the coverage that we give this emerging — or possibly the correct tense is emerged — e-book market, it seemed only fair that we pause in our almost overwhelming praise to consider the options available for readers who prefer to hold a print book in their hands.

Today, I am taking a look at whether the Espresso Book Machine, pictured left, may hold answers for the publishing industry and readers who love traditional print format books. 

The Espresso Book Machine is the invention of Jason Epstein, who has already changed the publishing industry in amazing ways. Epstein is widely lauded as the creator of the mass market paperback in the 1950s, after seeing that there would be a market for these books during his time at Columbia University. The man is also behind the creation of The Reader’s Catalog, which allowed booklovers access to titles that were no longer on the shelves of chain bookstores, during the end of the 1980s — a program that is often credited as the precursor to the online retailer Amazon.

As e-books became more prevalent during the last two decades, Epstein’s created his latest publishing innovation as an answer to the rising tide of electronic books. After securing investors, he created printing press that was small enough to be placed in bookstores. He envisioned that this invention would be similar to an ATM for books. Customers request a book and viola it is printed on the spot specifically for them.

Although the Espresso Book Machine was Time magazine’s invention of the year back in 2007, it hasn’t seen much overwhelming success since then. The machine weighs one ton, is made of metal and Plexiglas, and by all accounts is quite expensive. Currently most of the models — about fifty or so are in commission right now — reside at bookstores around the world. The bulky machine requires a trained operator (usually a bookstore employee) to run it and sometimes suffers from paper jams and other errors. Additionally, the Espresso Book Machine can currently only print books that are in the digital catalog owned by their parent company, On Demand Books. 

However, these slow-downs may all be a thing of the past. Epstein has teamed up with Xerox and together they are marketing the device to readers who want out of print or e-books in traditional format, self-published authors, librarians and even cruise line directors! Anywhere that there may be an interest in traditional print books — whether they are difficult to get a hold of because they are out of print, are public domain books that can now be created inexpensively or even are potentially disposable copies that people may want to leave behind at their travel destination — the Espresso Book Machine is ready to meet that need.

Making the situation even more interesting is the fact that publishing giant HarperCollins has recently signed a deal with On Demand Books, greatly widening the scope of works that One Demand Books has access to. As of this coming November, any out of print book published by HarperCollins and every e-book that the publisher turns into a final product, will now be available in print via the Espresso Book Machine.

This raises the question could the Espresso Book Machine potentially keep a struggling publishing and book selling industry alive? It could be a way for publishers to keep making money even if they can’t afford to print the books themselves. By moving to an all e-book mode of publishing and partnering with On Demand Books, these houses could drastically cut their costs while continuing to produce high-quality books. Furthermore, it could be a way for brick and mortar bookstores to gain an edge in their competition with the online selling superstores. It will make the brick and mortar stores' lists of available books larger, allowing readers to shop at these stores no matter what book they are looking for. It could even make these trips faster, streamlining the book buying experience into one that is much more like visiting a Kinkos, if readers were interested in simply walking in, selecting the book that they wanted and having it print while they wait.

And for all those readers who love the print book, I am even willing to hazard a guess that the Espresso Book Machine may be a champion of the traditional format — even winning back the hearts and minds of some e-book fans. 

I want to know, what do you think about the Espresso Book Machine and would you consider using one instead of getting an e-book?