The Espresso Book Machine – Sunday column, March 13, 2011
I’m standing in the Great Hall of the University of Toronto Bookstore, looking at the future of book publishing. It’s called the Espresso Book Machine.
Brenda Beal, the co-ordinator of BookPOD, as this service is called, taps at a keyboard in front of a monitor, downloading a file called Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and Future, by Jason Epstein. She pushes a button, and the hefty industrial photocopier to my right rumbles into action, rapidly spitting printed pages into the plexiglass-encased machine in front of me. Within the plexiglass shell, an 11 x17 sheet of heavy, glossy book-cover paper slowly makes its way through a colour ink-jet printer and comes to rest, face-down, on a metal surface.
The machine clamps the stack of photocopied pages together, and turns them on their side. A little robotic tool roughens their lower edge, while another little tool squeezes a bead of glue down the middle of the cover sheet. The machine presses the roughened edge of the pages down on the glue, wraps the cover up around them, and holds everything together while the glue sets.
Then it turns the book – which now looks like a book – on its end. A heavy carbide blade shears off the top of the book, then trims the side and the bottom. The machine takes the finished book and fires it down a little ramp.
Brenda Beal hands me the book. A library-quality trade paperback, manufactured from scratch — in four minutes.
The man behind this machine is Jason Epstein, the author of the book in my hand, a legendary figure in publishing. Epstein invented the trade paperback format, co-founded the New York Review of Books and the Library of America, and served as editorial director of Random House for 40 years. In 1999, lecturing at the New York Public Library, he mused that future book publishing would involve an affordable, automated print-on-demand device that could be installed in libraries, bookstores, coffee shops or airports to print books not in huge volumes, but one at a time, as they were needed.
It turned out that an inventor in St. Louis named Jeff Marsh had already created such a device. Epstein and a partner joined Marsh to create On Demand Books LLC, and in 2006 they installed their first Espresso Book Machines – which Time Magazine dubbed “an ATM for books” — at the World Bank in Washington and at the fabled Library of Alexandria in Egypt.
Since then, the company has installed several dozen EBMs, chiefly in the US, with a sprinkling elsewhere – Tokyo, Beijing, Abu Dhabi, London, Amsterdam, Melbourne. Canada has nine, including one in Miramichi, NB and one at UPEI in Charlottetown, but none in Nova Scotia or Newfoundland. They cost about $100,000. I suspect they’ll make tons of money for their owners.
The books are priced differently by different operators. At the U of T the cost is a one-time $60 set-up charge, and then six cents a page for any number of copies. The EBM prints from a PDF file, easily created by any home computer.
This machine puts an end to the deplorable wastefulness and clumsiness of the book business. Publishers no longer need to print and ship thousands, sell hundreds and pulp the leftovers. Except for copyright issues, there’s no longer any reason for a book ever to go out of print. Publishers needn’t even ship the physical books; they can email the PDF file from Antigonish to Amsterdam and have the Dutch customer pick up her copy there.
The EBM changes the whole idea of a book. Professors can create their own textbooks from a patchwork of sources, finance the publication by including ads, and publish a second edition after lunch. You can order a version of a book that includes only chapters 1, 7 and 9. Granny can publish three copies of her memoirs, one for each grandchild. The Green Interview can sell customized six-packs of its transcripts: you choose the six you want, and we’ll publish one copy of that specific set just for you. I can fly to Los Angeles for a speech, and have fresh copies of my book waiting for me to sell at the event.
We have seen the future, and it prints.