Book-On-Demand at the Tobacconist's


Lately I have come to think of books as computer devices, combining the functions of screen and backup medium. All texts these days are written and type-set on computers, so the paper thingy has long been a secondary manifestation of the text. People like publisher Jason Epstein and book blogger the Grumpy Old Bookman have predicted that we will soon have our books made on demand at any store that may today have a machine for making photographic prints. The texts will reside on the net, on our USB memory sticks or on our handheld computers/cell phones. The paper output/backup-storage device we call "a book" will be produced swiftly in the store by a dedicated machine.

The first of these contraptions, seen in the above pic, is now available Monday through Saturday from 1-5 p.m. at the New York Public Library's Science, Industry, and Business Library (SIBL).

The book-on-demand approach can be seen as the opposite of bibliophilia. It's for readers who value the text and simple illustrations but who think little of the book as fetish or objet d'art. Really, it's just a logical progression from the paperback book: cheap, light-weight, somewhat ephemeral. The machines might make these books already equipped with a BookCrossing identity.

Another interesting aspect is that these machines will cut out the middle man -- that is, the publisher. The machine won't care if the pdf file I send it has been shunted through a publishing house, if I picked it up from an amateur novelist's web site or if it's a long out-of-print thing that I found on Google Book Search. Freedom, wider selection, de-professionalisation and another failed business model!

(Pic from Make.)

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Thanks for sharing this! I hope this system becomes widely used, especially since I absolutely love old and out-of-print books. Scraping together a large sum of money to buy an aging, yellowing book is hard on the wallet, but it would be great if the existing copies of, say, Gideon Mantell's Medals of Creation were scanned into a computer and could be printed out at a reasonable price (thus avoiding having to search for the 19th century book and then trying to haggle for a price that won't totally empty my bank account). It could certainly work for new books, but I think this could have grand implications for historic and otherwise unavailable texts.

I wonder about the throughput and the unit price. Lets say it takes the machine an hour to make a book. Then you would need a lot of machines to meet the demand in a major city, provided that the price of a book comes down enough to make book-on-demand competitive.

The manufacturer claims it can print and bind a 300 page book with black text and a four-color cover in three minutes. You could produce 15 different books in an hour.

If text is all you're interested in, there are already quite a lot of old books and manuscripts available online. The ones I'm familiar with are cookbooks, but I'm sure they're not the only ones. Try:
These are all pages of links, a lot are duplicated, but I think each list has some unique ones.
Only drawback is that if you want a hard copy, you'll have to print your own. :(