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Can the Espresso Book Machine Save the Indie Publisher?

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by Peter Goodman, Publisher, Stonebridge Press –

Peter Goodman

Pitches for large-quantity sales need to answer at least these five questions.

Can anything save independent publishing? Can anything save independent bookstores? In the July 2017 issue of IBPA Independent, I speculated that such a savior might already exist: the Espresso Book Machine (EBM).

The EBM is a self-contained, on-demand printing and binding machine that can produce a single perfect-bound book from a digital file in about five to eight minutes. A product of On Demand Books in New York City, the EBM promises “Books Printed in Minutes at Point of Sale for Immediate Pick Up or Delivery.”

Currently, there are about a hundred EBMs installed in stores and libraries, mostly in the US and Canada but also in the Dominican Republic, Egypt, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, the Philippines, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates. Through On Demand’s own servers and tie-ups with other publishers and with Google and Lightning Source, over 7 million (!) titles are currently available in multiple languages for on-demand printing at these locations.

On Demand and many of the sites where the EBM is installed are also promoting the machine to self-publishers or anyone who simply wants to get unpublished written material into a printed and bound format: family cookbooks, memoirs, school projects, first novels, whatever.

An EBM prints books—perfect-bound only—one at a time on an integrated Xerox D95 toner-based printer. Available formats range from 4.5” x 5.0” to 8.25” x 10.75” with page counts from 40 to 830 pages (up to 240 on the largest trims). Covers are produced on heavier tabloid-size stock using four-color digital printing. As the book pages print, the cover is output and positioned below the book block. The EBM then scrapes and applies glue to the spine of the block and presses the block down onto the back surface of the cover. The book is finished as soon as the block and its attached cover are turned and trimmed on the side and front edges.

Publishers contract with On Demand (or its providers) to make their books available through the EBM network database, administered by a dedicated software application. The finances are straightforward; the EBM operator arranges with On Demand for leasing and maintenance, and then pays a licensing fee for each book printed. The publisher receives 25 percent of the price of the book to the customer; the publisher sets the price, as long as it exceeds a calculated amount to cover production costs, licensing, and profit to the bookseller.

I recently visited an EBM installation at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. Powell’s has placed the EBM in a prominent location—on a mezzanine just off the store’s main entrance hall. In front of and to the side of the EBM are selections of on-demand books for sale, mostly in single quantities. “When we sell one, we just print another. It’s so easy,” the EBM clerk told me.

The Espresso Book Machine is not small—it’s 5 feet high, 3 feet deep, and almost 7 feet long—but it does the job it was designed to do.

In appearance, the EBM is a gawky and transparent accumulation of parts, gears, and cables. And it is not small: 5 feet high, 3 feet deep, and almost 7 feet long. The software used to select books and set up formats is a Macintosh-only program with an astoundingly clunky user interface. The Powell’s operator told me, however, that while it takes some getting used to, the system works extremely well, with little downtime and a great deal of customer use and satisfaction. That is, it does the job it’s designed to do. On Demand has clearly decided to sell the device for its nominal function, not for its looks.

That last point is important, because in terms of what it offers our industry, the EBM is actually very sexy!

Thousands of small and self-publishers are producing substantive, quality works, but because they lack volume distribution, they are forced to sell their books as e-books or as hard copies only through Amazon and CreateSpace or Ingram Spark. These books—hundreds of thousands of them each year—are simply not available in local retail shops. They are not hand sold or recommended by booksellers. And the revenue these books produce never reaches booksellers’ communities; rather, it stays in the hands of large national outlets.

As I wrote in my article, this is not good for indie publishers nor is it good for our culture, where diversity of viewpoint is essential to civilized discourse, creativity, and politics. And as Amazon rapidly expands its brick-and-mortar presence, indie booksellers need something profoundly different to distinguish themselves to their customers.

I think the EBM is the perfect solution. And while it’s not really perfect, it’s available now. The problem, as I see it, is that not enough people know about it or know what to do with it—not publishers and certainly not consumers.

In 2011, On Demand partnered with the American Booksellers Association to market EBM units to bookstores. There’s been some penetration, but clearly the EBM has not become mainstream or even familiar. Dane Neller, On Demand’s CEO, recently told me that the company is now focusing its strategy on proving the EBM concept through its placement and use in Shakespeare and Co., a New York bookseller. On Demand and its backers purchased Shakespeare and Co. and are in the process of raising $8 million for expansion into a chain. The plan is to open new Shakespeare stores, each with an EBM.

