Mike the Mad Biologist

Regular readers will know that I’m not an intertubez triumphalist. But I read that the Harvard Book Store has bought itself a fancy gizmo to print any book in about four minutes:

Battered booksellers, especially independent ones, have so far withstood the punishing shock-and-awe offensive of Internet Age marauders like Amazon. Now, they have a secret weapon that they hope will continue to lure customers into their stores: would you believe it’s a machine that can print up a fresh new paperback copy from a menu of 3.6 million books?

Harvard Book Store cleared out space behind its History, Politics, and Religion sections to make room for the three-foot-by-six-foot-by-four-foot robot retailer, called the Espresso Book Machine. In a public unveiling slated for September 29, the Harvard Book Store will become only the second US merchant to install such an apparatus, which prints, binds, and trims perfect-bound books — complete with full-color covers and black-and-white guts — in about four minutes.

“Books will be produced on a massively decentralized way,” promises Dane Neller, CEO of On Demand Books, the manufacturer of the machines that will let customers select from millions of titles in less time than it takes to comb the teetering stacks of a used bookstore. “The life of the book will be infinite.”

Says Harvard Book Store owner Jeffrey Mayersohn, “I had developed a notion that the ability to produce books in stores was an important part of the future of bookselling.”

Despite all of the hullabaloo about Napster, I think this is a revolutionary technology. Unlike Napster, which made music publishing financially unsustainable, the Espresso Book Machine does not make the production of media ‘open source’–it’s too expensive. Publishing remains profitable, although less so. While anyone with an internet connection and a computer can distribute mp3′s, most people can’t buy the Espresso Book Machine. This means there is actually a way to make money from this because it lowers the cost of buying books. I am working under the assumption that most people who read books like books. If that changes all bets are off.

While the major publishers ultimately might get creamed (why pay $25 list, when you can buy a book for $8?), smaller publishers and authors could do very well from this. Hardcover books might become the equivalent of vinyl: a collector’s item, but books will be more affordable. Book stores will be able to spend less money on stocking books, giving them a new lease on life.

Something to keep an eye on.

Comments

  1. #1 Kyle
    October 13, 2009

    But will it look good on a shelf?

  2. #2 Laelaps
    October 13, 2009

    I like it. This would be a good way to get a lot of old and out-of-print references in good condition for cheap (better than paying through the nose for a yellowing copy that is falling apart). For fans of old, copyright-expired titles this is an excellent development.

  3. #3 Richard E
    October 13, 2009

    Sweet…but does it come with a book recycler?

  4. #4 daedalus2u
    October 13, 2009

    I would prefer the book as a pdf. Especially one I can search and cut/paste from. That way I can put my whole library on my laptop and take it with me without hauling along a trailer full of books.

  5. #5 ahrcanum
    October 13, 2009

    Don’t forget the cost to fly to Harvard to pick up the book unless they offer shipping.

  6. #6 JoeBuddha
    October 13, 2009

    I don’t like reading anything but reference books on-line. I love the idea; I’ve been trying to find this machine for a while now. For self-publishing, out of print, and even new books, this sounds like a great idea.

  7. #7 Jesse
    October 13, 2009

    People forget the advantages to paper publishing, I think, when they see anything shiny and new.

    For instance: no need for batteries, electricity, or fancy software. PDFs are useless without a computer that costs the equivalent of about 50 hardback books. And don’t get it wet. Also, nobody else knows what you are reading. A good thing in some situations. (Whereas you have to assume that someone can see every single thing you do on line).

    Another thing: when you buy a book you can lend it to someone else, or even give it away. That does not apply to DRM’d content.

    This technology, on the other hand, takes advantage of the good qualities of paperbacks, which make up the bulk of book sales anyway. It actually would reduce the costs for publishers as well, I think, and make them more profitable.

  8. #8 A. Gupte
    October 14, 2009

    Why not allow people to simply print the books at home on a Laser printer? OK, you wouldn’t get a fancy cover (or maybe you could if like me you also have a color Laserjet) and binding, but I would be OK without that. At worst you could go down to Kinko’s or it’s equivalent and get a book printed as well as this Espresso machine (I admit I have not seen it so I could be wrong).

  9. #9 Charles
    October 14, 2009

    Although I think that it is true that the Espresso will revolutionize book publishing it will not save the publishing industry as it currently stands. In fact publishers like Kessinger might be put out of business.

    The reference book industry is already dead soon to be followed by the textbook as well.

    What young person with a computer (read: phone) will in a decade shell out $10-$20 for a mass produced bestseller (or a second rate Espresso version for $8) when they can just download it instantly for, at most, half that.

