Books Delivered While You Wait: A Close Look at the Espresso Book Machine in Action
by Linda Carlson
What is the Espresso Book Machine, and why should publishers care about it? After interviewing retailers who are installing this point-of-purchase kiosk from On Demand Books that can print and bind books within minutes, I am convinced that, more than anything else, EBM purchases demonstrate booksellers’ interest in “the long tail” and their belief in the value of satisfying the demand for long-tail material.
For those of us who have feared that big-box retailers will limit what gets brick-and-mortar shelf space and thus what gets read, it’s reassuring to see a means of getting wildly diverse offerings to a market. This print-on-demand service, which won’t use trade publishing’s traditional financial terms, is one of several that are changing the current model.
Currently available in two dozen locations in the United States and Canada and in a similar number elsewhere in the world, the Espresso Book Machine reportedly costs about $100,000 to buy but is also available on lease. It produces customers’ own books as well as titles from Lightning Source files, titles from Google’s collection of public domain titles, and material made available through the Online Archive. Now that On Demand and Xerox have agreed to partner on marketing a more expensive model with a high-speed Xerox printer, the sales pace of the machines may increase sharply.
EBMs have been field-tested for the last couple of years in a few libraries and the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, VT. The patent-protected machine is now available in a 2.0 model that is 3.8 feet wide, 2.7 feet deep, and 4.5 feet high—about the size of a sophisticated office copy machine. You can see it in action at lightningsource.com/ebm.aspx, where a high-quality video demonstrates the robotics that allow it to print text and cover simultaneously and then collate, glue, bind, and trim a paperback. For specs on the components, see the On Demand Books site, ondemandbooks.com.
Those of us who live near one of the recently installed EBMs—there are three in the 100 miles between Seattle and the U.S.-Canadian border, and another three between Boston and Vermont, as well as several in the middle of the country—can select from more than 2 million public domain titles available through Google Books and watch our selections being physically produced. For about $8 and less time than it takes to drink an espresso, we can have a book that’s been out of print for a few years, a few decades, or more than a century.
In addition, more than 230,000 in-print, in-copyright books are available at this writing through EspressNet, the Lightning Source On Demand Books database. To add your books to this database, you need to be set up for printing and wholesale distribution with Lightning Source. LSI doesn’t have to be your exclusive printer or distributor, and you retain all rights to your digital files. If you’re already working with LSI, you simply execute a contract addendum that permits LSI to forward your book files to EspressNet.
Andrew Pate, senior vice president of business development for On Demand Books, calls this “the best news possible, especially for independent booksellers.”
If you’re a publisher and/or author with copyrighted material that is now out of print, keep an eye on the Google Books settlement as it moves through the court approval process. According to the Google Web site, “Every out-of-print book that we digitize will become available online for preview and purchase, unless its author or publisher chooses to ‘turn off’ that title.” For people interested in selling an occasional printed copy of an OOP book, Google’s plan may have an advantage: it doesn’t require establishing a relationship with Lightning Source or creating electronic files that meet LSI’s standards.
If you’re the would-be publisher of a niche publication, consider taking advantage of three new opportunities the Espresso Book Machine gives you.
• If you want to publish a book in very limited quantities, you can get your title from PDF file to your local EBM owner’s bookshelf in literally minutes with no intermediary, no “self-publishing author services” company, no book manufacturer, no warehouse, no wholesaler. For those who need help preparing files or applying for an ISBN, some retailers are offering self-publishing consulting for prices as low as $69.
The packages offered by several stores include shelf time, either three or six months minimum. But bear in mind that EBM owners may not inventory printed copies of self-published material. As Bryan Pearce, general manager of Seattle’s University Book Store, points out, “Every book we carry, regardless of publisher, is evaluated based on potential sales to our unique customer base. Since space is always limited, we must make consistently prudent decisions as to what books will be in inventory.” Pearce also notes that returns “may not be easily accomplished with self-published titles,” which “may need to be approached on a consignment basis that can add complexity and cost.”
• If you’d rather share the publishing risks and rewards, or turn all book production and marketing tasks over to someone else, you might work with one of the EBM booksellers that are establishing their own imprints, usually to bring out-of-print titles of local interest back into inventory. This does not make your book available in any other bookstores, and if sales are slow, there’s no guarantee that printed copies will continue to be stocked in the EBM venue.
• The third option exists where On Demand’s self-publishing software is available for EBMs, both for uploading title data and for creating PDFs. Author Solutions (the owner of such self-publishing services as AuthorHouse, iUniverse, and Xlibris) announced late in 2009 that it will create an online self-publishing tool using its Wordclay for On Demand’s SelfEspress program, selfespress.com. Positioned to compete with Amazon.com’s CreateSpace (formerly BookSurge), SelfEspress will include entry into the EspressNet database, which can be accessed through any EBM, Pate explains. This lets people who are creating only a few books bypass LSI.