The curious thing about Shakespeare is that it is not just a small retail space with an EBM. It is a full-fledged bookstore with lots of books on its shelves and a café. Plus, an EBM offered (it seems to me) more for its service to self-publishers with original, unpublished works than as a dedicated effort to rescue indie presses by filling in the gaps resulting from distribution bias in the industry.

When I asked Neller about the possibility of driving demand to the bookstore via in-store screen browsing (like shopping on Amazon but instead browsing a dedicated website with available EBM titles), he said it was essential that the store offer physical books on its shelves, not just as book covers or snippets on a screen. “The customer needs first to be led through a discovery process. We’ll stock as many books as we can, and if we don’t have everything, we use shelf talkers to say, ‘If you like this author and want to read another we can print it for you today.’”

Neller’s strategy explains why Shakespeare basically operates like a standard bookstore plus an EBM. It also explains why a superstore like Powell’s—hardly lacking in inventory from publishers of every size imaginable—finds the EBM more a supplement to its regular stock than a stoker of demand to its regular customer base.

I must be humble before those who have a lot more experience marketing the EBM than I do. But, from the standpoint of many IBPA members, I feel that the potential of the EBM to solve the supply problem of indie publishers remains not fully explored.

Small indie publishers have not been widely marketed to by On Demand. Nor have consumers been given the well-designed tools and interfaces that would lure them to use EBM as part of their daily browsing and information trawls. Searching for available POD titles on the On Demand website is not complicated but also not much fun, with no contextual information or reviews, and no hand selling or shelf talkers to drive interest and sales. Basically, the EBM’s outward-facing approach is uninspired, so it is no wonder that consumer interest is lacking.

I believe that a different retail model, which I named IndieBook in my previous article, is the way to go here. IndieBook is just what it says, a place where indie booksellers are devoted to the sale of books by indie publishers. And the centerpiece is the EBM in all its contraptional glory, surrounded by bright LED screens of curated content, visited by eager customers drawn in by the enthusiasm and knowledge of the bookseller and the prospect of walking out with some undiscovered gem among 7 million available titles.

But this all needs to be designed, dressed up, and marketed as a thing in itself—not as an adjunct to a regular old bookstore. The existing ship-and-return-and-ship-again bookstore model is environmentally unsustainable, if not unconscionable. It’s just as Neller says: “The publishing industry is working off an old model, one that requires capacity and volume. It’s not consumer-driven but factory-driven, relying on economies of scale.”

I’d like to take this one step further. Here are some features of an EBM-based IndieBook bookstore:

  • Highly reduced startup inventory and ongoing stocking costs, with ample space for sidelines and a small café
  • Small store size = lower rent
  • Built-in profit on every book manufactured
  • No returns
  • Kiosks scattered around the store where customers use gorgeous intuitive software to check their own personalized store accounts or browse curated selections of the bookseller
  • Daily and weekly kiosk promotions with books on key subjects of local and topical interest, from publishers large and small
  • Customized publishing where local authors can do book signings or where stores can print up hyperlocal editions of current bestsellers, or children’s books with personalized covers showing the kid’s name
  • Tie-ins to local schools, community colleges, adult schools, and senior centers for publishing creative writing projects, memoirs, photo books
  • Ongoing workshops for writers and authors that lead to an actual book publication at the end (course fee extra!)
  • A strong community and neighborhood presence, where activists meet and groups gather, and where they find the publications they need to inform themselves on just about every subject imaginable

As Neller told me, the technology is already here. The EBM can already do all this. And many of these functions are already in place at existing EBM sites.

What’s needed now is some vision of how to integrate the EBM, or something like it, into a completely new publishing business model based on instant content gratification, not high-volume printing and trucking and returns. It can be done, but publishers and booksellers need to rethink how they produce and sell books, and consumers will need to be brought into the loop.

How do we get younger readers into bookstores? By offering them the tired old model with a little something extra? Or by creating a whole new retail environment sculpted to siloing, social media, and a life lived on screens and smartphones?

Steve Jobs famously said that customers don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s going to be true of the IndieBook bookstore, too. The question is: who will show it to them first?

Peter Goodman is the publisher of Stone Bridge Press in Berkeley, California, and a member of the IBPA Independent Editorial Advisory Committee.

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