11 November 2009—We're an on-demand culture, accustomed to fast-food speed, drive-through convenience, and the virtual world's unlimited choices. And if a New York City–based start-up has its way, a 16th-century innovation with a 21st-century twist will soon satisfy those tastes. This summer, the company, called On Demand Books, released the latest version of the Espresso Book Machine, which can turn out a factory-quality softcover book in the time it takes a barista at Starbucks to whip up your favorite fancy coffee drink.
While the pages are printing, a separate full-color inkjet printer processes the cover on thick paper stock. The machine then glues the pages together, which are then pressed to the cover and held in place for a few seconds until the glue sets. Finally, drawing on metadata included with the book's digital file, the machine automatically positions a robotic arm to cut the book to the exact trim size called for by the original publisher.
The brains of the printing and binding machine is EspressNet, proprietary software that "connects it to numerous catalogues of content, provides ironclad security, and tracks all transactions in order to make all payments to publishers," says On Demand Books CEO Dane Neller.
The unit, which has a 0.98-meter-by-0.82-meter footprint (roughly the size of a photocopier at your local Kinko's), sells for up to US $122 500, depending on the quality of the page printer. So far, On Demand Books has sold 21 of them to bookstores and libraries in Australia, Canada, Egypt, England, and the United States.
Books aren't the full extent of the company's ambitions. "There are no technical barriers to distributing magazines and newspapers in book form through our machines," once legal permissions are in order, says Neller. But getting these permissions is easier said than done, as Internet search giant Google has discovered.
Google's book-scanning operation has been in legal limbo for years, ever since it was sued by groups of authors and publishers who say the scheme violates copyrights. Fortunately for On Demand Books, a deal it inked with Google on 17 September is not affected by the ongoing controversy. That agreement gives Espresso users access to more than 2 million of Google's digital files containing public-domain titles. (Espresso users already had access to the 1.6 million available via agreements with other publishers, including John Wiley & Sons, McGraw-Hill, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and W.W. Norton.)