The Traffic-building Benefit
For the publishing industry, there’s another significant benefit of the EBM at this point: its novelty value. Without extensive or expensive sales promotion, EBMs are drawing people into bookstores. “There’s lots and lots of excitement about it,” reported Lindsay McGuirk, the digital marketing and publishing manager for the Bellingham, WA,Village Books. “It’s definitely pulling people into the store.”
“A whirlwind experience,” agrees Heather Gain, marketing manager for the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, MA, which installed its EBM in late September. “People drive in from the suburbs to watch it,” she marveled, adding that the EBM is part of the 68-year-old privately owned bookseller’s strategy to enhance its position as a community center. (The store is a couple of blocks east of the Harvard Cooperative Society, aka the Harvard Coop, established in 1882 but now run by Barnes & Noble’s college store division.)
Increasing academic and trade book business, including publishing custom course materials and short-run reprints of in-copyright materials, are among the reasons for ordering an EBM, says Pearce at the University Book Store, which recently marked its 110th anniversary. “We will seek out and produce as many titles for our customers and faculty members as possible.”
In a decade when Seattle has lost at least half its independent bookstores, Pearce points out another benefit from the EBM. “On-site print-on-demand capability provides independent booksellers a significant strategic advantage over chain booksellers and online retailers,” he says. “While much press is devoted to electronic books and e-readers, the vast majority of people still prefer printed books for many reasons.”
At Schuler Books & Music in Grand Rapids, MI, print coordinator Pierre Camy had printed about 200 books, mostly customers’ own projects, by the beginning of this year. “It’s difficult to know if having the EBM has increased traffic, because we got the machine at the beginning of the Christmas season,” he explains, adding, “People have come to check the machine and see how it works. They were very curious about it and seeing a book printed.”
No surprise, these Schuler customers buy more than their EBM books. “Most who are waiting to get a book printed get a coffee or something to eat in the cafe, or browse the shelves and buy other books, especially used books, because the machine is right next to that section,” he reports. At Third Place Books in the Seattle suburb of Lake Forest Park, customers are buying not only books but the scratchpads made of EBM off-cuts—a dollar each, and as many as five a day, the EBM operator reports.
Retailers with EBMs have organized demonstrations for groups, including publishing students, and some have capitalized on the EBM’s robotics by running contests to name the machine. McGuirk says Village’s EBM is getting to be known as “The Beast,” while the staff at Third Place Books refers to “Ginger” and explained some holiday-season glitches in terms of “Ginger having the flu.” The Harvard Book Store ran a well-publicized contest to name its EBM, selecting “Paige M. Gutenberg” from 500-plus entries.
Installing the machines in high-visibility spots also helps introduce them. Third Place Books put Ginger in the middle of the food court. Village installed its EBM in a windowed corner location so that it might attract passersby from two directions, and McGuirk says that people do far more than pause on the sidewalk. They come in—and they buy.
Make Mine Micro-niche
In the first two months of operation, Village’s newly established Chuckanut Editions sold more than 40 copies of its own new self-publishing guide and 90 copies of Impressions of the North Cascades, an illustrated book first published by Mountaineers Books, and now being co-published by the author (who owned the rights) and Village Books.
In a little more than a month, the store sold 40 copies of a title about its neighborhood, The Birth, Death and Resurrection of Fairhaven, a 1970s book made available by the original author’s heirs. Of the roughly 50 books it ordered from Lightning Source files, 30 copies of one title were for an instructor’s classroom use and several copies of another title were for a church. Sales figures for titles available through Google Books have been lower, but McGuirk expects them to increase once Village uploads a catalog.
The Harvard Book Store and Third Place Books already have online catalogs that may be fueling their sales of Google Books. Third Place expects that moving the computer terminal with the online catalog close to the store’s information desk will increase sales, as local publicity has.
Valuable publicity for the Harvard Book Store centered on a ribbon-cutting by author E.L. Doctorow with the first book printed on its EBM, a reprint of The Day Book of Psalms, the first book ever printed in the United States. Customers are “digging deep” in the Google Books database, said Gain, who calls the installation “a runaway success.” In the first three months, her store sold 2,000 EBM units.
Some seemingly quirky titles sell so well that they are printed for inventory: examples include Alice in the Underground, a prequel to Alice in Wonderland that was handwritten and illustrated by Lewis Carroll; the 1855 History of Umbrellas; and a two-volume 1860 history of Harvard University. Although most of the Harvard Book Store sales are one-offs, it sold many copies of the same title when a Boston University instructor specified it as a required text for a creative writing course. And it has sold about 150 copies of This Won’t Take but a Minute, Honey, published by Steve Almond, author also of Candyfreak, published by Algonquin Books and (Not That You Asked), published by Random House. Because copies of This Won’t Take but a Minute were printed a few at a time, Almond could and did customize the covers for individual buyers.
