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Who Does Best with the Espresso Book Machine

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Two years ago, publishers of all sizes were enthusiastic about the potential of the Espresso Book Machine then being introduced. Today it’s the booksellers who are excited about the potential of this print-on-demand equipment—and the booksellers who are seeing profits. (For the view from March 2010, see “Books Delivered While You Wait: A Close Look at the Espresso Book Machine in Action.”)

As you may remember, the EBM’s creator, On Demand Books, worked with Lightning Source and GoogleBooks as well as directly with publishers to compile a catalog of millions of titles, both copyrighted and public domain, that consumers could select for immediate printing in bookstores.

The operative word turns out to be could.

Bookstore customers could use the EBM to get such copyright-free publications as the January 1913 issue of Farm Journal, Rebecca Taylor Hatch 1818–1904: Personal Reminiscences and Memorials, and the poems of Edgar Allan Poe. They could select from material newly licensed to the EspressNet database through LSI, including novels and nonfiction from IBPA members, iUniverse novels, and such compilations of Wikipedia articles as “A Beginner’s Guide to Extreme Sports Including Bungee Jumping, Parachuting, Climbing, Caving, Mountain Boarding, and Skysurfing.” And they could order books that major publishers have made available, including about 5,000 active HarperCollins titles.

But almost none of these titles has ever been produced on any of the three dozen Espresso Book Machines now installed in the United States and Canada.

What does get printed?

• The titles the stores publish themselves under such imprints as Chuckanut Editions (Village Books, Bellingham, WA), Shire Press (Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, VT) and Chapbook Press (Schuler Books & Music, Grand Rapids, MI).

• Titles by individuals who use the EBM to “self-publish,” using that term in its newest and broadest sense to mean making copies of a book accessible but not necessarily performing other tasks required of publishers.

That’s the mix that accounts for 75 to 99 percent of their EBM business, booksellers report.

Copy Counts

The volume EBM owners cite can be impressive. Although those with recently installed machines are averaging five books a day, well-established operations like the Northshire Bookstore are printing 5,000 to 6,000 copies a month. In tiny St. Johnsbury, VT, the Boxcar & Caboose Bookstore produces about 4,000 books a year under its Railroad Street Press imprint, an output that store owner Scott Beck considers both profitable and significant, given his community’s population of 7,000.

Overall, the booksellers I reached report that their expensive EBMs are worth the investment (reportedly, the purchase price is $100,000 or more) because EBM-produced books make an important contribution to bookstore bottom lines. At Schuler Books & Music, for example, POD coordinator Pierre Camy recently handled an order for 2,000 copies of Lifetime Journey, a guide to recording important life events published by its author, and an order of 1,000 for Dante’s Dance, the biography of a popular local African-American pastor.

Some stores have seen demand for certain POD titles grow enough to warrant outsourcing printing to offset presses to reduce cost per copy. The Christmas season can be especially busy. At the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, MA (which is not affiliated with neighboring Harvard University), volume trended up during 2011, going from 1,000 to 1,500 a month to an estimated 1,500 to 1,800 in December. At Flintridge Bookstore in La Canada, CA, volume quadrupled during the holidays.

Early on, many in publishing assumed that college-town retailers would use their EBMs to produce material for college professors. That hasn’t happened often. “Very few teachers have made their material available on the EBM,” reports Linden Marno-Ferree at the Harvard Bookstore. In Seattle, however, some University of Washington courses require books that can be produced on the nearby University Book Store’s EBM.

The See-My-Own-Words-in-Print Sector

One of few retailers to report measurable sales of titles in the EspressNet database, Marno-Ferree also reports that self-published books from local writers and writers elsewhere still account for most of her store’s EBM sales, but that its sales of public domain books in the EBM network “have increased quite a lot since the Harvard Bookstore link to the On Demand Books Web site has been active.”

If the store is not printing self-published material, chances are it’s printing a Google Book. “LSI-licensed books sell consistently but not in the quantities that we see for books in the public domain,” Marno-Ferree says, adding that she’s been getting orders for HarperCollins titles since a large number of them became available via the EBM early in 2012.

