An ATM machine for books?

Stop the presses, as it were. The Espresso Book Machine “can print and bind books on demand in five minutes, while customers wait,” according to the Guardian. Currently it has access to 500,000 books, but the British bookseller Blackwell’s

hopes to increase this to over a million titles by the end of the summer—the equivalent of 23.6 miles of shelf space, or over 50 bookshops rolled into one. The majority of these books are currently out-of-copyright works, but Blackwell is working with publishers throughout the UK to increase access to in-copyright writings, and says the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

According to maker On Demand Books, the Espresso is “in essence, an ATM for books.”

No word on how U.S. publishers have reacted, but as the Espresso is the brainstorm of American publisher Jason Epstein, my guess is we’ll find out soon. I can imagine brick-and-mortar stores won’t be hopping for joy (according to Douglas A. Mcintyre, the bookseller Borders will be gone by the end of 2009), but Amazon will lap the news up.

On Demand apparently plans to have the machines available at retail outlets in the UK. Is this really going to fly? What if there are 50 people waiting for a book? That would stretch out five-minute quite a bit. Will you have to make an appointment? Perhaps online? In that case, why bother with a retail outlet at all? Why not just order online?

I can envision a warehouse of ever-more efficient Espresso machines churning out the books 24 hours a day, new orders streaming in to be packaged up and mailed out. A warehouse of blank paper and mail clerks. Big-name authors and publishing houses see the writing on the wall and skip the entire traditional print run in favor of on-demand orders. Both eliminating a great deal of waste and leveling the publishing industry. A Netflix of books, if you will. (Meanwhile, the real Netflix is driving big-box rental outfit Blockbuster to bankruptcy.) As Julia at HarperStudio recounts, “I vividly remember an agent I respect sitting in my office a couple of years ago saying “if the Espresso takes off, publishers and editors will be dead men walking.”

Maybe. Or is this yet another business model for Amazon to swoop down on—its acquisition of Lexcycle being the latest?

Of course, if you’re really interested in getting your books quick, fast, and in a hurry (not to mention free if they’re in the public domain), you’d be making the move to e-books. It’s pure speculation on my part, but I imagine if the Espresso machine is widely adopted, a lot of people who might have moved to e-books will stick with print, particularly if “Espresso books” (to coin a phrase) become progressively cheaper. Alternatively, more people might be drawn to e-books, particularly those available with Kindle-like ease. After all, why wait five minutes when you can have a book now?

If the logistics could be worked out, this could also be a great opportunity to offer e-books alongside print books. Package deals. Buy five print books, get one e-book free, say. Opportunities abound, it seems to me.

If the Espresso Machine really does take off, will the publishing industry be agile enough to respond positively? Though their comrades in music and Hollywood don’t offer much hope, with Amazon on the prowl and e-books on the march, it’d better.

This post originally appeared at Teleread.

4 thoughts on “An ATM machine for books?

  1. Pingback: An ATM machine for books?

  2. Brad Green

    I think that’s pretty interesting, especially if the machines have access to a deep back catalog. Even used book stores are victims to shelf space when I go looking for, say, McCarthy’s Sunset Limited. Amazon is always the bail out.

    I’ve been playing around with the Kindle app for the iPhone. Don’t have a Kindle, but I really appreciate being able to sample a book before actually buying it. It’s caused me to consider the Kindle a bit more, even though it’s far too expensive and many of the books that I read aren’t available in that format yet.

  3. Shane Coop

    I think it is great if for nothing more than easy accessability to the printed word. I probably wouldn’t use it personally because I am still a tactile shopper and like to pick books up, look at them and flip through them before I buy.

  4. courtmerrigan Post author

    Brad – the true enemy where the Kindle is concerned is its DRM encryption. But that’s another story. I think, in theory, the Espresso Machine will have a very deep catalog. Whether this plays out in actual reality, is another question. I’m skeptical, to tell you the truth.

    Shane, if you used the Espresso Book Machine, you’d still end up with a tactile version. But likely they wouldn’t the book on hand. Which, as you point out, makes it not that much of an advantage over a real bookstore, for people who like to see the books themselves. But what if there were a book you already knew you wanted to read? Do you think you’d go to a shop with one of those machines then, if it were cheaper than Barnes and Noble, or Amazon?

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