Push-Button Books

Instant printing--and a hoped-for deal with Google--will remake book publishing

Photo: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

THE FACTORY FLOOR: A staff member checks an on-demand book ordered a few minutes earlier

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.)

Photo: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

SPINAL TAP: A sample printing demonstrates how the pages and cover are bound near the end of the Espresso Book Machine's seamless operation. The machine can produce a book up to 500 pages long.

Google is still trying to hammer out an arrangement that will give it the right to continue digitizing books still under copyright as well as "orphan" works—so named because the copyright holder cannot be identified or located.

The Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., has an Espresso machine. According to Bronwen Blaney, manager of the store's print-on-demand service, all books from Google's database, regardless of length, sell for $8; books made available by other publishers go for the regular retail price. When a customer walks up and requests an on-demand book, Blaney or another bookstore employee will search the database, find the file, and initiate the printing procedure. When the finished book is ready—generally in five minutes or less—the staffer hands it to the customer, who pays for it at the cash register as he would any other book.

Authors of self-published works can also use an Espresso machine as a small-volume press house that does custom orders, or as a distribution channel, allowing readers across the globe to download and print the authors' books.

Neller would not say whether there has been any interest from the big bookstore chains, but he says that the Espresso Book Machine would give the company a better shot at competing with online discount booksellers such as Amazon and Walmart.

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