Debbie Wraga, who handles print-on-demand at Northshire, reports similarly: “We do about 10 percent of our titles from Google and 5 percent from LSI and small publishers.” And so does Lindsay McGuirk, digital marketing and publishing manager at Village Books, who estimates sales as 5 percent from EspressNet and Google, 15 percent from the store’s own imprint and the remaining 80 percent from self-published titles.

“I think many people are aware that the EBM has a database of millions of printable titles, but the tricky part is making it known what kind of titles,” McGuirk says. “It’s very cool that we can print books from the 1800s, and I have a lot of people who are using the database to find genealogy books of their family. What people aren’t aware of, but what I think will have more of an ooh-and-ahh factor, is that we can now print books by Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver, Neil Gaiman, and so many other big-name authors.”

Sales of EspressNet titles may be low because of On Demand’s search engine, which allows searches only by title, making it difficult to find a range of books by an author you like. It also brings up unwieldy lists. When I went to ondemandbooks.com and typed in “In Transition,” I got titles of about 100 books, some for different editions of the same 1990 HarperCollins book that I wanted, but the rest titles of various vintages and genres, from Thriving in Transition to The Art of Transition in Plato and Preaching for the Upbuilding of the Church in Transition.

Another unpleasant surprise: Many titles in the EBM database appeared to be available at only a few outlets—stores that have made the laborious effort to get linked to ondemandbooks.com. “Any store can opt in for this,” explained Anna Micklin, POD and self-publishing coordinator for Seattle’s University Book Store, who went on to say that every store and library with an EBM actually can download titles from EspressNet even though many of their names did not show up on ondemandbooks.com when I searched.

Publishers’ Reports

In general, IBPA members expressed disappointment with sales via the EBM.

“I have had more than 100 titles on EBM for more than two years, but I’m lucky if I see one or two sales per month,” reports Victor Volkman, CEO of Loving Healing Press in Ann Arbor, MI. “Since I’m already an LSI customer,” he adds, “it costs me nothing to participate in EBM—all I have to do is check one box on the book upload form when I set up a new title.”

Two other IBPA members discovered that only some of their titles were available through some of the stores that have EBMs. One said he had repeatedly checked back with Lightning Source, which had originally assured him that all his company’s titles would be readily available. Lisa Horak, marketing manager for Lightning Source, explains that publishers working with LSI must approve distribution via EspressNet for each title that meets EBM production specs. Hardbound books and books with color in the text are among the formats that cannot be produced on an EBM.

Another source of complaints: LSI’s sales reports do not indicate which store sold which title, although the On Demand Books Web site says, “Content owners can see exactly where their content has been ordered and produced, and EspressNet tracks every step of every transaction, providing all data needed to apportion payments to publisher/content owner, production costs, network fees, and so on.” Horak confirms that while all Lightning Source publisher statements display sales by ISBN, they cannot report sales by location because LSI does not receive that information from On Demand Books. Neither On Demand nor its PR contact responded to requests for an explanation. “We do report by Espresso market—United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Europe,” Horak says.

And Now, See-My-Own-Words-in-Print Services

“Self-publishing and local store publishing have always been components of the On Demand Books business model,” says Andrew Pate, who was senior vice president of business development for On Demand Books in 2010, when several stores started to install EBMs. So he feels that the predominance of self-publishing business is not a surprise at all “except for its level of success.”

In early 2012, when the first EBM in a New York City retail setting was being installed at McNally Jackson books, Dane Neller, the On Demand Books CEO, told online magazine The Gothamist that the company founders didn’t think about what would be printed on the machine when it was developed. “We just knew we had this great technology, so we just let the marketplace take it over.”

“What we’re finding,” he continues, “is that the growth of self-publishing is tripling and quadrupling every year and that this machine is truly a community self-publishing center. I’m realizing now that so much self-publishing is local. Local authors go into bookstores and libraries and want to connect with a retailer as a place where they can not only print their books, but sell their books and talk about their books. And likewise, retailers want to have a way to have a little more stickiness with their customers.”