    I have worked in the used trade for almost a decade and believe that there will always be a collectors’ market for the printed page. But in digitizing the content of books to make them available to a much greater audience (a laudable, unstoppable goal) I am afraid that we might be viewing the beginning of the end of paperback culture.

  10. #10 imarriedaxtian
    October 14, 2009

    Wow! What would make this even better is if we can select our own favourite fonts and font sizes. I love to have my old classics reprinted in modern (and larger) fonts.

  11. #11 Joel
    October 14, 2009

    Hopefully, this will also mean the end of the phrase “out of print”.

  12. #12 dalani
    October 14, 2009

    The idea is so great , Amazon and Google may well launch a similar similar..Afterall who is in a better position to distribute, market and sell books worldwide? Each publisher (especially small ones) have limited scope and range. But google or Amazon in partnership with publishers can aggregate them and become meta-publishers with imprints.

  13. #13 Most Interesting Ideas
    October 14, 2009

    Good news :)

  14. #15 Treppenwitz
    October 14, 2009

    Napster, which made music publishing financially unsustainable

    That’s seriously overstating the case, I think.

  15. #16 Hank Roberts
    October 14, 2009

    Hmph.

    Do they offer acid-free paper and glue?

    Hell, I’ve noticed old laser printouts start to have the letters just flake off the page because they’re stuck on, not soaked in, and I doubt that problem’s been solved.

    It’s just another rent-an-anything scam.

  16. #17 Debbie Mihal
    October 15, 2009

    I’m curious as to what percentage the author makes off of that $8.

  17. #18 octopod
    October 15, 2009

    The University of Michigan library just bought one of these too. I’m not sure how well the books keep — I think they’re standard perfect-bound, so my guess is “not well” — but it’s pretty good to start with. Haven’t got one yet though.

  18. #19 octopod
    October 15, 2009

    The University of Michigan library just bought one of these too. I’m not sure how well the books keep — I think they’re standard perfect-bound, so my guess is “not well” — but it’s pretty good to start with. Haven’t got one yet though.

  19. #20 Gruesome Rob
    October 15, 2009

    @Jesse:

    More like 5-10 hardback books. You can easily get an e-reader for $199.

  20. #21 Tulse
    October 15, 2009

    Aw, how cute — ink on dead trees!

    Seriously, this is at best a transitional technology. Like it or not, physical books are not the future of the written word. I am willing to bet that even today there are many people who read far more text from screens than paper, and that shift is only going to accelerate as portable tablet- and phone-sized devices become more common, and as screen pixel density increases to make reading easier and more paper-like.

    I like books. My spouse really likes books. As a result, we have a house that is stuffed with books. But my guess is that in a decade, maybe two, most “books” will be sold digitally and read on screens.

  21. #22 Joe
    October 16, 2009

    I’ve been waiting for this for twenty years.

    Books are important. I am not impressed with the depth of understanding that I see in my younger coworkers who read everything on screens. Fatigue sets in too quickly on a screen, so they just use the search function to find the one sentence they need, ignoring all the contextual information. I’m old-fashioned, but there may be real ergonomics behind this particular crotchet.

  22. #23 Jesse
    October 19, 2009

    @Tulse and Gruesome Bob:

    Still, reading on a screen has a lot of drawbacks. Until someone invents an electricity-free method of doing that that can get wet, and work if you drop it, books end up being the superior technology.

    Waaay back in the 50s people thought everyone would learn from computers in the home with all the text on screens. The technology to do that has existed for 40 years, almost. Why hasn’t it happened? Turns out learning is a much tougher nut to crack than that. Just because it has a chip in it doesn’t make it better.

    (OO! Shiny! New! Must be better!)

    Or take video phones. The technology to have a Jetsons-like (or 2001-like) video phone has existed since 1975. At least. Yet they never caught on — Sharper Image has a stack of them in the warehouse. Why not? It’s just too much of a hassle to sit in front of a screen and talk. Video-phoning remains a niche technology, skype notwithstanding.

    (Really, think of how you use a telephone, and ask yourself how often it is more convenient — even if it is nicer — to sit in front of the screen to see the other person).

    Also, there are real ergonomics that make books better on the eyes. When you look at a screen, you are blasting light into your retinas that is pretty intense. It has to be in order for you to see it. Books reflect light — which can also be intense, but tends to be in the more natural wavelengths that our eyes have adapted for, as well as being less powerful.

    I don’t doubt eBooks will become an important market. But I don’t think they will replace books entirely anymore than processed food replaces cooking, or plastic has replaced metal for every household utensil, or even TV eliminating reading entirely and telephones eliminating travel and mail. All this stuff was predicted back when these revolutionary technologies were introduced.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.