A couple of years ago I met Jason Epstein in passing and he excitedly described his new project: a machine to print On Demand Books. The plan is finally bearing fruit: the Espresso Book Machine was demonstrated at the New York Public Library on Wednesday. Three of the machines are out in the wild, and I suspect many more will appear if the prototypes live up to the hype.
The idea of books on demand is a little eerie but eminently efficient. Publishers and booksellers waste millions of dollars, tons of fuel and forests of paper shipping, returning and trashing unsold books every year. And if a machine like this isn’t too expensive to run, it could revolutionize education in less accessible or wealthy parts of the world. The real question is whether such a machine might do to bookstores what Netflix has done to video rental stores. The Espresso machine can only print paperbacks, so for now I think Barnes and Noble is safe. And even if the shelves are replaced with digital browsing displays one day, many customers will still want to enjoy their purchases with an overpriced latte and pastry. The social spaces of book-reading have yet to be destroyed by Amazon.com or the blogosphere, so I think they’ll survive a new kind of espresso machine.
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Although we might not be as cool and as instantaneous as this machine, BookSwim delivers our book rental members their requested books to their home, then send them back in the mail when finished. No late fees, unlimited rentals per month, and free shipping both ways. You can find us at http://www.bookswim.com.
Print-on-demand makes a lot of sense but there’s a far bigger opportunity in selling this as a service rather than a commodity. It’s similar to home photo printing. You can never really achieve the scale to justify the cost of a photo printer with ink and paper, but people are happy to send off their digital prints and receive hard copies a few days later.
Lulu.com is one of the most ambitious companies in the print on demand space. Founded by the same guy who founded Red Hat Linux, their aim is to provide a technology platform that puts authors and independent publishers in control of the sale and printing of their material. They have massive room-sized printers that can churn out single copies of hard backed books in minutes.