Many of the stores with EBMs capitalize on their appeal to self-publishers by offering self-publishing workshops and consulting, which increase foot traffic and revenue. Grant Paules, who handles the EBM installed a year ago at Flintridge in La Canada, and Micklin are among the booksellers who say their jobs involve a great deal of consulting to customers about the techniques for creating a PDF ready for the press.

“We have lots of prospective customers, but most do not understand digital prepress,” Paules explains. He estimates that there’s a three-month lag between a POD customer’s first visit to the store and the submission of the press-ready project.

Some stores, including the University Book Store, are generating significant sales of the POD-related services they offer, which in Micklin’s case means creating e-books as well as PDFs. “A lot of people just want us to do it all,” she reports.

“Ultimately, it’s the ‘cool’ factor of seeing a book actually printed that people are most taken with,” McGuirk at Village Books says. “I can’t count the number of times I’ve been running the machine and have had someone say, ‘I’ve been wanting to see this thing in action!’ That and the possibility of having a special-order book printed and ready for pickup within an hour, rather than a day or two. That’s something even major online retailers can’t match. “

In Seattle, Micklin agrees. “I see people I know have never been in the store before. They’ve heard that we now offer publishing services, and come in to find out what’s possible.” The Flintridge store owners also see the EBM as a way of providing services for customers that an online retailer cannot provide and a chain store is unlikely to offer.

“It distinguishes the store and makes us more of a destination,” says Paules. Harvard’s Marno-Ferree notes, “The acquisition of the machine and the material that we print on it represent a very positive step forward for the bookstore. Our end goal is to be able to offer any book ever in print to our customers. Between the volume of books printed and the increased foot traffic that encourages, it’s been very good for business.”

A quick look at different stores’ EBM pricing for self-publishers supports the booksellers’ claim that they want to encourage store traffic. In St. Johnsbury, the Railroad Street Press charges between five and seven cents per page for printing, which means a 137-page book would cost $8.22. In Seattle, the University Bookstore Press charges a setup fee of $50 to $70, which covers a meeting with the self-publishing coordinator and one copy of a book; additional copies of a 137-page book are $8.25 apiece.

Publishers working directly with On Demand Books or through LSI determine the retail price of books they submit to EspressNet. In some cases Espresso Book Machine owners are free to charge more, which Seattle’s Micklin says is sometimes necessary to cover production costs and the EspressNet commission (about $1 for copyrighted titles).

The Enduring Appeal of Print

Given the soaring popularity of digital books, some publishers have questioned the need for the Espresso Book Machine, but retailers say their EBM sales do not seem to be affected. “The number of our orders has certainly not taken a hit despite the surge of e-book popularity,” said Harvard’s Marno-Ferree. “For self-publishers the EBM and digital books go hand in hand. Many of our self-publishers have e-books available when they come to us, and they want to make a print version available through a relatively inexpensive and hassle-free route.”

Linda Carlson writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she continues to be fascinated by the Espresso Book Machine and its potential for independent booksellers and other small retailers.

Live Issues

Besides problems with searches of the On Demand Books Web site catalog, some publishers complain about the quality of the finished EBM product. Because both cover and text stock must be tested carefully, only papers approved by On Demand can be used. “I’d like a better cover stock,” says Anna Micklin at Seattle’s University Book Store, but she praises the text stock. “It’s archival—better quality than what you see in most paperbacks.”

Another issue: More than two years ago, On Demand executives said EspressNet would eventually allow self-publishers and stores with their own imprints to make material available in any store with an EBM, but that still hasn’t happened.

Other frustrations reported by EBM owners include production glitches, which can create a reject rate as high as 10 percent, and the lack of On Demand service personnel in the field. Although the EBM’s Xerox printer is covered by a service contract, and repair people are readily available, various mechanical issues have to be handled by store personnel with help from On Demand staff in New York City via phone and email. “It’s hard to troubleshoot from afar,” says Micklin, who sometimes turns to POD coordinators in other stores with EBMs for advice.

A significant advantage of the Espresso Book Machine: All sales are final. There are no returns, even if a store overprints for an author appearance.

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