Have We Glimpsed the Future of Book Publishing?
The Espresso Book Machine, courtesy of On Demand Books.
By Michael Stillman
The future of book publishing may be on display at the New York Public Library through the end of August. We say "may" because no one really knows what the future holds. Perhaps we could have foreseen that music would migrate from records to tapes to CDs, but who, a decade or so ago, would have seen it migrating to mps3 files, downloaded from the internet, there never being a physical object which changed hands? Certainly not the record stores. So where is book publishing going?
It is harder to see books being replaced by non-physical objects as records were, because physical presence is more of a tradition with the written word than it is with music. Certainly, the underlying purpose of books, information, is non-physical, so they can be replaced with downloadable files, to be read on a computer monitor. There are books which can be purchased or read this way, and undoubtedly this form of reading will grow. Still, the book as downloadable data file has not caught on nearly to the extent that digitized music has, and this reflects the greater appreciation of the physical form of books. This brings us to the exhibition at the New York Public Library, which is something in between traditionally published books and downloadable ones.
On display is the first Espresso Book Machine to be installed. This contraption is the handiwork of On Demand Books, which kind of gives away what it does. This is the public edition of the behind the scenes equipment that spins out the ubiquitous "books on demand" that have flooded so many listing sites. The intention of On Demand Books is that one day these machines will be located in your local libraries and bookstores. Any book, old or new, so long as it is in the machine's database, will be available in your hometown on a moment's notice, freshly minted, night or day.
At the New York Public's Science, Industry and Business Library, visitors (at least the lucky ones) will get to print from a selection of public domain classics at no charge. It apparently takes only a couple of minutes for the machine to print and paper bind one of these books. While examples of books that can be printed, such as Tom Sawyer and Moby Dick, are readily available elsewhere, in time, and with a large enough database of titles, the Espresso could undoubtedly print off any obscurity imaginable. Just plug it into the internet and begin building your library.
While print-on-demand isn't new, such books now being sold through online listing sites, offering it locally is. This will provide even more instant instant-gratification for those not willing to wait for shipments to arrive (such as students with a report due tomorrow), and probably, in time, the ability to add custom features, like your own cover, or a printed personal dedication from Grandpa to little Billy. Best of all, if print-on-demand books are available locally, maybe we won't see the antiquarian and used book sites filled with these listings which make it hard to locate the traditional books we are trying to find.
Have We Glimpsed the Future of Book Publishing?
Among the other benefits noted by On Demand Books is the elimination of any need to stock or distribute these books. Overruns or shortages are no longer a problem. New books would be available anywhere in the world on the day they are released. There would be no returns. Remainders would cease to exist. "Out-of-print" will become an obsolete term future generations will not understand. This latter point is a concern to some writers whose contracts provide that rights to their works revert to the author once they go "out of print."
On Demand Books hints at an even more significant development when they note that the elimination of warehousing and shipping may lead to lower prices for the consumer. What they don't say is something that is already starting to happen with music. With on demand printing through the internet, there may be no need for publishers. Just as record companies now find they no longer have a stranglehold on, or the ability to force one-sided contracts upon musicians, publishers may find themselves in the same boat. They may be forced to reinvent themselves more as marketing companies than publishing ones, helping authors make consumers aware of their works, rather than printing and distributing them. Of course, this could give companies that control the databases used by these printing machines a stranglehold, unless there is true competition, or an open database. If this catches on, it will certainly turn the publishing world upside down.
What this does to collecting is another issue. What will constitute a first edition? Will every copy in effect be a limited edition, limited to one unique copy? How do you establish priority? Fortunately, it will be a long time before any of these books becomes antiquarian, so we will leave it to future generations of collectors to ponder these issues.
On Demand Books states that while traditional machines of this sort could cost $1 million, the Espresso "is priced to be affordable for retailers and libraries." They don't say what constitutes "affordable," and it probably does not have the same meaning to you, if you run a small book business, as it does to them. However, this may be something within the reach of larger bookstores and city libraries. If ultimately this throws people in the traditional publishing and printing businesses out of work, it will create a fantastic new job opportunity you may want to consider training for now. Think of that much simpler machine, the copier in your office, which constantly breaks down anyway. There is going to be a tremendous need for print-on-demand machine repairmen.