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.