New York Magazine’s Devouring Culture Vulture writes about the fall launch of print-on-demand book machine, Espresso Book Machine 2.0, reportedly at the McNally Jackson Books store in New York City’s SoHo district. It’s a “contraption [with] Willy Wanka-ish machinations” that enchanted writer Boris Kachka. Made by On Demand Books, the $75,000 machine, which will be leased or sold to booksellers, is similar in appearance to the tortilla machine at a Chevys Restaurant—buyers get to watch their book being made while they wait.
“Think of the store as a hub where the supply chain collapses,” On Demand Books CEO told Kachka. That’s a tantalizing vision, one that the blogger muses “means less shelf space, which means fewer New York stores go bankrupt due to astronomical rents.”
Yes, and no. Let’s think this through. The catch in On Demand Books’ plan, according to the blog, is the lack of new titles. It currently has access to “millions” out-of-copyright books (only if On Demand has access to Google’s library) and 175,000 backlist titles. I am pretty sure that, if there is a way to make money with on-demand, publishers will go along for the ride. There’s another challenge to consider.
The machine is designed with the production and binding gears exposed to entertain the buyer. That’s brilliant, if you ask me, but it is a short-lived novelty. It isn’t destined to become the 21st century shopping experience that was the Red Goose Shoes golden egg, which adults still remember going to get along with a new pair of shoes as children.
The ESB 2.0 can “print, bind and trim a 300-page book in less than four minutes.” It handles books of up to 830 pages, which presumably take longer. The ESB 2.0 cool-factor is one that will wear thin when buyers, say around the holidays, have to stand in line to wait for their books. Ten people waiting in line at a bookstore will be through the transaction and out of the store in a few minutes, while the tenth person in line waiting for an on-demand book would wait 45 minutes while the machine churned through the workload. That’s assuming each customer buys only one book. Then, we’re talking the tedium of the DMV, with tortilla machines. Lots of tortilla machines.
My kids looked at the Chevys tortilla machine a few times, but mostly they hang out at the table and eat chips when we go now. There is no free chips-and-salsa at the bookstore to help kill the time while your books print.
The obvious answer is “get more Espresso Book Machines.” That will become more economically viable over time and the machines will get faster. A $75,000 machine with a five- to seven-year life will cost a bookseller between $9,000 and $15,000 a year, before supplies like paper are factored in—the ESB’s per-page cost is described as “a penny,” which has a marketer’s ring to it.
With more than three ESB machines, we’re no longer talking “small bookstore.” A store with five to ten machines would be more likely to have increased its costs than reduce them. What about browsing copy costs for those “millions” of books? Even if you display the browsable copies on screens in the store, you’ll need lots of screens and people will still want to browse printed books.
The economics of publishing and the venues in which we consider and buy books will change dramatically, perhaps so much that the bookstore looks nothing like MacNally Jackson today. On-demand will be an important factor in the book market. Where books will be produced, whether they will be available on-demand at a local store—or even if that helps reduce the inventory a bookseller has to keep on hand to facilitate browsing—is an open question.
I know, I always sound like a curmudgeon.