Railroad Street Press, the imprint established for the EBM by the Boxcar and Caboose Bookshop & Café in St. Johnsbury, VT, began promoting in advance of its EBM installation by advertising, “Author beware, you are entering a website and exploring a means of publishing which until now has only been dreamt of.”
Following on this theme, a Seattle weekly, The Stranger, reported, “The possibilities are only as limited as your imagination. [The EBM] takes the greatest retail weapon in the world—convenience—out of the hands of the Internet and chain stores, and places it squarely in the hands of small business.”
The many sales of obscure titles at Third Place demonstrate interest in wide selection. In his blog, Adventures in a Post-Gutenberg Universe (thirdplacepress.blogspot.com), lead publisher and book designer Vladimir Verano noted, “On Christmas Eve we received orders for more books than we had printed up until that point: all Google editions. The true gems came from a customer who wanted eight books as Christmas gifts. He’d been eyeing these books for over a year: To the Poles by Airship, Indian Club-Swinging, Around the World with a Magician and a Juggler, Aeroplanes & Dirigibles of War, Wilde vs Whistler, and D’Orcy’s Airship Manual.”
Since then Verano has printed a history of Punch and Judy and such vintage cookbooks as Forme of Cury: A Roll of Ancient English Cookery, Compiled about A.D. 1390, by the Master-Cooks of King Richard II, as well as new books released only via print on demand.
Catalogs to Check
For stores without catalogs, or for book buyers who want to get a public domain title via mail order from a store with an EBM, there’s a comprehensive catalog on the Google Books Web site; select “public domain only” from the Advanced Search option at books.google.com/advanced_book_search.
To search for in-print, in-copyright titles available through EspressNet, check the On Demand Books index at odbnetwork.com/index.
Linda Carlson, lindacarlson.com, writes from Seattle, where she is fascinated by the Espresso Book Machine and its potential for independent booksellers and publishers.
A small percentage of IBPA members were selling books via the EBM by early 2010. Among them:
Magic Lamp Press of Venice, CA, where Gene Grossman reports that he signed up its four most popular titles for the EBM program. He plans to promote availability via EBM on MagicLamp.com and install an online search feature for the closest kiosks.
CREST Publications in Charlotte, NC, where Sarah Bolme says, “I’m pleased that Lightning Source accepts any book for the Espresso Book Machine, not just books printed by LSI.” But, she adds, “some publishers are concerned that since a publisher cannot specify with EBM where books cannot be sold, a publisher who places books on the EBM could potentially violate a foreign rights sales agreement.”
Hollyridge Press, also in Venice, CA, where Richard Williams formed the company in 2000 to utilize Lightning Source’s digital short-run print methods. Today, he is “taking a wait-and-see attitude on the EBM,” he reports. “If it’s simply a matter of signing another agreement with Lightning and the books being available, we’ll probably go ahead. If more production or manipulation is required on our end, we’ll have to consider it a bit longer.”
Several other publishers who have used LSI expressed dissatisfaction with its quality and customer service. And some, like Len Barot of Bold Strokes Books in Valley Falls, NY, found profit margins unappealing. “Having looked at the potential EBM sales and profit margins, we do not see this as a significant addition to our distribution network,” Barot reports.
Voices of Experience
Want more information about publishing through EspressNet? Your fellow IBPA members may be good sources.
Here’s a partial list of the IBPA members in On Demand’s database, odbnetwork.com/index:
Arc Manor; Arena Books; Artemesia Publishing; b9d, inc.; Badger Books, LLC; Ben Yehuda Press; Black Rose Writing; Book Studio; Bridgeross Communications; By Light Unseen Media; CREST Publications; Dancing Lemur Press; Delirium Books; Diamond Star Press; East Beach Press; FitCat Enterprises, Inc.; Frankie Dove Publishing; Gaby Press; John Wiley & Sons; K & K Houston Publishing; Loving Healing Press; Magic Lamp Press; Mainly Murder Press; Marietta Publishing; Para Publishing; Phoenix Publishing Company; Poisoned Pen Press; Principle Publications, Inc.; Progressive Press; Schiel & Denver Ltd.; Schlesinger Books; Standard Publications, Inc.; TLJ Books; Wasatch Press; WillowTree Press, LLC; Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing; and YBK Publishers, Inc.
In addition, EspressNet lists thousands of titles from large publishers, including 1,086 from Hachette, 708 from McGraw-Hill, 476 from Penn State University Press, 2,894 from Simon & Schuster, 1,023 from St. Martins Press, and 1,263 from W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.